Doing roundups of downloadable games is like being zapped back 20 years to a time when all games were this unpredictable. Released from the tedium of 18-month PR drip-feed, you're free to experience the element of surprise that used to accompany all videogames: a surprise that can cut both ways. Sometimes, the most instant games can turn out to be the most dull, while others - like Sam & Max - you expect to be formulaic, but end up confounding your expectations entirely. And then there are horribly confusing titles which turn out to be the most satisfying of all. The moral of this week's story? Never judge games by first impressions. You're probably wrong...
Zombie Panic In Wonderland
- WiiWare / 1000 Wii Points (£7 / €10)
Scented dwarves are missing! Loved-up zombies want huuuuuuugs! Let's shoot them in the face until they realise the error of their ways!
Such is the way of things in Akaoni's berserk arcade-style shooting gallery, where fantasy characters including Snow White, Momotaro and Dorothy from Wizard Of Oz get to blow zombie brains out in the name of community service.
Influenced by the fondly remembered arcade blaster Cabal, you view the action behind the character, steering them left and right across the screen as you blast the oncoming hordes by aiming the Wii remote. Against the clock, you face wave upon wave until you eventually reach the goal of 100 per cent clearance.
Armed with an infinite-ammo machine gun, you're afforded the luxury of spraying bullets with abandon around fully destructible environments, and part of the fun is seeing which buildings you can get to collapse on your enemies. With limited power-ups spewing forth, you can also periodically go on satisfying killing sprees, roasting a crowd with your flamethrower, or cutting a swathe with a booming assault rifle.
Across the nine stages, you also face the odd crazed monkey-cock-lion boss thing, which proves to be far less enjoyable than it sounds. Forcing you into some of the most exacting avoidance tactics we've faced since the Metroid Prime 2 boss encounters, progress becomes a tiresome combination of dodge-the-instant-death attacks, and remembering when to use your powerful weaponry. Some might find it challenging in an old-school sense, but I just found it annoying.
Zombie Panic's gleeful initial charm and quirky visual appeal wane once the frenzied, bullet-spraying repetition kicks in after a couple of stages. It's evidently one of those games best sampled in small doses.
The Shadows In The Underworld
- Xbox Live Indie Games / 80 Microsoft Points (£0.64)
Who'd be a submarine pilot? Under attack by ravenous marine life and perpetually facing the threat of imminent suffocation, it's a vocation right up there with Portaloo cleaner for fun value.
As a quickfire 80-point indie experiment, though, it makes for an engaging premise as you guide your vulnerable craft through a dark underwater labyrinth, searching for keys and artefacts while trying not to get eaten.
With immaculate presentation and crisp cel-shaded backdrops, it's hardly surprising to find Polaris' The Shadows In The Underworld nestling in the Top 20 shortlist for the DreamBuildPlay challenge.
Easy to, ahem, dive straight into, the twin stick controls make your gloomy aquatic voyage pleasantly fraught, with the left stick mapped to eight-way movement, and the right controlling the direction of your craft's torch beam. Once you're plunged into the inky depths, navigation is impossible without it - especially with an unseen enemy lying in wait.
Armed with torpedoes, you can either charge up a powerful blast and try to take out a whole group of enemies as they approach you, or loose off several in succession. Neither option is particularly ideal, especially if you go too far and overheat and leave yourself defenceless for a few seconds.
With the left trigger giving you a temporary speed boost, much of the gameplay is spent dancing around your enemies, desperately trying to line up your shots without incurring too much damage yourself. With numerous upgrade and health pickups to scoop up, you also have to be mindful to scour each area with your searchlight to make sure you haven't missed anything.
While The Shadows In The Underworld may lack a crucial degree of variety, its atmospheric intensity and stylish presentation mark it out as one of the more interesting efforts to hit the Xbox Live Indie channel of late.
Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse - The Penal Zone
- PlayStation Network (PS3) / Free trial, then £19.99 for five episodes
- PC and Mac / £24.99 for five episodes
- iPad / $7.99 for Episode 1
Oh to be Telltale's random game idea generator. How could you fail to make an interesting game out of a power-mad space gorilla, a talking brain in a jar, and a thirst for mole juice? Answer: you can't.
Seemingly hell-bent on throwing as many barmy ideas into the pot as possible (and then worrying about it later), The Penal Zone - the first episode of five in The Devil's Playhouse - kicks off with probably Telltale's most creative ten minutes yet. Armed with Max's inexplicable ability to teleport himself to a person's cellphone, or turn into inanimate objects, you're walked through a seemingly hopeless situation in a way that leads the proud adventure game tradition into even more surreal territory.
Serving as both a glimpse into the episode's conclusion and a useful tutorial, The Penal Zone's incredible introduction sees the beloved crime-fighting dog n' rabbit duo in the form of their lives. It's a reminder of exactly why we missed them so much in the first place.
Once you're zapped back into the game's 'present', the gameplay takes on a slightly more familiar feel, with the traditional wander-around-chatting-and-grabbing-objects formula. But shaking things up a little in the puzzle-solving department is Max's psychic ability to see the future.
Donning goggles, you get to scan the environment and see what's about to happen to a specific person or place, and such information essentially guides you where to look next, or how you should use a given object. Gradually you build up quite an arsenal of 'toys', all contributing greatly to freshening up the series.
Anyone fearing that the latest Sam & Max might tread water need worry no longer. With the trademark sharp witticisms layered onto challenging and inventive puzzles, this is the best possible start to the new season.
- Xbox Live Arcade / 800 Microsoft Points (£5.60 / €8)
- PlayStation Network (PS3) / £7.99 / €9.99
- PC / coming soon
Released a few weeks back, this land-grab turn-based strategy title has been lavished with praise, and it's easy to see why.
Built around the delicate balance between harvesting and destruction, the game sees each player occupying a series of hexagonal columns and aiming to be the last man standing. With minimal resources to begin with, you can build harvesters to go and gather more resources, but in doing so, you physically consume the very ground that you occupy.
Harvesting reaps resources, which enable you accumulate credits and build the Walkers and Cannons that you need in order to damage your enemy, but it's a risky business. Build you harvesters too soon, or place them unwisely, and the columns will eventually crumble away, potentially taking key adjacent units with them.
Several strategies open up to you, such as bombing enemy tiles from afar, or capturing buildings and cannons. Carrier Attacks, for example, allow you to load up to 16 Walkers into them and fly across to an enemy tile, killing one defender for every attacker you commit.
But with such limited resources available to you, it's usually best to focus on a specific plan of attack - even then, with such a delicate balance you'll rarely know whether you've got the upper hand until late in the game. Sometimes, you'll pull a victory out of the bag from nowhere, such is the unpredictable nature of Greed Corp.
Supporting up to four players at once, the game lends itself brilliantly to playing with your mates (locally or online), but is equally good fun against the computer in the hugely challenging campaign mode. A word of warning, though: the tutorial barely scratches the surface, and unless you're persistent and can deal with plenty of initial trial and error, Greed Corp will take time to appreciate. Once it clicks, though, this is a hugely absorbing and satisfying journey into pure strategy gaming.