It’s the Stupid Humor

The Borderlands series has always built itself on two principles. First: high-speed frenetic combat. Second: clever, if somewhat lowbrow, humor. While the Pre-Sequel manages to continue the tradition of the first, the latter falls short this time around.

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Don’t mind me, just flying over some moon lava.

In Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, we’re following the story of Handsome Jack’s rise to power. For those not paying attention, Handsome Jack was the villain in Borderlands 2 who called you up and mocked you or talked about his diamond horse that he named after you (“Butt Stallion”). In fact, I would wager that Handsome Jack’s mocking in Borderlands 2 was the source of much of the game’s humor. He is certainly far more memorable than any other character in the game (with the possible exception of Tiny Tina). It would seem, in that case, that building another game around Jack would be a no-brainer. The trick, of course, is that he was killed off at the end of Borderlands 2. Thus, we must go back in time if we want to see more of him.

The original founders of Hyperion: Crazy Cat Lady, Gendo Ikari, and Dude Taking Selfie

The original founders of Hyperion:
Crazy Cat Lady, Gendo Ikari, and Dude Taking Selfie

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work out very well in practice. Rather than letting Jack channel his inner comedic sociopath, we instead are forced to learn how Jack evolved from a relatively heroic man (at least by vault hunter standards) who was just trying to save the moon into villain we see in BL2. In order to do this, the writers gave the main plot arc a much more serious tone. The gameplay and the sidesquests, however, were left with the same aim toward humor which gives the whole thing a feeling of constant mood whiplash. The game as a whole thus suffers greatly.

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The Most Important Gameplay Addition — The Grinder

Interestingly, I think the gameplay itself has been somewhat improved over the previous iterations. Specifically, the addition of the grinder–an object which can convert three items that you don’t want into a new random item–may be the greatest improvement. All too often during Borderlands 2, I felt as though I was searching for weapons without finding what I needed. Worse, it seemed like every rare item drop I found didn’t suit my playstyle. The grinder addresses both of these issues by giving a useful way to “re-roll” the random drops. Even better, you can use the grinders to upgrade items by spending moonstones (the Eridium replacement) which makes finding orange drops (the rarest available) much less of a chore.

The grinder also neatly solved a problem that I had in Borderlands 2–the large difficulty

Nisha

Nisha

spike at the beginning of True Vault Hunter Mode. TVHM is the “hard mode” of the Borderlands games and in Borderlands 2, the sudden increase in difficulty when I started it caused me to stop playing much sooner than I probably otherwise would have. The Pre-Sequel, despite being a worse game, was able to keep me engaged into a second playthrough because that difficulty spike was smoothed out. (Of course, it also let me get back to a golden chest more quickly so that I could spam golden keys until I got a usable weapon, but I would also consider that an improvement).

Ultimately, I think the plot problems with The Pre-Sequel outweigh the niceties that have shown up on the gameplay side. I bought this game expecting laughs and found far too few.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel: 0

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Show; Don’t Tell

There is a piece of advice that has been applied to media for years: “Show; don’t tell”. The idea is that, if something happens and is worth being relayed to the viewers, it should be shown in detail rather than merely being described. Of course, there are always exceptions, but in general it is useful advice. Gaming has its own equivalent which is “Play; don’t show”. The idea here is that it is important to give players agency–let them carry out the actions–as it provides a more immerersive experience. NIS, the creators of Mugen Souls, doesn’t seem to have learned the first bit of advice, much less the second.

Mugen Souls’ plot is a bit thin. The main character–Chou-Chou–wakes up, see some pretty things in the sky, and decides to make them hers. Of course, it turns out that she is the (self-proclaimed) absolute god of the universe, so she may actually have a shot at it. She carries out her ill-conceived plot by using her power to turn things into her “peons” to capture a spaceship (which is inexplicably always called an airship) and going from world to world turning the two most important people in each–the demon lord and the hero who fights said demon lord–into her peons. Since she controls the most powerful  people and those people presumably control the worlds, she presumably controls the planets (by the transitive property of intergalactic conquest). The whole thing is rather tongue-in-cheek with characters routinely pointing out the lack of sense that Chou-Chou has and the insanity of the actions that occur. Sometimes the more set-upon characters even make comments about their lack of screen time.

