Version tested: PC
You weren't there, man. I had to leave them. There wasn't enough time for a rescue. I couldn't risk it. I'm sorry, but tough choices need to be made, sacrifices need to be sacrificed.
You weren't there, man. Just because they weren't all rotting and moaning doesn't mean they weren't walking dead waiting to happen. If I hadn't dropped a megaton or two of explosive force on their heads, they'd have been food for the zeds anyway. I did them a favour.
You weren't there, man. Sure, there were a few hundred bleating mouthbreathers expecting a pickup as a few thousand undead charged into the square. But there was a scientist who needed rescuing. Scientists are how we're going to win this war, with their research into bigger explosives and such.
Hang on, why am I trying to justify myself to you? None of this even matters, because I lost the war. We're all zombie chow. Well done, shuffle on, and all that.
Atom Zombie Smasher isn't a game you can win. It's a game you attempt to lose in the most graceful and stubborn way possible. It revolves around the last ditch attempt of a military force to stop a zombie apocalypse in an overpopulated urban environment.
You know, the kind of overpopulated urban environment that has an excess of bodies and a lack of brains. Not that the zombies seem to mind, but then they never were fussy eaters.
But this isn't just another zombie game, because it's not really about the zombies. It's more about organising and executing an evacuation when you already know you're not going to get everyone out.
The game involves establishing your helicopter pickup point and trying to manage things so the zombies don't get there before you've managed to evacuate the majority of those pathetic civilians. There are no last stands here. The only rising up to be done is not against the undead hordes, but as one of them.
The whole game is played from a top down perspective. You get an overview of a large, square chunk of city blocks. Civilians are little gold blocks, scientists are little blue ones and the zombies are bright pink. Bright, angry, hot, undead pink.
Each level is randomised and the arrangement of buildings creates pathways and obstacles. The ideal situation is a maze-like warren the zombies must navigate to get to you, while civilians have multiple options to get to the evacuation point.
After playing through many, many campaigns, I've never had that ideal situation crop up. At least, not naturally. But fortunately you can rig the deck a little.
The aces in your militarised hand come in two flavours. First you've got your directly offensive units - snipers, artillery and infantry. The first two get set up during deployment. They remain fixed in that position for the duration of the game but are able to change the direction in which they're firing.
Infantry are deployed on the ground. They're able to move around to take down the infected, but their more direct power is offset by a much shorter range and the requirement to move themselves to a new location.
The other type of unit has a less direct impact on the field. Barricades block off roads and junctions to the pink masses, enabling you to funnel them into tight killzones where you can drop explosives on their heads or mow them down with artillery.
Mines and dynamite are a little more instant in their effects. The former blow up when a zombie gets close and the latter is triggered manually. Except all the dynamite goes off at once, so it's better to put your sticks close together to maximise their impact. Oh, and there's zombie bait. Handy for baiting zombies.
By using this items on conjunction you can create a very hostile environment for your hostiles. Despite killing nothing, barricades are often the most useful, letting you block off entire potential pathways to the zeds. They make what would be a direct route to your extraction point a roundabout, sightseeing tour of dull grey buildings and screaming humans.
Potential apocalypse survivors can't be choosers, though, so that ideal combination you often dream about rarely becomes a reality. At the beginning of the campaign you first have to unlock the units (in random order) by taking territories back from the zombies.
Even once you have them all, you can only take a limited number of four to the zone you want to clear (and that selection is also randomised). It wouldn't do to make things easy, you have to understand.
There's a bit of a time limit in place for each level, too. While you start out in the daytime, you only have so much time (usually about a minute or two, depending on the time of year) before it turns to night.
When that happens the whole level gets swamped with the reanimated corpses of friends and lovers. If you haven't got the majority of people out, or at the very least to the extraction point, you've probably failed the level.
So you're racing against the clock and the zombies. Fun times!
And that's all before the megazombies turn up, not to mention the Elephant Bomb, the Llama bombs, the huge explosive tools used to clear any undead presence in a zone... (Don't think about the non-undead presence. Because that's a pathway to a bottle and a self-inflicted bullet wound.)
These are tied to the victory ticker, which adds up points to see who wins; you or the zeds. (I'll give you a clue: it's not you). It's worked out based on how many people you evacuate from a zone and how many get infected. It's also about how many territories you have recaptured and how many the zombies currently hold.
If this is all sounding a little overwhelming, don't assume that's true of the game overall. Atom Zombie Smasher is remarkably simple, and that's perhaps its greatest flaw.
The games are heavily randomised and there's a good deal of variety in each game you play, at least in terms of how levels begin to pan out. However, things tend to follow the same pattern after the first few territories go down. It's very rare that you are in anything remotely constituting a strong position because with territory you take back, another two or three fall under undead control.
So winning really isn't an option. But getting close to winning is, and rescuing at least some of the people is a kind of victory, right? I saved nearly two thousand civilians in my last game, and I'm pretty sure that's enough to repopulate the world once we're done nuking it from orbit.
The twin threats of boredom and repetition are offset by some of the customisable options. You can slow the zombies down or unlock all the units before you start and there's in built mod support, providing even more opportunity to tailor something closer to your tastes.
In short, Atom Zombie Smasher presents a new perspective on the zombie genre. It focuses more on the apocalypse than the post-apocalypse, on the inhuman elements of a military operation than the human ones.
Reducing people to blocks sends a pretty clear message. The game's absurd vignettes about baseball players and El Presidente do little to mask the fact it's really all about cold, hard, brutal numbers.
Speaking of which - you're unlikely to get more than a handful of campaigns in before your interest in AZS begins to wane, but that should be more than enough to get your money's worth.
7 / 10