Zombie Crossing

This review was written for The Indie Mine, though I bought it with my own Microsoft points. Please take a look. Reproduced here with permission.

Now I know how school teachers feel. Not because teachers routinely set up chaingun turrets to contain the influx of shambling students (though I’m pretty sure it crossed my metalwork teacher’s mind from time to time) but because it’s very frustrating to watch someone, or something, with real ability fall on its face because it’s too lazy to try.

Zombie Crossing (formally uncapitalised as zombie crossing – not a good start with a pedant like me) is a tower defence game that benefits from some nice ideas but also suffers badly from some awful design choices and an evident lack of any sort of playtesting.

There are far too many zombie-based games on Xbox Live’s indie channel, but this one actually makes good use of the theme. A zombie apocalypse is a logical basis for a tower defence game, involving as it does hordes of mindless enemies advancing stoically against a beleagued defensive line. The presentation is pretty good, particularly for an Xbox indie. It’s not uncommon for games on this service to look like they were drawn in Microsoft Paint, but this one, while not XBLA standard, has real game-like visuals with character models and convincing environments, plus a couple of nice touches like the blood trail that denotes the horde’s route in the first couple of levels.

Upon first playing Zombie Crossing, my impression of it wasn’t great. Its control scheme is an immediate problem. On top of the awkwardness of navigating the in-game menus using the triggers and D-pad, the left stick control is too responsive for the small size of the spots where you can place turrets, meaning that you often twitch back and forth for several seconds trying to get the cursor in the right place. This is inconvenient enough even pre-attack, but reaches a new infuriating low when you’re trying to add new defences in the middle of battle. The issue finally passes through rock bottom and splashes into the sewer when you try to upgrade a turret; the ‘upgrade’ button is so narrow that its almost impossible to hit. I have yet to successfully upgrade even one turret thanks to this miserable design oversight. Having someone playtest the game for more than five minutes would have revealed this problem, but I assume that never happened.

The turrets also don’t face the way you tell them to. You can rotate each one to aim in a particular direction, but more often than not they will ignore your instruction. It doesn’t sound like a serious problem, but turrets take so long to rotate and open fire that you can end up with legions of them never opening fire because they can’t rotate in time.

This lack of playtesting is evident throughout Zombie Crossing, and the problems I’ve detailed above turn out to be the least of them.

The idea behind Zombie Crossing is a pretty good one. You aren’t just defending against a certain number of waves; you’re trying to amass enough money to purchase a nuclear strike, which will bring a final end to that level and move you on to a new map where you start the process over. Advancing from level to level unlocks extra options in the research menu, enabling you to buy barricades, slowing effects and the like.

As I persisted with Zombie Crossing I began to forgive it for its flawed controls. The research side of things is barely explained, but I soon worked out how it works. The objective is also not explained – the game tells you that you should try to buy a nuke, but makes it sound like a friendly suggestion rather than the aim of the whole game. It took me probably 30-40 minutes to realize that nuclear bombardment is how you progress to the next level. I’d been starting to think the game had only one level! This is a problem, but not a crippling one. Besides, maybe I’m just dense.

The first and cheapest upgrade you can buy is the sniper rifle, which gives you a first-person view from a rooftop, from which vantage you can pop high velocity rounds into the shuffling undead. A nice touch, I thought. Sniping one zombie at a time seemed like it probably wouldn’t be much use in the grand scheme, but it would give me something to occupy myself with while the turrets were doing the serious clean-up.

In the event, that’s not quite how it worked out. This is where the problems begin in earnest.

The sniper rifle is traditionally a precise instrument that fires single bullets into carefully chosen targets. Zombie Crossing‘s sniper rifle is more like a rocket launcher. As long as your bullet hits a zombie, there will be an explosion that rips apart any others standing nearby. Plus it’s a one hit kill across its whole area of effect. The game soon ceases to be a tower defence at all, and instead becomes a case of just bombing crowds of zombies with your ‘sniper’ rifle as they bottleneck at their spawn point, and positioning a couple of towers close by to mop up the handful that get through. Even the larger, tougher boss zombie that appears at the end of each wave keels over much more quickly by thumping a few sniper shots into it than by shredding it with a dozen turrets. So the control problems become irrelevant, as do the upgrades, most of the research and the towers themselves. You start the game with a few hundred dollars; the sniper rifle costs you $100 to buy, and $1 to activate.