Of course, the real problem with Mugen Souls is that nearly every important interaction is carried out without stimulus. An airship crashes? Rumble the controller and do a fade to black; don’t bother to show the aftermath. Final Fantasy VI provided more  on the SNES for the same situation! Main character turns a hero into a peon? Fixed image with voiceover. One character physically assaults another? Let’s just show their usual dialog pictures and have some text and/or voiceover describing the scene. Of course, we have less than a dozen images for each character, so they’ll never be anything more than vaguely similar to the situation at hand. Mugen Souls isn’t even meeting the standards that one would expect from modern film or television. Forget having anything like agency when it comes time for the plot to happen. All the player is expected to do is carry out the battles and of course to grind.

Therein lies the problem of so many JRPGs, including Mugen Souls: their developers seem to think that the kind of grinding that was acceptable back in the PS1 and PS2 is still appropriate today. Perhaps it is unfair of me to say it about Mugen Souls since it is coming from the creators of Disgaea (The Industry Leader in Obsessive-Compulsive Grinding™). They’ve made over half a dozen games in which grinding was a primary focus.

The gameplay itself is rather similar to the Star Ocean series. There are world maps to explore with enemies on them. When you run into an enemy, you get dropped into a battle mode. This battle mode is turn based, unlike the real-time battles preferred by the Star Ocean games. The battles can be a bit of an over-the-top spectacle, especially early on, but they quickly become tedious. By half-way through the game, I’d turned off the battle animations entirely just to speed things along. It turns out that if everything is made into a spectacle, then nothing really surprises anymore.

I’m sure that there is someone out there who Mugen Souls will resonate with greatly. However, I think most people will find it to be more of a chore than anything else.

Mugen Souls: 0

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More Action, Less Horror, More Microtransactions

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It’s tough when your buddies turn into tentacle monsters and attack you.

Isaac Clarke’s life hasn’t been good for the last few years. One girlfriend was killed and turned into a shambling undead. Then Isaac was kidnapped by the government and forced to build undead creation engines while his dead girlfriend started showing up as a hallucination trying to convince him to destroy all humanity. His new girlfriend then decides to go charging out to save humanity, but Isaac’s had too much and ends up single again and still more than just a bit mad. And then, of course, religious fanatics decide to try to kill him and destroy humanity. He’s really not having a good decade by the time Dead Space 3 starts.

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Go on, little scavenger bot, scavenge for loose bits. Just ignore that corpse nailed to the wall–it can’t hurt you.

If the Dead Space games have a moral to them, that moral would have to be “it gets worse”. In the first game, we have just one planet threatened. The second game gives us the thread of the spread of undead to many planets due to the evil/incompetent government. The latest installation gives us the undead breaking loose through human space due to the evil religious fanatics. This plays out within each game as well: situations get worse even as Isaac seems to be making progress, every success is met by the realization that things are even more difficult than they originally appeared. In a sense, this progression is the hallmark of the Dead Space series. Even the endings of each game are, at best, momentary victories with dark overtones.

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No, no, scavenger bot, I’m sure the semtex is fine. There’s no reason to worry about it. I’m just going to go ahead and continue onward, but you should totally keep scavenging here.

Dead Space 3, as a game, is very similar to its immediate predecessor Dead Space 2. There are some minor improvements this time around, though. The ammo management game is no longer necessary–all weapons use the same type of ammunition. Weapons can now be created and customized allowing for a more diverse set of choices than was previously available. Unfortunately, this weapon creation system is where the first cracks of an insidious Electronic Arts driven money making system appear.

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Oh good, the science facility. I’m sure that nothing dangerous or nefarious has ever happened here.

The weapon creation system in Dead Space 3 requires you to find various bits and pieces scattered throughout the game–tungsten, transducers, and other materials. These materials are dropped by enemies and found in boxes, but there aren’t a great deal of them. Some grinding and a bit of bug exploitation can get enough, but in reality their prevalence is very low. Of course, EA has a solution to this: downloadable content. For a few dollars here and there, they’ll give you a large supply of these consumable items. Oh, and if you pre-ordered the game, you’ll also start with a few weapons that are vastly superior to those that are available in the early game and are largely viable until the end game. It is “buying your way to victory” in its worst incarnation.

