As a game, Atom Zombie Smasher is just a series of RTS matches. You’re harvesting resources from a map. Instead of fighting an enemy, you’re fighting time, because the resources go bad in a matter of seconds (these are very short matches). You get three or four units, which makes Atom Zombie Smasher a bit of a puzzle game. Sometimes you’ll get a perfect set of tools for the situation. Other times, you’re completely and utterly screwed. It’s all indie graphics — dots, really — strung together in a simple but effective campaign mode.
But that’s just the game part.
After the jump, there’s something more important going on in Atom Zombie Smasher.
Most zombie games are about a guy with a gun shooting his way out of a zombie outbreak (see the 1968 documentary, Night of the Living Dead). But Atom Zombie Smasher is a top-down perspective on the military response. Here are tough choices about evacuating, cleansing, or abandoning territories. It’s a race against a spreading pandemic, with the odds stacked against you and lots and lots of collateral damage along the way.
Just as Introversion’s Defcon used a cool blue minimalism for millions dead in a nuclear annihilation, Atom Zombie Smasher uses tiny dots to create moments of drama. As the helicopter arrives and sounds its horn to call the survivors to the LZ, some of them will run into barricades you set up. They’ll shuffle back and forth, trapped and doomed to turn into zombies themselves. A tiny cluster of survivors will turn barely escape an artillery barrage only to turn down the wrong street and find themselves cut off. A lone zombie will lurch toward a tightly packed cluster of survivors awaiting the helicopter, but your snipers take it out at the last moment. A ruptured gas line sets off a chain of explosions that kills dozens of survivors, but more dozens of zombies. The rain slows zombies. Your helicopter breaks down. With a year of experience under their belts, your infantry learn to run faster and shoot better. Scientists research more room in your helicopter, smarter soldiers, or weapons of mass zombie destruction. Sometimes you just have to deal with the situation by lobbing a nuke (see the 1985 documentary, Return of the Living Dead). For such a small short game, something dramatic and intensely zombie-related is always happening in Atom Zombie Smasher.
Developer Brendon Chung gives Atom Zombie Smasher a picante Latin flavor (his obvious affection for motif goes back to Gravity Bone, which featured the song Brazil). Who can tell what’s going on with the storylines that burble up as you unlock vignettes? And who cares? Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets Wes Anderson meets George Romero. It’s weirdly charming stuff, from the cutscenes to the zedpedia entries to the names randomly chosen for your units. Go ahead, customize the names of your units. I dare you. It isn’t easy. Who wouldn’t want the fight alongside an infantry battalion called the Mercy Huskies or an artillery regiment called Hark’s Thunder?
A few settings can make the game harder or easier. During matches, you can slow time to carefully manage unit movement, artillery fire, zombie bait, explosive traps, landing zones, and so forth. But this isn’t a game about timing or repeating effective strategies over and over. You’ll only get three units each mission (hotkeyed, to boot!), and you never know which three they’ll be. This isn’t a game about winning, which isn’t going to happen that often. It’s a game about doing the best with the tools you draw in the situation you’ve been dealt. Your best victory might mean saving 65 of the 250 people in a territory instead of only 60.
As a campaign progresses, you and the zombies advance along a victory track, with infection tokens piling up on the map faster than you can possibly knock them off, racking up points for the zombies. If you can’t win, at least try to lose with a better score. The typical zombie movie ends in failure. So, too, does the typical campaign of Atom Zombie Smasher, which can be played in under an hour.
This might sound obvious to other zombie aficionados, but it occurs to me while playing Atom Zombie Smasher that zombies are creatures of the post-Vietnam era. Armies have been overwhelmed for thousands of years (see the 2006 documentary, 300), but the 70s seared into our consciousness the idea of an army helpless to save a civilian population from an infectious ideology. Watching the last helicoper fly away in Atom Zombie Smasher, leaving behind so many tiny dots to their sad fate, I can’t help but think of the evacuation of Saigon. Zombie mythology is the mythology of our generation, a product of our feelings about death, age, conformity, and betrayal. And there’s definitely some Vietnam in there. Is it any coincidence that so many zombie movies portray the military as ineffectual at best, and sometimes outright evil (in Night of the Living Dead, which Romero shot at the height of the Vietnam war, it took the local militia to clean up the zombie apocalypse)? Like 28 Weeks Later, in which Idris Elba issues code red, Atom Zombie Smasher shows the military doing its best in a bad situation. This isn’t just a fantastic indie strategy game. It’s also a perfect post-Iraq expression of zombie mythology.