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.