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Who keeps nailing these corpses to the walls? I mean, that doesn’t seem like a good use of your time. They just rot and then you have to nail another one up. Maybe someone should take up taxidermy.

The money grab in the weapon creation system is bad enough, but even worse than that is the first set of actual story-based DLC for the game. It is set immediately after the apparent end of the game and follows the story to its real conclusion. I say real here because the game’s original ending is, in no way, an ending to a Dead Space game. It lacked all of the gloom, hopelessness, and sense of Pyrrhic victory that we’ve come to expect. What does that mean then? We have a $10 mandatory add-on in order to get the experience that we’ve come to expect from the series. And of course, that $10 gets us less than three hours of gameplay.

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I’m sure that this bit is supposed to be glowing green. Yeah, green is a good color, right? Right?

There’s a lot that I liked in this iteration of Dead Space. The idea of a final confrontation and a race to finally make real progress against the necromorphs was compelling, but it ultimately felt like things were pulled down by the nagging attempts to gather real-world money from players. Even though I didn’t succumb to that temptation, the grinding and farming necessary to make up for it distracted from the game itself. And the ending–the one before the DLC–was wholly unsatisfying. I see in Dead Space 3 a good game hampered by the environment in which it was raised, and that foul influence has made it less than it should have been.

Dead Space 3: 0

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Why does anyone hang out with Qwark?

Insomniac Games has recently been on an experimentation spree. Rather than continuing with a new, full installment in their flagship Ratchet & Clank series, they’ve been putting together games in the R&C universe but with unconventional play mechanics. In 2011, it was Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One with its design around 2-4 player co-operative play. This time around, it is Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault.

Full Frontal Assault follows after the events of All 4 One–Qwark is no longer president and has become restless. For some unknown reason, Ratchet & Clank are still hanging out with Qwark and are all contacted by a mysterious masked villain who informs them that various planetary defense systems across the galaxy have been disabled. The R&C crew must thus personally defend each of these planets against invasion by marauders for if they call in the galactic police, the evil villain will destroy the defense systems completely.

With this we end up with something like a cross between tower-defense and a (mostly) single-player DOTA clone. Each level presents a wide open map to explore centered around your base. As you complete objectives, your base comes under attack and you’re forced to rush back to defend it or to use the bolts that you’ve gathered in the mission to put up base defenses.

The problem with this setup is that every level feels the same. You always start out without any weapons and must go find them. You always start out without any money to build base defenses. You always must go out in search of everything you need to do your job. Making matters worse, the game only has five maps–two of which are palette swaps of each other and one of which is the end boss level and thus doesn’t have base defense.

What little of the game there was, I enjoyed, but there isn’t anywhere near enough game here. Even for the relatively low cost of admission (its release MSRP was $30, its now down to $20), I can’t recommend the game.

Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault: 0

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No Longer Innuendo

At some point, sexual innuendo ceases to be innuendo and instead becomes something else. In Shadows of the Damned, we reach that point before the end of the prologue.

In Shadows of the Damned you take on the roll of Garcia “Fucking” Hotspur. Hotspur is a demon hunter by trade. Having irritated the legions of hell, the head demon decides to attack his home, kidnap his girl, and make disparaging remarks about Hotspur’s “endowments”. Of course, Hotspur won’t take this lying down and chases after the head demon into the underworld.

Gameplay wise, Shadows of the Damned is probably most reminiscent of the Dead Space series. It has mostly melee enemies with a gun wielding, third-person protagonist. They also crib a bit from Alan Wake in that enemies can sometimes get covered in darkness that needs to be cleared before they can be hurt. There’s nothing terribly revolutionary in the gameplay and nothing terribly bad either. Mediocre is the word of the day.

Of course the plot is end to end sexual innuendo or whatever innuendo becomes when it ceases to have any subtlety. Your main weapon is a sentient skull named Johnson. He can take the forms of various weapons–the main of which is the “Boner”. Of course, it fires bones, so that makes it OK, right? At first, it is mildly humorous, but it quickly becomes tired and almost sad. Constant innuendo is not a substitute for humor.

Ultimately, even if you take the best view of the game it is mediocre and mediocre is never worth your time.

