Age of Zombies – Review

Title   Age of Zombies
Developer  Halfbrick
Publisher  BlitWorks
Platform  PlayStation Vita
Genre  Arcade Shooter
Release Date  January 14, 2014
Official Site

In what’s known as the Golden Age of Hollywood, Univeral Studios did what most other ‘big-name’ studios were afraid to do and stepped away from the dramas and love stories, instead opting for a more sinister spin for the silver screen.  It made household names of Lon Chaney Sr, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff and immortalised interpretations of Dracula, the Phantom, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man, among others.  What they shied away from, however, were the reanimated vessels of the dead… zombies.  It wasn’t until 1968, when George A Romero did for zombies what French traffic tunnels did for public grieving, that the cinema-going public sat up and really took notice of the undead, making Night Of The Living Dead the highest-grossing movie in Europe in 1969 and the most successful independent production to date at the time.

Since then, however, zombies have been done to death.  Intentional.  The number of unspeakably bad zombie movies far outweighs the good, and there are perhaps more undead humans in games than there are space marines… although, perhaps not.  The point is that it’s very easy for developers to get themselves several rungs up the success ladder by simply throwing in a bunch of green/grey-skinned dead folk, with a penchant for brains and salivating.  Left 4 Dead may have done it well – although, admittedly, it’s not really my cup of cerebrospinal fluid – but more have done it badly.  Whether they’re shoe-horned into Nazi uniforms, or attacking botany for no good reason, the genre should likely have been left buried after LucasArts did it well back in 1994 with Zombies Ate My Neighbours.

In some respects, Halfbrick’s quirky Age of Zombies isn’t that far removed from the aforementioned retro title in a lot of ways, but is different enough to stand on its own.  Playing as Barry Steakfries, the protagonist of all Halfbrick’s shooters since the game first appeared on iOS and PSP, your toothpick-chewing hero bangs heads with the ever-so-slightly-deranged Professor Brains who has not only managed to reanimate the dead, but also uncovered a means to travel through time.  While most sane people would opt to go back in time to change the world for the better by shooting Hitler, smothering Genghis Khan, or performing a vasectomy on Jeremy Bieber, this guy instead decides to send his zombie legion out to cause havoc throughout time and Barry, naturally, takes issue with this.

Delivered in standard top-down format, Age of Zombies is a frenetic arcade-style shooter where it’s less about standing your ground while you hold down the fire button, and more about exploring your surroundings in order to capitalise on whatever the terrain has to offer.  As each level progresses, various drops will occur randomly and arrows will appear on-screen to let you know what has been dropped, and in what direction, so it’s then a question of whether you hang fire and do what you can with what you’ve got, or take a chance and blast your way through the advancing horde in the hopes of reaching a better weapon before your health drops from a full 100 down to zero.

Rather than taking massive hits and ending up with a character on the verge of death early on and no real way to complete a level, Age of Zombies is a little more considerate insofar as it will start to increase your health one point at a time as long as you remain untouched so it’s conceivable that, even with only one or two health points left, some impressive evasive tacticts could see you climb back up to full health… if you strategise well.  Timing your pickups will undoubtedly be your best friend, as rolling over the minigun icon when you only have a handful of undead means that you’ll have blown your load before you really needed to use it, and the drops don’t last forever.  Rather than ammo pickups, each weapon comes fully loaded and will expire after a period of time or after you’ve emptied the chambers, reverting you back to your somewhat-ineffective default gun.

Being undead, it’s not exactly easy to kill these menaces. While it may have been an easy option to increase the throughput of bad guys by having them instakill, it tends to take a good two or three solid hits before each drops to the ground, and that’s only the regular guys.  Larger enemies will take considerably more hits and, as you’d expect, these guys tend to be flanked by dozens of regular zombies so focusing all your attention – and ammo – on the larger ones is never really an option and you’ll likely have to take each attack wave as it comes.  Oh, and some zombies may actually spontaneously combust, which is great as they’ll take dozens of their friends out at the same time, but you’ll also go down if you’re too close.

As well as regular pickups, the left and right shoulder buttons come into play with special drops such as grenades, dynamite, mines, and the sentry gun.  In regular play, the grenades are near invaluable as they’ll very easily take down forty or more zombies if they’re clustered together enough and, even then, the incendiary nature of the grenade means that any not caught in the immediate explosion may still catch fire as they come into contact with their burning compadres.  The sentry gun, however, is one of those aforementioned items where you really don’t want to blow your load too early by using it for regular attacks and, instead, use it to your advantage by exploiting the terrain and set up an ambush by luring as many zombies as you can to one particular area before placing the gun.

