Game Review: Atom Zombie Smasher

Atom Zombie Smasher is the kind of computer game I would have had to try even if I knew it was going to be horrible. It just combines so many different elements from video and board games I enjoy not to give it a try. This ambitious independent game is part Risk, part RTS, and part campy 1950s B-Movie/Cold War paranoia story.

We are living in an alternate reality where zombies are real. They are so real that the government has trained soldiers to fight off the Zed in urban warfare. There are snipers, bombers, ground troops, explosives technicians, and evacuation helicopter pilots to go into infected areas and try to save lives. The zombies--little pink dots--filter out in limited numbers by day but flood the cities at night. The civilians--little yellow dots--and scientists--little blue dots--will run for the helicopter as soon as they hear the siren. You have to strategically place the troops, landing site, and barricades to save as many humans as possible and attempt to destroy all the zed.

The gameplay interface is a series of maps. The small maps are the real time strategy above while the big map is like a dull Risk board.

There are zoned off territories off all different sizes that, one by one, become infested with zombies. You choose which threats to address first. For every area you clear of zombies, you get victory points--20 more human survivors added to your total. For every area the zombies control by the end of the night, they get 10, 20, 30, or even 40 victory points for their total. The first side in the war, human or Zed, to reach the scoring threshold you set at the options screen wins.

The gameplay does take some getting used to. The problem is that the instructions are not as clear as they can be. If you don't realize it's a real time strategy game rather than a tower defense game, you might not figure out right away that the evac helicopter and the ground troops can be moved during the gameplay. You might not understand how to re-position the snipers or get the various explosive to actually go off. There are question mark icons that pop up throughout the game, but they are only available in the planning stage or the big world map. As soon as you start playing, you can't access that information. You have to hover over the various buttons on the bottom to read a huge block of text explaining how something works. In that time, you might lose the battle.

Fortunately, there is a simple logic to it: whatever you want to move/reposition/aim, you have to left click on the button on the bottom of the screen and right click where you want it on the map. It is overly sensitive on certain troops--the snipers are a nightmare to aim--and having to left click to switch out every single time can ruin your strategy. It's very finicky and frustrating until you get the hang of it. Even then, one quick impulse could lose you the territory because you didn't press the green button before right clicking.

Once you get past the controls issue, Atom Zombie Smasher is an engaging gaming experience. There is something to be said about the combination of throwback kitsch and retro graphics in a very modern feeling zombie invasion story. It's not often that a video game is willing to show the entire human race consumed in an instant by zombies coming down the street.

The best part about the game is how open the experience is. Once you beat the first level, there is a seemingly infinite number of ways to approach beating the game. Do you choose this infected site or that infected site? Go for low level infections once you have weapons or aim for taking down big cities before they can spread? Do you research advanced weaponry or aim for faster upgrades? Where exactly is the best place to put that final stick of dynamite? There is no right or wrong answer to any of these choices. There is only surviving.

Once you get a handle for the game, there are a ton of options you can play around with to make the experience unique. Atom Zombie Smasher is a DRM-free, mod-friendly game, so if you know how to develop this type of program, you can change it however you want. Even if you don't, you can change everything from the scoring threshold to the ability to access certain weapons and defense mechanisms at the start of the game.

If you like strategy games that constantly stack the odds against you every step of the way, you'll love Atom Zombie Smasher. It is available to download for $10 to $15 on PC, Mac, and Linux platforms.

So what do you think? Are you willing to go smash some zombies? Are you making them go boom already? Share your thoughts below.