Shadows of the Damned: 0

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Not Sure Where the Diary Comes In

I’ve never really been a fan of either the Visual Novel or its sub-genre the Dating Sim. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that the game I bought on a whim during the Linux Steam sale was just such a game. Nevertheless, it was a game that purportedly worked on Linux, so I gave Magical Diary a try.

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The default character name is “Mary Sue”. I’m not sure if the creators were trying to be self-aware and ironic or if someone just gave up.

The premise of Magical Diary is that you’re a “wildseed” magic user–born to normal parents and then whisked away to learn the ways of magic once you reach the appropriate age. The game opens at the beginning of the freshman year of high school for your main character. You have two roommates (the studious one and the sporty/carefree one) and are thrust into the life of a high school magician with very little guidance.

The game progresses in three parts. Firstly, you decide your character’s actions for each week–which classes you’ll go to (or not) each day. In between (and sometimes during) your activities, you might run into the second part which is your standard visual novel type interactions with other students and teachers at the school. The last bit are the periodic “practical exams” wherein your character is dumped into a first-person dungeon and must use their magic to escape.

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Its tough being a beginner–having no skills and all…

Unfortunately, though, each of these bits is rather lackluster. Doing activities during the week grant you a random zero to three point bonus to a relevant skill. The problem is the random bit. Since the game allows saving at any point, the best course of action quickly becomes scumming each week until you get an average or better result. This makes one of the other core mechanics–stress increasing failure rates–into a non-mechanic. If you’re already scumming the random number generator, why not do it a bit more?

The visual novel bits suffer from two main problems. Firstly, there are a large number of characters who seem interesting introduced near the beginning of the game. Of them, almost none can be interacted with. In fact, the number of pursue-able characters in the game is about six. And two of those are incredibly grating. The second is the classic problem of this sort of game–completely unclued events. If you go and look at a calendar of events for this game, there are dozens of missable events which are triggered by going to certain places on certain days. The vast majority of these have no clues to suggest that doing them is any better than doing anything else. These are both classic problems in the genre and new games shouldn’t still be making the same mistakes.

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Maybe I should light this door on fire…
Fire solves many problems…

The dungeons/practical exams are probably the most interesting part of the game. As your character levels up her magic, she gains spells. Mostly, these are useless items kept in a list. Periodically, they might provide an additional option during a visual novel scene. In dungeons, though, you can finally make use of them. The first real exam, for instance, puts you at one end of an empty chasm. If you’ve focused on force magic, you can push a bridge over to fill the gap. If you’ve done teleportation magic and some scrying magic you can just zip across. This does suffer a bit from the Deus Ex Problem: if every school of magic needs a way to succeed then any school of magic can succeed. For instance, it also turns out that having about 30 points to the teleportation school of magic can get you successfully through every single exam, by itself.

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Every Mary Sue character should have cat ear, right? Too bad I couldn’t afford the fairy wings, too. You can see my whole character here.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is that the game lacks real meat. The plot is short, and, because it only covers a single year of school, it lacks anything like finality or resolution. It simply ends. Couple this with its other, more concrete flaws, and it becomes a game that I cannot recommend.

Magical Diary: 0

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Keep Digging

The game looks beautiful, when it isn't chugging to keep up...Murder for hire requires a certain mindset. Patience, diligence, attention to detail, caution, detachment: all of these have defined 47 for the previous four Hitman games. In Hitman: Absolution, however, it appears that 47 has forgotten a decade of his experience and training.

Sometimes, 47 has to fight giant Mexicans while pretending to be a masked fighter called "The Patriot". I'm not sure what should be inferred from that confrontation...

Sometimes, 47 has to fight giant Mexicans while pretending to be a masked fighter called “The Patriot”. I’m not sure what should be inferred from that confrontation…

In the opening level, 47 turns his back on his agency, deliberately fails to complete his mission, and goes rogue. From then on, he is either seeking to learn the history of a girl named Victoria or attempting to get her back from those who’ve kidnapped her.

The gameplay in the Hitman series has been very similar since Hitman 2. Each game used a very similar system and each had a similar feature set. Most of the innovation was in level design and the creation of interesting assassination scenarios. Absolution is the first major change in system since then, and, unfortunately it is mostly for the worse. Arbitrary saving has gone away, replaced with checkpoints which are all too rare. The graphics have been updated to be appropriate with the times, but that has led to the game having a very inconsistent frame rate. If data is loading, the frame rate will often slow to a crawl.