At the top of your screen is your score and multiplier, along with a heart which displays your current health, but the central area is by far the most important as that’s where your zombie slider sits.  When you begin a new level, the slider is filled and the little zombie icon is at the far right but, the more zombies you kill, the more that slider moves left until you eventually run out of enemies and can progress to the next level.  The thing is… there’s a LOT of zombies.  Even with occasional extra-life drops, you may find yourself down to only one more respawn yet your slider is only at the half way point.  Not all the time, but sometimes.  It depends on the level, the type of enemy, and whether you’ve played the game tactically or have just gone hammer and tongs with the weapons in the hope of taking down as many as you can.  You can’t do that.  This may be a casual game; it may be available on iOS; it may even be as disposable as a crap cigarette lighter from a street market… but it’s all about the tactics, because if you drop your guard for a single second, you’re dead.

All this fast-paced action is perfectly complemented by a pretty solid sense of humour, some unbelievably hokey one liners, and just the right amount of racism to make it funny rather than shocking.  One of the many time periods you travel to is in Japan, where you’re met by a villager with a stereotypical sob story where you have to then go on to save their hamlet from the rabid undead.  The conversation is funny in itself, peppered with broken English, but it’s the in-game announcements that had me snorting a little when I knew that I really shouldn’t have been.  Rather than have the pompous American ‘SHOTGUN!” or “SMG!” announcement after a pickup, the Japanese levels were instead similar to the synthesised speech of the retro arcade cab Karate Champ, but in a comedic Japanese style (think ‘Banzai‘) such as “SHOTO-GUNNO!” and “ESSAH-EMMA-GEEEEEE”.  Pointless, and probably racist, but certainly very well placed and a solid reminder of the golden age of arcade.

While it doesn’t necessarily borrow from other games, it certainly has a number of similarities to many classics, albeit tenuously.  For example, the rate at which the enemies spawn from various portals dotted across the screen is not unlike the later levels of Atari’s classic arcade cab, Gauntlet, and the levels themselves – if you were to use your imagination and remove all the textures – are incredibly similar to what you’d find with Pac-Man: areas where, if you’re not careful, you could be backed into a corner with no means of escape, but with others that can be massively used to your advantage to shepherd enemies and take them out en masse, just as you’d lure the ghosts down into a corner where an untouched power pill lurked.

Assuming you’re able to cope with the countless retries of each level (because you will die), getting to the end of the story unlocks yet another time period with a whole new set of levels and another quirky storyline to follow.  If this wasn’t enough, further longevity comes in the form of ‘Survival Mode’ – a vast array of new areas where the sole purpose is simply to survive as long as you possibly can, in a shameless display of score whoring.  There are no in-game purchases, no paid shortcuts, and no shoe-horning un-undead Nazi soldiers in, although that may have been quite a fun twist.  The story is practically non existent and merely pops up at the start and end to remind you that you do actually have a reason for jumping back and forth through time with some heavy arsenal, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because trying to convince players that there’s some deep back-story in a game like this would just be disingenuous. It’s not about the story; it’s all about the fun.  This is nothing but unadulterated, disposable, classic arcade fun on the Vita and is highly recommended for those of you who like your games short, snappy, but by no means braindead.

If all zombie games were this good, we wouldn’t need so many.

  • Seriously good fun
  • Very reminiscent of the old arcade shooters, but modernised
  • Doesn't take itself seriously, which works well
  • Easy to pick up and play, even for a few minutes at a time
  • Hard enough to warrant several retries, but not frustratingly so
  • Could maybe have used a few additional time periods

Age of Zombies is one of those titles where you may not necessarily expect to enjoy it that much, but could well be pleasantly surprised. It's inoffensive, in terms of difficulty, and has just enough of that 'one more try' frustration to keep you smacking the 'retry level' button more times than you really want to. It's simplistic in its approach; the graphics are certainly nothing to write home about, and the music is nothing more than retro-styled arcade loops... but that all comes together to make it a great game.

Ultimately, if you bought your Vita so that you could play games on the go, and drop in and out without worrying about how much time you have available, then this would almost certainly fall into the correct category for you. While it may appear to be a braindead shooter, it can be very tactical at times, but never taxing, and that's where it shines. When push comes to shove, it's just a hell of a good ride for a few hours, and well worth the coin.

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One Comment

  1. Chris Toffer says:

    It’s game like this that make me want to own a Vita. Looks good Chief and top reviewing too!

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