Z is both a blast from the past as well as a refreshing change of pace. This game was originally released by UK based developer The Bitmap Brothers in 1996, and was recently added to Steam. It is a Real-Time Strategy game (RTS) that doesn’t play like one. For anyone who plays games of the genre, perhaps C&C, Starcraft, Company of Heroes, or anything of the like, you might have a pretty good idea of how an RTS plays. Collect resources, build structures, train troops and vehicles, and utterly annihilate the enemy.
There are no resources in Z. There is no population limit. You don’t have to train your troops. You don’t really have to do anything, aside from control your units and complete the objective. This may sound a little dull, as it takesa huge amount of micromanaging away that has become associated with RTS games. However, The Bitmap Brothers managed to still make this game fun to play.
Each level starts off with you on one end of the map, and your opponent on the other end. You each control very few points on the map, and part of your job is to rectify that. You start off with a few troops, and you can send them wherever you need them to go by selecting them and clicking on the desired destination. Each section of the map has a flag, and to capture that section, you simply need one of your units to touch that flag (it doesn’t matter whether it’s a neutral flag or if it’s already controlled by your enemy, all you need is one magical touch).
You win by either eliminating all of the enemy’s units, sending one of your own units into the enemy base, or by directly destroying the enemy base. Pretty straightforward. Some of the sections you capture contain structures that belong to whoever owns the territory. These structures produce units in a periodic fashion. There’s a timer as well as a little icon on the structure indicating how much longer for a specific unit to be built. There is a little variety in the types of units in the game, and part of the challenge is knowing which units are effective against which.
Being that this game is relatively simple in terms of gameplay mechanics, it is very easy to control. To control your view of the battlefield, you can simply drag your mouse to the edges of the screen like most modern RTS games. You can also right-click and drag the mouse around, or click on a specific area on the mini-map located on the bottom right corner to simply jump to that location. Like I mentioned earlier, this game primarily uses point and click. Click on a unit (or to select multiple units at one time, drag a box around them), and then click the area you want them to go do. The AI does the rest. Which brings me to the next topic, which is…well, the AI. It’s good and bad at the same time. Sometimes, the AI will take the most bizarre route to get the destination. No, let’s not cut straight to the objective, let’s take the scenic route. However, if your units come across any grenades on the floor on their way there, they’ll pick them up with you needing to lift another finger. Same goes for if there any empty Jeeps or mounted guns in the area, they’ll occupy them right away.
All of that combined makes the game easy to control mechanically, as there’s no real issues when selecting units, issuing orders, or navigating the map. It’s smooth. However, the AI and the simplicity of the gameplay mechanics makes managing the game itself a little bit more challenging. For those of you familiar with modern RTS games, you know you can hotkey specific units to quickly jump to them and issue new orders. There’s no such feature in Z. This means you have to really keep an eye on your units, or else you’ll find yourself losing quickly because you have too many units doing nothing, and the enemy has pushed through three quarters of the map. Now, that may sound like a negative, but in fact I enjoyed it as it really did keep me more engaged. Despite not having shoot over to my home base and manage my resources, units, and structures, I still had to zoom across the map to manage the units that I did have.
Another nice thing I liked is that this game doesn’t hold your hand. Before each level, there’ll be a short “debriefing” of sorts that’ll introduce you to a new unit, and it’ll inform you of it’s strengths and weaknesses. From there you get dropped into a level and you’re on your own. There are no in game hints, and no reminders of what you were just told. If you weren’t paying attention before you jumped into the level, tough luck, because you’ll be losing units quickly.
So, let’s talk about plot. There is none. Well, now that was a nice conversation, wasn’t it?
Okay, serious talk now. The game consists of 20 levels, and between each level you are given a cutscene. These cutscenes did not receive any sort of Halo: Anniversary treatment, and as such, they look horrible compared to today’s standards. I won’t hold that against The Bitmap Brothers however. It’s not their job to redo the cutscenes so that they’re all pretty. They revolve around two robots named Brad and Allen. The first cutscene sees the robots getting in trouble by another robot named Commander Zod. From there they travel from point to point, which is only set up for the games 20 levels.
The cutscenes themselves are humorous, and a bit crazy as well. It gives the game just the right amount of chaos needed to make it work. As for replay value, there isn’t any, at least not anymore. Scouring the forums and the internet, it appears that the original PC release had skirmishes and online play, something that is standard in RTS games today. Unfortunately, the re-release on Steam does not contain these two modes, drastically lowering the replay value of this game. You can at any time replay the levels from the story, and try to attain the “Warlord” ranking, but other than that, there’s not much else to do.
Despite the fact that Z is a game from 1996, it is still fun to play. Perhaps it might be even more enjoyable for those looking for some nostalgia. However, the lack of a skirmish mode and a multiplayer component seriously take away from the value of the original.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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