Prior to this generation, dual-stick shooters were non-existent; taking form, perhaps, only in the minds of forward thinking game designers. Part of the problem, of course, rested with the limitations of peripherals and the fact that ‘dual-sticks’ only became standard with the launch of the original Xbox (that GameCube C-stick ‘thing’ in no way counts).
First cometh the hardware, then the software. Nowadays, thanks to the success of Geometry Wars and company, dual-stick shooters are as common as a delayed train. So common are they that the phrase itself is as recognisable as the terms first-person shooter, role-playing game or arcade racer.
So, the problem for the designer working within the dual-stick shooter space becomes one of standing out from the crowd; working out how to add enough originality without ridding the game completely of those elements that genre fans have come to enjoy and expect.
It’s in this regard that, sadly, All Zombies Must Die! fails. Sure, there are some decent ideas here but none of them exciting, original or fleshed out enough to warrant a purchase or, for some, a complete playthrough.
As is the case for many a download-only action game, All Zombies Must Die! is a case of all action and almost no story. Why is it that so many developers believe that these two elements must be mutually exclusive? The old theory of story-gets-in-the-way-of-gameplay has surely been debunked by now? Perhaps not.
Anyway, the game is set in the town of Deadhill which has been hit by a zombie outbreak (isn’t it strange that, in the world of modern entertainment, reading about a zombie outbreak is pretty normal?). It’s your job to stop it.
For the first half hour things are largely positive as you learn and master the controls, the abilities and the nuances of zombie massacre on offer. The number of elements you’re introduced to in the early stages makes you excited for what’s to come and how the designers will use them to challenge, reward and entertain you.
The ability to craft items and level up your character is a good idea but just doesn’t work in the sense that it’s fun or generates sufficient satisfaction to drive you through. Whether that’s a result of poor design, or simply that bolting on RPG elements is not the catch-all way of heightening gameplay some seem to think it is, is debatable. The truth is that it’s probably a bit of both.
Missions themselves take place in closed off areas that, like almost everything else here, are intriguing at first but thereafter reveal themselves as maps lacking in variety and excelling in tedium. Part of the problem rests with the frequency in which you’re required to backtrack and work through previous areas multiple times.
In and of itself backtracking is not necessarily a bad thing. Such a structure can work if the mission design is of sufficient quality to distract you from the familiar scenery (take the finest open world games, for example) and engross you in the interaction and task at hand. Needless to say, that level of design finesse is absent here.
All too often your task in a given area is to kill a certain number of zombies, kill a specific type of zombie, find a pre-defined number of pick-ups or obtain a special item. Occasionally you’re asked to kill a boss or craft a new weapon (only possible at bases within certain areas), but there’s nothing you’re asked to do that will come as a surprise… welcome or otherwise.
What can be said in its favour is that the action is unrelenting thanks to zombies constantly unearthing themselves from the ground. This forces a consistently sharp focus and punishes you for taking your eye away from the action. If you’re in the right mood at the time, triumphing against these odds (despite the mediocre game mechanics) can be satisfying. If you’re not in the right mood it simply becomes an experience in repetitious drudgery.
I found myself in the ‘wrong’ mood more often than not. I found myself exclusively in the ‘wrong’ mood during play sessions lasting more than 30 minutes.
Co-op for up to four players relieves some of the predictability, but only in the sense that human players will often cause more problems than they solve. In terms of teamwork and tactics nothing is required of you, your increased numbers merely resulting in increased firepower.
It’s a shame that the gameplay is rather lacklustre because the presentation exudes a degree of charm and character. Each of the four playable characters (former love birds Jack and Rachael, scientific brainiac Bryan and alien Luxo) are visually interesting enough to make any of them worthwhile options, and the text-only dialogue is full of clichéd but entertaining videogame in-jokes.
Style over substance doesn’t work, though. Ask anyone that’s played Heavenly Sword.
Taking into account that All Zombies Must Die! will set you back only about £8, it’s not a terrible purchase. But it isn’t one that is easy to recommend, even at that price. If you’re desperate for something to play while you wait for new post-Christmas content to hit for real then give it a shot.
There’s nothing all that wrong here, there’s just nothing all that right either.
Reviewed on Xbox 360. Also available on PlayStation 3 and Windows PC.