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Atom Zombie Smasher (Windows)

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80
MobyRank
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
3.6
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5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  krisko6 (252)
Written on  :  Sep 14, 2011
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.2 Stars4.2 Stars4.2 Stars4.2 Stars4.2 Stars

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Summary

Smashing good fun!

The Good

Zombies are perhaps the most overused antagonizing force in mass media today. The number of movies, books, tv shows and of course, videogames to feature the brain-eaters that have appeared in the past five years is unbelievably staggering. Even PopCap, the company famous for making pick-up-and play games suitable for all ages, has given the otherwise adult-oriented zombie subgenre a go. At this point, zombies are a crowded house, so it takes a really special title to stand out amongst all the rotting flesh.Thankfully, Atom Zombie Smasher, despite its unpromising and generic title, has managed has managed to (in a positive sense) infect the hearts and minds of those who thought there couldn't possibly be another great zombie game.

Atom Zombie Smasher, created by Blendo Games, is a top-down action-strategy game that puts you in the role of the Orbital Command of a fictional South American country named Nuevos Aires. In the early 1960s, an infectious zombie plague breaks loose somewhere in Nuevos Aires. This plague is so dastardly, that a mere touch will instantly transform a normal human into a flesh-eating zombie, or Zed as the game calls it. You are called in to evacuate citizens from the infected cities and towns of Nuevos Aires, using nothing but a helicopter and volunteering citizens. That's really all the plot there is to the game, but it is presented well, with rotating comic panels known as vignettes filling in the backstories of several minor characters. These are unlocked as the game progresses. While the game never forces you to view these, they do bring a more personal and grounded connection to the epic canvas of the zombie apocalypse, providing some nice narrative color to an already enormously appealing game.

The game takes place on two screens. The first screen is a map of Nuevos Aires. The areas which are infected are marked with numbers from 1 to 4 The number represents the level of infection an area currently has, and more specifically, the number of sides of an area that the zombies will flood in from. A 1 will have zombies from one side, a 2 will have zombies from two sides, and so on.

Clicking on any infected area will take you into the second part of gameplay- the city screen. On this screen, you attempt to complete a mission by either rescuing as many citizens as possible or killing all zombies before sundown hits. Missions take place in two phases. First you plan your rescue by placing your helicopter and other forces (known as mercenaries, or mercs for short) on the map to ensure the best outcome for the mission. When you click "Done" the action part of gameplay starts. Here, you attempt to keep the zombies, represented by the purple dots, away from the humans, the yellow dots while rescuing as many of them as possible. The only way to evacuate humans is to use the helicopter, which must be placed on the map before the game starts. When the helicopter arrives, it will bring all humans within a certain radius close to it via an alarm. The helicopter can only hold a limited amount of people at once, and loads rather slowly, so placing the copter away from the zombies is a must. You only have until sundown to rescue the citizens, otherwise, zombies will swarm the city from all sides, making it difficult, if not impossible, to rescue any remaining humans.

For the first few missions, you will also keep unlocking mercs. Mercs are randomly chosen at the beginning of every turn. You use the mercs to either kill, divert, or otherwise impede the zombies' progress to ensure a good rescue. Some of the mercs include barricades that can divert zombies, and infantry, which can be moved around the map to pick off small groups of zombies. The main wrinkle is that you can only take a random configuration of mercs with you into any given mission. This means that you might have to let stronger more infected areas develop so that you can survive the particular turn with a weak set. If you don't like this idea, you can play the game without it by setting the campaign options before starting a new game.

In addition to random mercs, you also have various advantageous and disadvantageous conditions which randomly pop up each turn. Some of these can be helpful, such as a decreased amount of zombies or a longer day period, but many of them can also make your next mission even more challenging, such as a higher zombie count and a slower helicopter.

You might think that watching hundreds of tiny dots move around a map would be quite possibly the most boring game ever, but you would be totally wrong. You will be scrutinizing the screen VERY CLOSELY, hoping, praying that a stray zombie won't reach you concentrated pack of humans in the center of the city, or also wishing that one or two humans will outrun a pack of zombies so that you can safely evacuate them. Its a very tense game from start to finish.

When a mission is won, your mercs will gain experience points. When a merc levels up, you can upgrade certain stats to make it even more powerful. I will say though that the differences between stat upgrades seem really minimal at best. They do help eventually, but it will take several levels of experience (as well as advancement of your own skill as a player) before you start to see a noticeable improvement. In addition, later in the game you can rescue scientists, which allow for additional (and different) upgrades than post-mission experience points. The scientists add yet another interesting layer to the game: do I attempt to rescue all of the scientists at the expense of many humans, or will only a couple live?

