Saturday, May 14, 2011

Games You Should Try: Atom Zombie Smasher

Typically I talk about movies, but sometimes I need to get away from that medium and turn my attention to my OTHER favorite brand of entertainment. Everyone knows video games exist. Even if you've never picked up a controller or booted up a gaming program, you're fundamentally aware of them, even if it's the most popular titles that get all that attention. In South Korea, you aren't breathing if you don't know what Starcraft is. And here in the States, we constantly see ads for popular titles such as Madden NFL Football, Call of Duty, or worldwide phenomena World of Warcraft. All these games come from major game publishers and are so well recognized because of the media blitz these companies can afford to throw in your face. But where does that leave the smaller developers who aren't sponsored by a major publisher? Like indie films and self-published books, these games and their creators have an uphill battle for recognition, and many may never make back what was spent in time and dollars to make them. That's what makes the recent digital explosion so great for gamers; with sites dedicated to the online purchase and digital download of games - Steam and are good examples - more and more indie developers can distribute their games to a worldwide audience with little fuss. Imagine what the guys at iD Software (creators of legendary games Doom and Quake) could have accomplished had they access to these spoils. Granted, not all these small-time games are worth your dollar, but when you find the gems that manage to creep their way to the surface, you can often be surprised by the depth that exists in simple gameplay. Such is the case with Atomic Zombie Smasher, the latest strategy title by Blendo Games and creator Brendan Chung.

Your mother lied: the zombies ARE coming to get you
Taking place in the fictional nation of Nuevos Aires and beginning in the year 1960, AZS takes the act of killing zombies and puts it in a new perspective. As the leader of the limited military forces at your disposal, your mission is to evacuate civilians from the cities as quickly as possible, before the zombie hordes run amok and turn your loving citizens into brainless, snarling beasts. To this end, you are given an aerial view of the cities you're trying to defend, as you direct rescue choppers, snipers, artillery strikes and other units to hold off the advancing menace long enough to get your people to safety. As you win battles and secure territory, you earn points and credits towards scientific research, units "rank up" and gain new abilities, and you eventually get to launch cool weapons like the Llama Bomb against your enemy. Lose these battles, however, and you can look forward to an ever-growing zombie apocalypse and the extermination of humans from the face of Nuevos Aires.

The abundance of purple on the board indicates that the zeds are in FULL control
Like most indie games, AZS doesn't feature overly-complicated graphics or realistic textures that you see nowadays on $50-$60 retail releases. Crysis it ain't, and the simple graphics and interface isn't going to win any marks for visual artistry. There is beauty in simplicity, however, and what does appear on your computer screen is very easy to follow with a minimum of practice. Select a unit, click on a square, and your selected piece will move to that spot or blast anything unfortunate to be in that area. The streets of a given city are winding and the movement of zombies and civilians alike are fluid and unpredictable. Meant as a game you can play quickly, it doesn't burden your computer with anything unnecessary to slow your access to the action. While you are treated to occasional vignettes featuring the game's random back-story, they are silly and cartoon-y and amusing but can be easily ignored. Since a single mission typically takes less than two minutes (if you're regularly going longer you're either very good or very lucky) the player can easily sit down for a quick game while waiting for water to boil.

Vignettes really don't do anything to explain why there are so many zombies afoot
Of course, sticking to one battle at a time is harder than it sounds. You get so into fighting off the undead invasion that once you've secured a city, you want to move onto the next immediately. The gameplay is extremely addictive, especially later on when you are given control of more advanced weaponry and your basic units have more destructive capabilities at their disposal. Of course, the zombies don't make it easy for you. Your enemy is constantly invading territories faster than you can repel them, and they also get stronger the longer a game progresses. In this way, the goal ends up being more about holding off the invasion than actually securing anything akin to "victory." That won't stop any casual gamers from enjoying what's on display here, however. We're talking about compelling gameplay that is different from most of what we see in general but is so simple you can pick it up and go.

Military units range from snipers and dynamite to guys who put up barricades, and each is useful
Though the game is insanely fun, it does have a few faults. The overview of Nuevos Aires is mostly useless, as different areas simply hold yet another city to defend and have only cosmetic differences between them. This makes the overview screen unnecessary, as it lacks details that even basic strategy games usually cover. You also cannot choose which military units you have available at any given time, as all but a few are designated on "away missions" that apparently have no bearing on the game itself. I don't mind being handicapped in this way since it pays to level up all the units and not just a select few, but I would have liked a better explanation from the game. These faults however are made up by the ability to restart any mission that has gone south (just press F9) and the ability in the beginning to custom-make your game to make it easier (or harder, if you prefer). Factor in that it's available for cheap ($10 on Steam) and a download time of about a minute over a cable modem, and you've never gotten into gaming so quickly and easily. A perfect example of indie games surpassing their limited standards, Atom Zombie Smasher is quick bite of gaming goodness to whet your appetite while waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

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