Addictive but Flawed
Sometimes a game just speaks to you. Now, I don't mean that it looks you in the eye and actually says words to you, obviously, but there are some games that appeal to some part of your brain that you may not even know existed. This can show up in the places you least expect, and it isn't always a sign of a good game. When a game catches your attention, has you aching and itching to go back, it did something right. Maybe a mechanic is the shining diamond in an otherwise flawed work, or it has an art style so beautiful that it invades your dreams at night. Or maybe, just maybe, there's a central idea so strong that you have to experience it to its fullest extent.
Atom Zombie Smasher is an idea so simple and elegant that it begs to be played. You play the part of a strategist, managing a horrific zombie outbreak in Neuvos Aires. The map is presented to you from a bird's eye view, and each mission zooms in even more to a city map. At your disposal are several teams of mercenaries, ranging from sharpshooters to infantry, artillery crews and barricades and so forth. Each team can level up, with kills being the determining factor in how fast each crew levels up. Ultimately, your goal in the game is to rack up enough points from each mission to beat the Zec (the in-game lingo for zombies) to the point goal, which can be anywhere from 2000 to 12000 (plus the option to customize the limit).
Each campaign is randomly generated, with the map screen, the order you unlock mercenaries in, and the layout of each city all being random. On top of that, there are random "status effects" that the game puts into play for one mission, and these can be either beneficial or detrimental, or simply change the pace of the game a little bit. This adds a nice variety to the game, to a point where it's like gambling. Starting a new campaign is always a fresh experience, and it's kind of like gambling with the game.
Ultimately, it's the unpredictability of the game that makes it so hard to really and truly immerse yourself in. During the planning phase of each mission, where you place your mercenaries before the Zed start entering the field, you have a grand vision in your head. You put everything where you want it to be and then click 'Done.' Very quickly, everything falls apart. Often, the civilians will either not move from a Zed horde, or run right into them, going down streets that lead to dead ends or by-passing your evac helicopter entirely. The mercenaries themselves are of varying degrees of effectiveness thanks to their stats, which affect things like accuracy, cooldown time and speed of movement. While you place your infantry to pick off any Zed, their 40% accuracy lets Zed by. When you want to blow up some Zed with artillery, you have to wait seven seconds to impact and then just hope that it lands in the target area you painted.
After a mission ends and your stats are displayed, the experience bar of each unit increases. Just like Call of Duty, these levels are maybe more important than enjoying the game itself. I'm always giddy and excited when a unit levels up, even if it's just the barricades. The sense of progress in the game, thanks to unit levels and the overall progress bar, is never-ending.
After the mission results screen, the game will randomly assign 2-4 cities with outbreak levels ranging from 1-4 (with 4 being the most severe outbreak), ensuring that there are always more Zed outbreaks than you can possibly handle. Additionally, each outbreak level gives the Zed 10, 20, 30, or 40 points. While the earlier levels are easy and a head-start is easily gotten, it's painful to watch the Zed slowly render your lead useless as they bring in hundreds of points per round simply because the Zed have infected so many territories with no way for you to put a significant dent in the number.
Each time I play Atom Zombie Smasher, I want to like it. I want to love it. Planning each stage gives a small surge of joy as you put your pawns into place in order to carry out your diabolical anti-Zed master plan, but the game swiftly crushes your hopes with one stray Zed who goes on to infect a crowd of 30 citizens. Just when you think you've got the outbreaks contained, the game slaps a level 3 outbreak on a level 1 city, causing a level 4 outbreak that spills out into every adjacent city. When your luck can't get any worse, the game gives the Zed a speed boost and causes the day to become shorter, dooming you the fail at the rotting hands of a night-time Zed army. The very thing that makes Atom Zombie Smasher so addictive- the notion that each and every campaign is a unique experience waiting to be had -is what causes its downfall. No matter what the desired outcome, each mission comes down to chance. While a successful mission can leave you pumping your fists into the air, more often the game will leave you frustrated and unsatisfied.