If you attempt a level 4, no rescuing is done- instead, you attempt to blow up all of the zombies before sundown. Doing so will allow you to gain a territory for yourself, which gives you points at the end of every turn. You can also do this on a level 1-3 which is difficult, but nets you even more points depending on the niumber of humans saved.

After completing a mission, the game then switches back to the map screen, where your points are totaled up against the zombies' on a racetrack bar. At certain milestones, events happen which change the gameplay significantly as the campaign goes on. For example, you will unlock superweapons which make cleariig out high-level areas a much easier task, or the aforementioned scientists.

The core gameplay should keep you interested for quite a while, but you can also change many factors of the game, eiter through modding or through the options shown at the start of the game. Some of these options are truly insane, such as permadeath, where you cannot restart a mission if you fail. Not only is this a hardcore way to play, it's also very realistic, because in war, there are no second chances. With all of these options to choose from, Atom Zombie Smasher will keep you coming back for quite a while.

The graphics are good: for a game about dots running around cities, this sure looks nice. The viewpoint is fully controllable, allowing you to zoom in to the landscape as much as you would like. The cities are fully destructible too, which can be very entertaining to watch the screen-shaking explosions as tens of buildings give way to rubble. The engine is really smooth and I love the atmostpheric weather effects in some areas, which can affect gameplay. The UI is really lovely too, with slick-looking and easy-to-use menus. The map screen is significantly less graphically exciting, but it is intended as more functional than fun, so it's perfectly acceptable.

The sound is decent as well. The explosions are beautifully loud, and the little voice bytes from each of your mercs are both amusing and sometimes dramatic. There aren't too much sound effects that stand out, but what's there effectively develops the atmosphere of a zombie apocalypse. You'll hear catchy 60's styled surf-rock on the soundtrack, and although the variety of tunes is small, it all fits the period of the game extremely well.

The Bad

Some have complained about the difficulty of the game, and rightfully so. The game punishes you if you don't do well at the start of the game. Chances are that you will lose your first game because you won't be familiar enough with the mechanics to do well. I recommend playing a short game on Causal mode to start so that you can get a bearing on what to expect.

Even if you do well at the start, the events towards the end of the game can also bring you a whole heap of troubles. By that time, the majority of territories will be level 4s, but since you can only eradicate one level 4 at a time, and you only get 100 points for it, your lead from the start might not be enough to prevent the overwhelming Zed to catch up with you during territory scoring. You can stave this off with intelligent use of neutral and captured cities to prevent widespread infection, but you won't know to do this until a couple of runs through the game.

Sometimes the combination of mercenaries for a given round may be less than ideal, especially if you are attempting a level 4. This can be extremely frustrating, and it can take many tries before you either win the mission or give it up and let the zombies win in disgust.

One unusual thing about the game is that the ending vignette is the same regardless if you win or lose against the Zed. I found the omission of multiple vignette endings to be a curious oversight on the part of the developer. Although it hardly damages the game, the ending does feel like a bit of a cop out after all the hard-fought victories you may have earned during the campaign, as it's a bit of a downer.

Finally, the save system is poorly implemented. The moment you click on a level, the game saves and you are locked into doing it with no way to back out and try a different area if you find it too hard.with your current merc setup. The key to avoiding this situation is saving and quitting on the map, but I wish there was simply a way to "save" without having to go back to the main menu. The way the saving is currently implemented is a horribly artificial way to make the game harder than it already is. Saving often has saved me quite a lot of frustration, and it's kind of surprising that its not implemented in the game as well as it should be.

Multiplayer is included, but it's local only and requires multiple mice. Essentially, up to three players can participate at once, setting the locations of the helicopter and the mercenaries and frantically clicking to win. While this might be useful on the larger and harder maps, in general, I never felt like having co-op really improves the game in any way. I wish that Blendo had included some sort of competitive multiplayer pitting humans and zombies against each other to see if the latter can overtake the former. This might have been hard to balance, but it wold have been interesting to see some sort of implementation of this feature.

The Bottom Line

Addictive, strategic, and highly replayable, Atom Zombie Smasher is one of the most unexpected surprises of the year. Though it lacks the goofy and or graphic dismemberment of other zombie-themed games, it makes up for it with spades of charm and a surprising amount of depth. I literally hadn't heard of this game until it was added to the Humble Indie Bundle 3, and I hadn't even seen any video before going in to the game, so I went in cold and was blown away by everything. The gameplay is wonderfully original and exciting, and the unique presentation only adds to the game's flavor. By far 2011's best sleeper, action, strategy, and even puzzle fans should investigate Atomically Smashing some Zombies