I used to think zombie-shooting and RPG-style character progression were all I needed for a good time, but the top-down shooter All Zombies Must Die puts some strain on that notion. For a modestly priced downloadable game, it's got a surprisingly complex and well-designed framework for leveling up your abilities and creating better, sillier weapons for mowing down zombies en masse. But what initially seems like a winning formula is held back by combat that feels clunky at times, and a mission structure repetitive enough that you may not want to see it the whole way through.
There's a lighthearted zombie-apocalypse storyline with some genuinely chuckle-worthy absurdist humor here and there, but in general the game leans a little too heavily on the idea that the four characters realize they're taking part in a video game. That makes a lot of the jokes feel a little too obvious. I can forgive some bland writing in favor of those old carrots-on-a-stick loot and crafting, though, and All Zombies Must Die delivers on that front. You've got all the zombie-game standbys you could want with a shotgun, chainsaw, assault rifle, and cricket bat, among others, and you can craft better versions of those weapons to get modifiers like faster reloads, life steal, and a chance to set zombies on fire. However you feel about zombies at this point, it's hard to argue with the idea of a flaming chainsaw, right? You also level up your characters themselves, and you can dump skill points into attack, defense, health, and speed to make them play more like you want them to. The game's RPG underpinnings are put together well and make you want to keep going to improve your abilities, like a good RPG should.
But the feel of the combat is often too awkward to support all those options for customizing your play style. The weapons feel weak when you start out, forcing you to dump several rounds of ammo into even the basic fodder enemies. That goes from mildly annoying to downright frustrating when the game forces you to play as a weaker character for a particular mission and you get mobbed by a dozen zombies faster than you can fight them off. And while I really liked the way the upgrade system is implemented, no amount of mods to the other weapons could make me want to use anything but the chainsaw and shotgun. To be fair, if you're going to get two weapons right in your zombie game, it should be those two, but it's a shame the other weapons don't pack more punch.
All Zombies Must Die has some neat ideas about how to handle the distribution of loot and crafting materials. There are a few spots where you just have to kill enemies blindly and hope for a random drop, but in most cases, you get specific items to drop by killing zombies in specific ways that the game is good about instructing you on. For instance, if you need firewood (used to craft flame-related weapons), you need to head to the town square and kill 30 zombies that are on fire. You need to actively set them on fire by leading them through flames in the environment or using other specific weapons, and that sort of active participation in fulfilling the quest objectives helps to keep things interesting.
It's a good thing those unique challenges are there, because the deeper you get into the game, the more the missions start to run together, and eventually it feels like you're being made to run back and forth incessantly just to pad out the length of the game. One particularly irksome mission had me travel clear across most of the game world to a new area, only to be arbitrarily stopped at the gate and told I had to head all the way back to the place where I'd just picked up that mission in order to do something else first.
The game also has a habit of stopping you at the transition points between areas and giving you a quick challenge you have to complete before you can pass through. These generally only take a a minute or two and feel like they're adding some variety to your activities at first, but later on they get to be a drag when you just want to get where you're going without delay. (A single time I was given a challenge to pick up three gold coins with no hint as to what might make them more likely to drop, and proceeded to run around for 20 minutes before I even saw two of them appear. But that single instance seems so anomalous it may have actually been buggy in some way.)
With four playable characters, All Zombies Must Die seems tailor-made for four-player co-op, and four people can in fact play at once...on a single console. Given that this is an involved, story-based experience with characters who persistently get better over time, and not a pick-up-and-play action game with no carryover between sessions, you're not likely to get four people to sit still in one place long enough to go all the way through it. Online multiplayer would have suited this type of game better, so it's a real shame it's not included.
In the era of $15 downloadable games, maybe All Zombies Must Die is aware of its limitations since it's priced at a relatively modest $10. There's some great design in here and the game is genuinely entertaining in short bursts, but its weaker aspects add up over time to produce an experience that's less satisfying than its best ideas deserve.