This problem becomes less pronounced as you gain extra turret types a few levels in, and the tower-based strategy becomes actually practical. But for the first few levels (which could be either a brief period or quite a long time, depending on how you choose to spend your resources) Zombie Crossing is barely even a game. It’s more ‘click on a few points in one area’. You know what else does that? Your desktop. Desktops aren’t known for being the height of entertainment.

That’s not all. The sniper rifle issue is idiocy of design, but perhaps not the most glaring example of zero playtesting. When you unlock the barbed wire barricade on level 2, you must never use it. It crashes the game. Not once, not twice, but 100% every single time I use it, without fail. You can, with some difficulty, play the rest of the game without using the barricade – it isn’t completely essential – but that isn’t the point. The point is the game is fundamentally broken, and clearly even the developers themselves never actually played it or they would have noticed this.

Again, a total and sickening lack of playtesting before release. Or if it was playtested, it by someone who was out of the room at the time. Maybe in another town entirely.

There are some other problems that could easily have been picked up on too, but they’re small potatoes compared to the game-crushingly huge ones. I’ll give one prominent example though.

If you pause while sniping, the crosshairs disappear and you get just a pointer instead. And you will do this a lot thanks to the need for coins. Zombies often drop gold coins that you can only pick up by pressing the Back button, yet that same button also brings up the pause menu. Every time you try to collect currency the game pauses, which would be bad enough by itself but also immediately draws attention to the vanishing crosshairs. How did anyone think this was a good idea, and why did no one who playtested it say “hey guys, this is really really annoying”? Oh wait, I can guess…

It’s moronic to a degree that left me breathless with horror and despair. In any other game, this oversight alone would be enough to turn a recommendation into a warning. Here, it’s not even the worst offender.

It’s a terrible shame. The game looks and sounds good, its atmosphere works, the research idea could have been fun, and it seems to be a decent length (though the levels start repeating after an hour or so). The sniper feature is a nice addition in principle, and even with some flaws the game could have been worth a recommendation. I really tried to enjoy it, and at the times when the menagerie of glitches, bugs and design ineptitude weren’t leaping out to punch my enjoyment in the face, it was pretty fun. I don’t want to emphatically tell you not to buy it. If you’re forewarned, you might have fun with it.

But at the same time, I can’t recommend it, particularly as the Xbox indie scene doesn’t lack good tower defence games. As a retail product, this is unsuitable to be on sale. It’s a first draft. I read, check and edit my reviews repeatedly before they reach the public eye, but Zombie Crossing doesn’t extend the same courtesy. I even tried to contact the developers to give them a chance to patch it before I stuck the boot in, but I couldn’t find any contact details or even a Facebook page. Always be reachable, developers.

Zombie Crossing could have done well for itself if it had been released in a finished and tested state, but as teachers often say, “must try harder”. Or as my metalwork teacher always said, “I am a violent man!” After a missed opportunity like this, he should be.

There was an old man from Flotilla, who looked too much like a chinchilla…

I am a tactical dunce.

I can just about battle through the early stages of a turn-based strategy like Advance Wars but fall quite dramatically on my comically contorted face as soon as the enemy commanders stop taking to the field blindfolded and hung over. Don’t even get me started on real-time strategies. I got about three or four missions into Red Alert before I started crying tears of mortal terror and burning shame. Only last year, Dawn of War kicked my ass with a boot the size of a small cottage. If I had been left in command of the Light Brigade, their charge would have plunged them off a cliff before even leaving camp.

There’s a reason I’m telling you this. I want you to understand just how inept a tactician I am so that you’ll understand the magnitude of my meaning when I say Flotilla makes me feel like I’m Ender.

You begin the game as an experienced captain of a tiny flotilla (of course) of two spacefaring warships. You have only seven months to live before a mysterious disease/parasite/exploding moose finally saps the last of your strength/eats the last of your spleen/showers you in intestinal moosery. It’s not clear what’s going on, except that you will be dead.