Hitman: Absolution Apple

Sometimes, 47 likes to relax.

Unfortunately, bugs aren’t limited to the graphics subsystem. I’ve repeatedly had problems with the game corrupting its own data files and then crashing when it attempts to read the same. If left paused for an extended period of time (say a few hours), the game will be unplayable–lagging, stuttering and otherwise being finicky.

Hitman: Absolution Digging your own Grave

It’s easy to relax while someone else does the work. By the way, keep digging.

Absolution is really divided into three kinds of levels. The first–and best–are the open assassination levels. These give 47 a great deal of freedom in carrying out his mission and there is enough room to maneuver to make it fun while still being challenging. The second type are the highly restricted assassination levels. These levels often occur in entirely hostile places with highly restricted areas of movement and filled to the brim with guards. Often, these levels are just exercises in patience until the scripted kills can be identified. The third–and worst–type are the sneaking levels. They have no killing, no interesting mechanics, just waiting, sliding along cover, and dodge rolling. In a sense, they are entire levels devoted to the least interesting aspect of the Hitman series.

When you’re playing its good levels, Absolution is as good as any other Hitman game. I just wish that the good levels occurred more often. As it stands, less than half of the levels fall into what I would classify as the “best” type of level. And with a ratio like that, I just can’t recommend the game.

Hitman: Absolution: 0

Hitman: Absolution Sniper Scope

I see you. Do you see me? I guess it doesn’t really matter.

 

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Revolving Indians

The Assassin’s Creed series has a problem. That problem is the yearly release schedule. Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed III is the result of a schedule that is untenable.

Producing a continuous series with an iteration every year is a monumental effort. Even more difficult, though, is ensuring that each entry into the series is fresh and interesting enough to pull players in. I don’t think Assassin’s Creed III has managed that.

From a gameplay standpoint, little has changed about the Assassin’s Creed games since Assassin’s Creed II. Equipment, weapons, and tactics all remain virtually unchanged. Yes, there are now firearms, but they mostly don’t matter. Their damage output isn’t extraordinary and most enemies only ever fire once.

What has changed, however, is uniformly for the worse. Enemies now seem to spawn endlessly and to be nearly unshakable once alerted; it is common to spend several minutes escaping from a single bad exposure. Double assassinations–a great feature that was added in Assassin’s Creed II–are gone without any explanation. The countering system has been made even more finicky with combo assassinations now failing randomly. Worse yet, the “rock-paper-scissors” of the countering system has now been replaced with “rock always works” as  long as “rock” is either a gun or the bow and arrow.

If the system changes weren’t bad enough, they’ve also brought in a wonderful smorgasbord of general bugginess. I was once attacked in the middle of a cutscene. The attack wasn’t part of the cutscene, the game just didn’t properly disable the logic to prevent me from being attacked. On many occasions, I had enemies fail to die because the air assassination technique just failed to hit. I had to redo many an optional objective because the game decided that I simply wasn’t killing correctly enough. And of course, I spent countless hours filling in the “Encyclopedia of the Common Man” because an NPC decided to repeatedly do the same action without ever switching to one that I hadn’t seen.

I could probably have taken the bad gameplay changes and the general bugginess if there had been a worthwhile plot underlying it.  There is not. The whole game seems disconnected and random. Connor’s motivations are rarely clear and often entirely bizarre, especially when coupled with general gameplay. He seems to flip back and forth between being a cold-blooded killer and a man trying to take no life. It seems like he has no narrative inertia. Whatever is convenient to the plot is what happens without anything really tying it back to the character development or existing narrative.

I don’t know who at Ubisoft greenlit this game, as it is. I do know that that person should be fired.

Assassin’s Creed III: 0

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What is a level 24 cleaver?

I have long been a fan of the survival horror genre and zombie games in particular. Though I’d heard mixed reviews of Dead Island, I decided to give it a chance nonetheless.

This was a poor decision.

The premise of Dead Island is that a hopeless git wakes up in his hotel room after a night of alcohol, randomly taking drugs he found lying on the floor of the women’s restroom, and attempting to woo women who were entirely uninterested in him. In between last night and now, zombies have taken over the island resort where he is making an idiot of himself. A voice over the radio entices him with the promise of rescue in exchange for his help.

