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Atom Zombie Smasher

Imagine you’re playing a game of Risk with some friends. Now, imagine those same friends are actually flesh eating corpses and they’ve cornered you in Australia, stacking their units in Indonesia. This is sort of what it feels like to play Atom Zombie Smasher, only slightly less hopeless, and a hell of a lot weirder.

Heavily inspired by the Zombie Infection Simulation and the aforementioned game of Risk, Atom Zombie Smasher is an exercise in futility. The game is played out in turns, with each turn representing a month of the zombie outbreak. The world is divided into various territories and as the game plays out more and more areas are claimed by both the zombies and survivors – assuming you’re any good. Occupied terrain affords both sides victory points, much in the same manner territories controlled net you extra troop placements in Risk. The difference is victory points are all that matter, it’s in your benefit to reclaim areas from the undead, but as long as you remain ahead of them in victory points it doesn’t really matter how fast the zombie outbreak spreads.

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At the beginning of each month you select one of the available territories to engage the zombies in. Depending on the current threat level for that zone, your main objective will either be to eliminate all of the zombies before nightfall, or to rescue a set number of civilians before the town or city is completely overrun. In order to facilitate these operations several ‘Mercs’ hire themselves out to you over the course of the campaign, but depending on the month only certain teams are available. The other catch is each month has a special condition associated with it, which range from longer days, faster rescue chopper speed and so on, so selecting the appropriate territory based on the teams and condition at hand is a necessary bit of strategy.

Before the actual conflicts, which play out on randomly generated boards reminiscent of the Zombie Infection Simulation, there’s a planning phase where Mercs can be deployed. At this time you pick your initial landing zone, which is where your chopper will land to evacuate civilians. In addition to the helicopter, there’s a versatile assortment of units including artillery, snipers and zombie bait. Once you’ve placed your Mercs the round begins and it’s a race to either cleanse the area or rescue the target number before the clock ticks to nightfall, which is when the zombie reinforcements arrive and you need to pull the hell out.

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As you can see, Atom Zombie Smasher is a deep, system loaded game; it has dozens of mechanics working together, layered on top of one another. As victory point thresholds are completed new wrinkles are thrown into the game, which introduce new strategies and tensions. At first the amount of rules and specifics can be very overwhelming, and in a sick but clever twist, you’ll likely find yourself totally overmatched during your first campaign. Ultimately, I suspect most players will fail their first game, just as I did. Once Zed is on a roll, it’s very difficult to stop the outbreak and slow the insane amounts of victory points they accrue per turn – much like we’d expect of the actual zombie apocalypse.

Despite the sting of failure, Atom Zombie Smasher’s campaign can be completed in as little as an hour, which makes starting a new one an easy, compulsive decision. With a better understanding of the mechanics, the manner in which the zombie infection spreads and the proper usage of Mercs, my second playthrough was an exhilarating – and ultimately victorious – last stand for humanity. It might sound obvious, but getting off to a good start is imperative. Quelling infections while they’re still at a low threat level is crucial to slowing Zed’s expansion. On the other side, rescuing as many civilians as possible and scoring kills with your Mercs translates to experience bonuses for each unit, netting you better accuracy, speed and reload times; play better and you’ll have a fighting chance.

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Topping the game off is Atom Zombie Smasher’s bizarre, borderline incomprehensible narrative and presentation. Peppered throughout the campaign are little vignettes that lend incite to the outbreak and provide background to your Mercs. And although it’s all a bit odd to follow, it gives the game a unique personality that compliments its eccentric design; you may not care specifically about the people you’re saving but you will be pulled into their strange world.

Noting its inspirations, Atom Zombie Smasher emerges as a wholly original experience, all its own. The short, breakneck campaigns create a compelling game you’ll likely revisit time and time again. It’s the perfect blend of planning and reflexes, requiring you to thoroughly plan every move but remain highly reactive and adaptable. The zombies might be unpredictable, but with your help, we just might stand a fighting chance.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2008. Get in touch on Twitter @_seankelley.

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