After reviewing a number of their enchanting PSP Minis and Xbox Indie titles, I believe I have a fairly competent grasp of what our Aussie friends from Halfbrick are all about. They make games rooted in timing and movement puzzles (Blast Off). Titles that are cleverly understated and imminently approachable (Rocket Racing). Gaming experiences with a simple, artistic allure (Echoes.)
But sometimes they also make games about traveling through time and shooting zombies in the face.
Age of Zombies is an unceremonious melding of XBLA smash I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1N IT!!! and that wise-talking ass-kicker of old Duke Nukem with a splash of Time Splitters for good measure. Moreover, it’s a top-down dual-stick shooter that manages competent gameplay despite being hobbled by the PSP’s single control stick. Instead the player maneuvers with the analog nub (or, if you prefer, the directional buttons) and directs fire with the face buttons. It seems an odd layout, but only takes a few minutes of playtime to master. Which is good, as the waves of undead enemies are relentless and fairly well coordinated… for a bunch of irrational eating machines.
As our hero, the fantastically unrefined Barry Steakfries, blasts his way through time with a pleasing array of zombie-slaying armaments (including the flamethrower and oh-so-effective minigun, as well as secondary weapons such as mines and grenades) he spouts ridiculous one-liners and sneers in the face of gut-munching hordes. Halfbrick fleshes out – no pun intended – the enemy roster by including era-appropriate ghouls like zombie cavemen and mummies, as well as double-sized minibosses that are much more resilient than the rest of the throng.
The individual time-themed worlds are, in a nod to old school game construction, three levels deep with an even more ridiculous boss monster, like the Zombie T-Rex, appearing to mix up the action in each final stage. Level maps are neither sparse nor overly complex, instead offering just the right mix of obstacles, narrow channels and open spaces through which to outmaneuver the positively staggering number of onscreen enemies. Usually.
Halfbrick puts an interesting spin on the well-worn tropes of the zombie shooter by substituting enemy AI for a sort of overwhelming herd mentality. Zombies spawn in random points throughout a level and then proceed in single-minded pursuit of Mr. Steakfries, swarming across the field in a tight formation like so many bloodthirsty sheep. When they encounter an obstacle, the first few zombies will simply hesitate and pool against the helpful obstruction until a spillover of stragglers begin to move around and overtake your position.
Thanks to the game’s use of a regenerating health system rather than a simple one-bite-your-dead approach, a player may find himself quickly weighing his options; do you stand your ground in hopes of mowing down the current wave of zeds, or do you try and force your way out, incurring a bit of damage, sure, but ultimately putting yourself in a less precarious spot? It’s exactly this sort of rudimentary step toward tactics that serve to make Age of Zombies the thinking man’s mindless shooter. Power counts for a lot, but a little finesse also lends itself well to a more fruitful play session.
With three lives per stage and 1ups regularly available, Age of Zombies offers a challenge that’s seldom frustrating with plenty of chances to hone your battle skills. Powering through a level with guns blazing is surely effective, but it ultimately reflects poorly on your all-important accuracy score. Consequently, the player is rewarded for precision gun-play with score multipliers, giving the title the roughest of outlines of a combo system. It’s not a groundbreaking play mechanic, but there’s something satisfying about seeing your kills creep toward the triple digits as you weave and bob through the ever-thinning herd.
Yet this isn’t to say that the entire affair is all wine and roses – or, perhaps in this case, beer and bell peppers. While Halfbrick’s titles to this point have been fairly stylistic affairs, Age of Zombies trades in a more mundane currency. The overall design is bright and cartoon-y, which, given the subject matter, doesn’t exactly detract from the experience. The soundtrack likewise leans a bit more toward the commonplace, but these backing tracks are also perfectly serviceable for simple zombie slaying.
My principle gripe, which is actually more of a caution, concerns the title’s humor. Age of Zombies is not for kids. Barry Steakfries’ language is, unsurprisingly, a little colorful, and the onscreen banter (and even the level titles) skews heavily toward adult humor. This is far from a deal-breaker, in my opinion, but still an important point to touch on for those who might mistakenly let their younger geeklings take the title for a spin on their PSP.
For the five dollar price tag, you get an enjoyable if somewhat juvenile ride. Part of me would like nothing more than to be the consummate “serious journalist” and shrug Age of Zombies off as another immature horror cash-in that is far too crude for my refined gamer palate, but, truth be told, the part that controls the thumbs and still sees Strange Brew as comedic gold finds it hard to put the damn thing down. Because of the price, I can’t recommend it as wholeheartedly as some of Halfbrick’s other titles, but, for those of you content to check your intellect at the door, it’s a solid addition to your PSP lineup.
Think of it as B movie you can play on the go.
WIRED: tight controls, amusing dialog, simple but charming visual style, makes zombie-killin’ fun again
TIRED: lowbrow humor, a bit pricier than Halfbrick’s other offerings, repetitious in that way that only a top-down shooter can be
Review code provided by Halfbrick Studios