February 4, 2011 3:39 PM | Michael Rose
What happens when one of the most exciting indie developers of the moment takes a shot at the zombie survival genre? Atom Zombie Smasher, that's what. But this is no ordinary zombie apocalypse situation, oh no - this is so much more. This is what happens when someone uses their braaaains.
Imagine taking Gratuitous Space Battles, replacing the pew pew spaceships with moaning zombies and military soldiers, and injecting a whole series of hilarious and somewhat bemusing comic strip panels. This will give you a vague idea about what Atom Zombie Smasher plays like, although the level of interactivity is far more involved. It's frantic, tactical and oh so lovely.
Certain elements of the game could have perhaps done with better explanations, and some further variety in enemies and environment wouldn't go amiss, but none of this really matters when you consider that AZS is addictive as hell, with randomly generated cities and campaigns extending the replay value into 'I may never leave my computer again' regions. It's amazing, and you'll love it.
You are the commander of an army force, tasked with evacuating your citizens and destroying all the Zed become they infect the entire country. You overlook the city from a top-down view, directing soldiers into position and herding your people to the escape helicopter. Once all your people have been rescued or infected (or all the zombies are dead), the area is complete.
There are two phases to each level - the set-up, and the action. Before each stage, you are given a number of units to place, from soldiers to snipers to barricades, and strategic placement is very necessary indeed, since once you hit the GO button, interaction is rather limited.
Zombies move in from the edges of the city, and your people will panic, running in the opposite direction. When your helicopter lands, they'll all begin frantically climbing in, and your job is to make sure as many as possible get hauled away. You can move certain units around, such as the soldiers or the snipers' aiming spot, but for the most part, it's all about how you placed the units beforehand.
Nail-biting is the word. As the last remaining civilians bunch together in the dropzone, waiting for the helicopter to come and rescue them, zombies swarming all around, closing in on their position... you're left screaming "come on, hurry up, pick them up, gaaaaaaaah" and then they're all infected. The limited level of interactivity is absolutely spot-on, offering just enough that you can change the tide of play, yet at certain points you'll be completely helpless.
There's a dreaded time limit as well, although this doesn't spell the end of the level - much worse, in fact. When that timer hits zero, night falls and oodles of zombies come pouring in. If you still have plenty of civilians to save, don't count on them reaching the helicopter. Take out all the zombies before night, and you claim that area as your own. Allow darkness to engulf the city, and the city will be lost to the zombies.
As you take or lose cities to the Zed, the overworld map will show the territories owned by each force, and a 'racetrack' at the bottom shows both yourself and the zombies moving towards victory. As time progresses, the going gets incredibly tough, and zombie outbreaks will occur and need to be contained. The gameplay is simple yet deep, and you'll find yourself constantly surprised at the different actions you can take to prevent the spread.
Every game is randomly generated too, with zombie outbreaks happening in different places and cities built in procedural fashion. After three playthroughs I was still finding new tactics and methods for keeping the Zed back and my people non-zombified. Not that you'll succeed initially - Atom Zombie Smasher is an incredibly difficult game, and will require the best tactics possible for a victory.
There's so much personality too, with a polished interface and quirky comic strips between each level. I must confess, I had not a clue what most of the strips were getting at, but they still made me laugh. The music is also quite wonderful, and gave me something to tap along to amidst the 'HURRY UP FOR CHRIST SAKE' outbursts.
What the game does suffer slightly from is lack of explanations. There's a Zedpedia to read through that explains certain elements, but other points completely eluded me. For example, you're only given a set selection of units for each mission, but I couldn't work out how these are chosen, and why other ones are not available. Some combinations of units are not useful in the slightest, and make levels near-impossible to complete.
The game is also rather abrupt. Once one team has reached the target points, the game ends and you're given a report. You then hit New Game and start all over again in a new randomly-generated world, with all of your previous achievements and upgrades removed.
This would be OK, but I found that the game always ended whenever I was just starting to unlock the best stuff. You can in fact set the number of points needed to win, allowing for much longer games, but the amount of content doesn't scale well to longer-lasting games. In other words, it needs more content on a larger scale. I want the option to either jump into a smaller game like this, or start a huge campaign that will last me several hours.
Atom Zombie Smasher will make you scream and get your heart racing, then it will infect your mind. You'll be addicted from the get-go, and its clever tactical concepts will mess with your head. You should buy this game, or at the very least download the demo.