Zax is the last of a dying breed, a resolutely two dimensional isometric action game in a world of first person shooters and polygonal bad guys. But thanks to a genuinely interesting storyline pushed along by a healthy supply of in-game dialogue and scripted sequences, it manages to be more than just another retro throwback.
As the game begins the eponymous anti-hero has just been shot down over an uncharted alien planet, and at first your job is simply to collect crystals and ore to help your on-board AI repair the damage. Before long though you are dragged into the middle of a conflict between a vicious god and the naive, peace-loving natives of the planet, who seem to think that you are their saviour. What makes the whole experience so involving is that over the course of the game Zax is gradually transformed from a self-centered loner who is only interested in the reward to someone who genuinely cares about the fate of the aliens.
The story is perhaps not the most original ever to grace a computer game, and the conversations mostly serve to send you from one dangerous spot to another collecting McGuffins (something which is neatly explained in an end-of-game plot twist), but the overall effect is impressive enough. The voice acting is also fairly good for the most part, although the leading bad guys sound kind of goofy thanks to the ersatz Darth Vader effects applied to their dialogue.
The heart of the game though is very much the action, and the good news is that it's a lot of fun, in a brainless sort of way. Zax is moved around the world using the cursor keys, while the mouse is used to aim his gun. A target cursor shows you where on the screen it is targetted, and so firing is simply a case of pointing-and-clicking. It's all very easy to get to grips with and quickly becomes second nature.
Which is lucky, because there is a lot of combat; the score sheet at the end of the final mission showed that I had killed well over 4000 enemies during the course of the game, and that was on the medium difficulty level! The action is fast and furious throughout, but there is enough variety to keep things interesting, with an entire arsenal of robots to blow up as well as a few indigenous life forms, including wild boars and yeti-like creatures that lob rocks at you.
There are also some really nice set-pieces to give you a change of pace, including a heart-stopping race to escape from a robot-infested mine before it is flooded by lava, with the ground steadily cracking up and turning red behind you as the magma advances. Elsewhere you will dodge rotating blades and spike traps in an underground temple, lead native workers to safety from a forced labour camp, and try to sneak your way out of an icy prison without being seen.
Run And Gun
Having said that, much of your time is spent simply shooting robots, pulling levers, collecting keys and searching for various objects that the natives want you to recover for them. It's all good clean fun though, and the way in which it's done just adds to the frantic action.
For example, the main source of energy for your shields and weapons are the robots themselves. Whenever you kill one it drops a small yellow or blue globe which you can then pick up to recharge your own batteries. Meanwhile many areas include spawn pads which continue pumping out more enemies until you can find the control panel and destroy it. As a result you are positively encouraged to charge in guns blazing and take out as many of the enemy as possible, and after a fight the ground is often littered with power-ups to bring you back up to strength without having to play hunt-the-health-pack.
Ore and crystals also play an important part in the game, and can be picked up off the ground or found hidden in vases, crates and boxes. These can then be fed into the material generator on your ship and exchanged for upgraded equipment developed by your ship's on-board AI, which monitors your progress throughout the game and periodically comes up with some new doohickey based on what she has seen. Conveniently placed teleporters scattered around the world allow you to return to your ship and kit up, then beam straight back into the thick of it. All of this makes sure that as much of your time as possible is spent actually doing (or killing) something.
Sights And Sounds
With this kind of wall-to-wall action an old-fashioned 2D sprite-based engine is still the most effective solution, and allows for dozens of enemies on screen without any slow downs while maintaining modest system requirements. Characters are bright and nicely detailed, with smooth life-like animations for the most part.
Annoyingly the only real disappointment is Zax himself; for some reason his diagonal movements were a little jerky on my system at times, and trying to focus on his slightly juddery motion caused eye strain after a few hours of non-stop play. Otherwise everything looks a treat though. The weapon effects are suitably pyrotechnic, with rockets and laser bolts flying around all over the place as you battle your way through the hordes of robots.
Settings are lovingly pre-rendered and often animated for good measure, with lava bubbling up in pools, smoke escaping from pipes, and computer panels flashing menacingly. The result is a colourful and believable alien world, with everything from dense jungles and stalactite-filled caves to pipe-lined corridors and eerie laboratories where the natives are cut up and turned into cyborg killing machines. This is backed up by the audio, with solid punchy sound effects for most of the weapons and a driving dance music soundtrack in the background.
Zax doesn't have cutting edge 3D graphics or fashionable role-playing style character development. What it does have is lots of fast-paced action, some attractive backdrops, an entertaining storyline and a host of powerful weapons. There's even support for up to sixteen players to battle it out in online deathmatch and capture the flag modes once you have exhausted the single player campaign.
It's hardly groundbreaking, but Zax is a lot of fun in a check-your-brains-at-the-door kind of way.