Balance can be a tricky mistress to satisfy. Take All Zombies Must Die, for example. Its core components - a twin-stick shooter with zombies - are so overused that the combination inspires more fatigue than excitement. Clearly, something has to be done to the formula to make it stand out. But add too much, too little or simply the wrong sort of thing, and whatever base pleasures still remain in the twitching top-down zombie shooter corpse can be lost.
Unfortunately, with All Zombies Must Die, developer Doublesix has fallen prey to the last two pitfalls. It's not only added too much clutter to the genre's fragile framework, it's added the sort of clutter that actively detracts from the game's enjoyment.
The scenario is obvious enough. There's a zombie outbreak, and a quartet of survivors must live to tell the tale. There's a wise-cracking dude, his exasperated ex-girlfriend, a nerdy scientist and, apropos of nothing, a bulb-headed alien called Lux.
Combat is also as you'd expect, with the right stick directing your fire at the encroaching horde. Weapons can be modified to add various status effects, and it's here that the game's clutter starts to build up. Upgrade items must be earned by defeating a set number of zombies suffering from a specific status effect in a specific area. Meet these criteria and you earn, for example, some firewood which can be used to create flame-based upgrades. Science kits add radioactive attacks. Megaphones add sonic abilities.
There are the basics of an enjoyable overlapping system of strategies here, especially as status effects can be combined both on weapons and their targets. In a game with more nimble balance, the result would be a fast-paced shooter with a constantly evolving and malleable environment.
Here, however, it too quickly becomes a grind. The game consists of just a handful of small and fiddly locations, where it's easy to get lodged and mobbed, and passage between zones is dictated by automated gates. These gates refuse to let you through until you complete a task, such as collecting a set number of random loot drops from defeated zombies, finding random objects in the scenery or simply killing a specific number of zombies in a particular way.
This obstruction becomes more and more grating the more the game progresses, as you're sent back and forth through the same areas over and over on pointless fetch quests. You'll journey from a safe haven at a police station to set up a new HQ at a nearby TV station, only to be immediately sent back to the police station to collect an object, and then back to the TV station again. Each time, passing through the same zones becomes less of an enticing opportunity to grind for additional upgrade items, and more of an irritating slog.
The game also begins to ruthlessly penalise the single-player, with death in any area automatically resetting any progress made since entering (especially annoying when you've spent ages getting the right combination of zombies and loot drops to earn a particular quest item) and sudden roadblocks that demand a character or weapon you don't have to hand. With no way to carry more than one augmented weapon, or swap characters on the fly, it means another trudge back to your current safe house, through the same areas for the umpteenth time, tackling even more filler quests from those automated gates as you go.
Those playing with friends will encounter fewer frustrations, but the decision to offer only offline co-op means that a fix that could have applied to everyone will only work for those with like-minded friends sharing a sofa.
When simply traversing the gameworld becomes an unwelcome chore, something has clearly gone wrong. There's a level-up system in place, but it improves your character stats so incrementally that it's almost worthless. Wading through hundreds of zombies for the chance to increase your attack by 0.1 per cent really isn't going to make the sort of difference needed to make the repetitive gameplay fly.
All Zombies Must Die takes a timeworn premise that should be fun and cathartic and seemingly goes out of its way to make it repetitive, fiddly and annoying. If you have a trio of friends close to hand, the co-op aspect might just be enough to rescue it from the depths of mediocrity, but if you're planning on playing solo you'd be far better served by trying one of the dozens of other zombie blasters on the market.