As a bold space explorer and/or pirate you want to have a final few adventures before the end, so you take your pair of destroyers out into the wild vastness of space once more. This is the back story, and it’s really of no importance other than providing an excuse for your encounters and justifying a limit to the number of them you can have. A full Flotilla adventure usually runs to around the 30-60 minute mark, but they’re randomly generated so it’s easy to replay whenever you’re in the mood.

Flotilla comes in two parts. One is the framing bit, where you select planets from a map of space and speed your ships over to them to read an often silly encounter. Sometimes a haughty royalist deer will deny you entry to his people’s territory. Sometimes a crazed hippo will blindly open fire on you, or shady penguin crime lords will seek your head as payback for disrupting their operations. It’s all a bit Douglas Adams, and it’s quite charming as long as you get in the spirit.

'Elp me, guvna! Yer me only 'ope!

The meat of the game jars with this a bit. Defy the haughty deer, defend against the hippo, and stare down the penguins – battle must ensue. This is where the game’s subtitle, ‘Orbital Battleship Maneuvers’, comes into play. Unlike the adventuring parts, the battles are serious, strategic affairs that play out in stark orange against the depths of space, full of gauges, trajectory arcs and flat plane grids.

When I first played the trial version of Flotilla, this was what put me off. I played a one-off skirmish, and the whole thing was so confusing that I deleted the demo and barely gave it another thought. The problem is that Flotilla doesn’t explain itself very well. It’s actually quite simple once you realise what’s going on, but to a non-strategic person with only the eight-minute trial period to work it out, it might as well have been a thousand graphs of insect mating statistics for all the appeal it had.

It was only months later, when someone on a forum mentioned loving it, that I went back to give it another try. Armed with a little foreknowledge about the key bits of combat, I found I really enjoyed it.

The adventure sections mostly just serve to get you into battle, along with the odd non-combat incident that gives you chance to gain more ships or trade some upgrades. The aim in each battle is to eliminate the opposing fleet, but it isn’t as simple as just landing hits on them. These engagements are turn-based but simultaneous – you give orders to your fleet, the enemy commander does the same, then all ships carry out their orders simultaneously for thirty seconds in slow, balletic near-silence.

This unusual format isn’t the only thing you have to cope with; orientation of ships is vitally important, and can decide whether yours cruise away victorious or get ripped apart. Every ship is heavily armoured on the front and top, but very lightly armoured at the back and underneath. They don’t all have the same weapons though, and some have the advantage of range while others can rip right through your armour.

True to the idea of space combat, ships don’t just power forward; they make a quick shove for momentum then spin and roll as directed, in order to present their strongest defence to the enemy.

That guy's rear and bottom are taking a pounding. Ho ho. Ahem.

To win battles in Flotilla, you must predict how your opponents will move, how fast and how far, which of your ships they will shoot at, and manoeuvre to attack their weak spots while not exposing your own.  Baiting them into moving the way you want is an effective strategy, but a risky one. More than once I’ve lost ships just by underestimating the speed of a beam frigate. Flotilla requires some thought and a little luck.

When things do work out, and you manage to obliterate the assorted anthropomorphic animals that want you dead, Flotilla hits its peak. I have had some really awful battles where I was torn apart in a couple of rounds, but I’ve also had some spectacular victories. It’s deeply satisfying to face down a fleet of five powerful warships with just two tiny destroyers, and emerge victorious with not a single casualty. This is why Flotilla makes me feel like Ender. Despite my traditionally appalling strategy skills, something in this game makes sense to me.

For people who aren’t very experienced or comfortable with strategy games, I can heartily recommend Flotilla. Don’t be put off by the illusion of complexity; once you realise that it’s all about rotating your ships to keep them safe, the whole thing becomes easy to understand. Those of a tactical bent might find the game a little easy, but there is a hardcore mode that I haven’t dared attempt, and I think the lighthearted tone of the encounters and the shortness of each complete game makes it a lot of fun for an occasional play regardless of expertise. I don’t often recommend indie games priced at 400 points, but Flotilla has earned it.

You won’t spend all day playing it, but you might find you come back every few weeks for a new adventure, and to kick a smug deer’s ass one more time.