Gameplay wise, Dead Island wants to be Boarderlands: it is a level-based action game with randomly generated loot and auto-scaling enemies–Diablo with guns and zombies. The whole thing takes place from a first-person perspective and features both melee and firearm combat…sort of.

Despite having a character who specializes in firearms (the one that I picked), ammunition doesn’t ever seem to appear until almost a quarter of the way through the game. Worse still, even when firearms are unlocked, ammo is scarce and the weapons themselves do far, far less damage to the zombies than the melee weapons–even when using head shots.

But then, maybe that doesn’t matter, the game’s only penalty for death is a 7 second respawn timer, 10% of your money, and being randomly relocated to a nearby respawn point. Once you’re back on your feet, you can rush blindly into the enemies again with full health and little in the way of repercussions. In fact, on at least one occasion, I completely subverted a difficult area filled with enemies by dying inside of it and then respawning in a place I hadn’t yet reached–the room that I was trying to get to.

This problem is endemic of something that permeates the game. That is, the game feels like it hasn’t really been thought through. You’re tasked to run from objective to objective– all too often through the same few areas–but the objectives seem arbitrary and unrelated to your ultimate goal of escaping the island or even saving survivors. Zombies start inexplicably carrying weapons about halfway through the game which seems bizarre given that they are never shown to have anything like intelligence. Whole plotlines are just dropped on the ground as soon as your characters get more than 100 yards away from their participants.

Eventually, I decided to skip all sidequesting and just run down the main quest path as quickly as I could. This made the problems of the main quest all the more glaring as I wasn’t spending time doing other things that might make me forget about the idiocy of it all.

This game is irredeemable. The only way to win is not to play.

Dead Island: 0

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Where is the Atom Smasher?

Sometimes, it takes days and days to play through a game and get a feel for its strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, however, it takes hours. Usually, as in the case of Atom Zombie Smasher, this is a bad sign.

In this middle of an alternate history version of last century, zombies have sprung up. As the leader of a society, you must try to save as many people as possible while fighting off the zombie threat.

The “meat” of Atom Zombie Smasher is the rescue/attack portion of the game. In it, you are given a handful of “squads” with which to repel increasing hordes of zombies. While you’re trying to kill the zombies, you must also try to evacuate civilians. If zombies (represented by purple dots) run into the civilians (represented by yellow dots) then there are suddenly more zombies and fewer civilians. This is, obviously, not a good thing.

There are a fair number of different kinds of squads which allows for somewhat interesting interactions. Squads themselves level up in various ways, becoming more useful as the game goes on. Although the zombies are the primary enemy, the game also has a constant ticking clock in the form of a day-night cycle. During a mission, whenever a day ends, a huge wave of zombies inundates the map. This is usually a tactically intractable situation making the day-night changeover a hard cutoff for missions.The game also has a strategic component to go along with the tactical one. This part of the game allows you to choose which territories to attack. As the game progresses, more and more zombies spawn on to the strategic map. This forces you to choose your battles to try to mitigate the spread before any particular area becomes overrun.Although AZS has lots of interesting ideas, the game itself seems to suffer from cripplingly bad balance. In the basic gameplay mode, squads are assigned (seemingly) randomly. This might lead to you having to try to carry out a mission using only barriers, a couple of landmines and maybe an artillery piece. Worse, while the game does allow squads to level up and become more useful (and thus make the higher level missions more possible), the speed of leveling up in incredibly slow and the progression doesn’t carry over from one game to the next. Of course, since the squads are assigned randomly, you might not even be able to use them once you’ve leveled them up.

The biggest problem though seems to be the strategic map. The whole progression of the game is based on a scoring track. Evacuating civilians and capturing towns get you bonuses. The issue is that, every turn, the zombie faction gets more free units than you can reasonably be expected to deal with. This gives them more points which makes it harder and harder to keep up.

Now, it may be that extended practice and experience might help mitigate these problems. It might also be the case that I might just not be a solid enough tactician to make the game tractable. I’m willing to accept that either of these might be the case. Unfortunately, the frustration that the perceived (if not actual) balance issues cause mean that I have no interest at all in exploring these possibilities.

Atom Zombie Smasher: 0

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