Real-time strategy games have always been difficult to execute on consoles. Without a mouse, scrolling over huge maps with an analogue stick is far harder than you may imagine, while assigning commands to various buttons on a controller leads to some haphazard control schemes. Enter Zombie Tycoon 2: Brainhov’s Revenge, a relatively simple entry into a complex genre, built from the ground up for both the PlayStation 3 and the Vita.
You may be sick of seeing zombies these days – and it’s no surprise. Refusing to shuffle away from popular culture, the undead still appear just about everywhere that you look, from television shows to games, to books and graphic novels. But while the majority of what we see lends itself to gritty realism, Zombie Tycoon 2 takes a step into comedic territory, where zombies are bright green, make silly noises, and are controlled by a mad scientist named Orville Tycoon.
You’ll be guiding the tyrannical professor in his quest to put an end to his former mentor-turned-rival Brainhov, who has given rise to a similar army of brain-munching fiends. The plot is mostly conveyed through humorous cut-scenes, the majority of which are entertainingly crazy. Despite the total lack of dialogue, Tycoon and his zombie horde have a lot of personality due to their cartoony, exaggerated animations, which when coupled with the game’s offbeat colour palette and eerie setting make for a visually charming title.
However, there’s only so far such a purposefully barebones plot can go, evidenced by the campaign’s meagre number of chapters. To be fair, each section is surprisingly lengthy, and missions take place on sometimes dauntingly large maps. There’s also a handy checkpoint system which allows you the opportunity to quit the game if the need arises, although it’s usually more likely to hamper your progress rather than preserve it.
Tycoon himself takes to the battlefield riding atop his mobile spawner, which acts as both a deployment point for the undead, and a dangerous weapon thanks to its mounted minigun. If you lose this particular asset, it is game over, and because of the previously mentioned checkpoint system, you can often reload to find yourself ready to kick the bucket. This typically means restarting an entire chapter can be more beneficial, regardless of the accompanying frustration.
Compounding the problem further, the title employs a fog of war mechanic, which obscures the map until your units march into an area and discover what’s hidden there. This can lead to some seemingly unfair moments where more powerful adversaries ambush you with little chance of survival. It also doesn’t help that some chapter’s objectives are little more than vague descriptions, forcing you to try numerous doomed approaches until one strategy suddenly clicks.
Speaking of strategy, there generally isn’t much of it to be found in the campaign. It’s never truly explained whether different troops have unique weaknesses, or if one group of slobbering corpses has an advantage over another. Most of the time you’ll simply be sending all of your available allies straight into the nearest fight, hoping superior numbers is enough to clobber your foes into submission.
Even worse, the game attempts to incorporate styles of gameplay that don’t gel with real-time strategy whatsoever. There’s a particularly out of place boss fight that sees you avoiding enemy attacks while trying to get in close and munch down a ridiculously large health bar. This would be bearable in a platformer, for example, but trying to guide a single unit around multiple floor-based traps by frantically moving and clicking your cursor is nothing short of an exercise in hopelessness.
But it’s not all bad. There are definitely glimpses of great gameplay here and there, and in short bursts the title can keep you hooked as long as your strategies go according to plan. The constant introduction of new zombie classes helps keep things moderately interesting too, and it’s hard not to enjoy commanding bigger and more powerful units.
Actually guiding your hordes around the ruins of civilisation is easy. Each group has a designated face button, and tapping it will send that unit marching to the location of your pointer. It all feels intuitive and well designed, although the AI does get itself muddled at times. This simple interface is easily one of the game’s greatest achievements, and is just enough to stop the single player proceedings from being overly aggravating.
Each chapter essentially boils down to moving your army from objective marker to objective marker, capturing buildings and brawling with opponents as the situation demands. It’s a simple formula to get to grips with but things get extremely repetitive later on, especially as the difficulty ramps up rather unexpectedly. It’s unfortunate, because the title’s loveable art direction and dark sense of humour promises so much more.
However, all is not lost. Despite the frustrating single player offering, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the release’s multiplayer component. Although it’s left a little lacking in terms of options, battling friends and strangers alike is really where the title’s strengths come into focus.
The basics of gameplay remain unchanged – the mobile spawner is still the crux of your army, and you’ll still be sending out groups of undead to engage enemies and capture buildings in order to expand and upgrade your horde. However, the presence of a human opponent turns the battlefield into a tensely strategic playground. The pace of the gameplay increases dramatically; you’ll be racing to capture locations for yourself, in constant fear that the enemy will get there first, ultimately resulting in exhilarating battles.
Meanwhile, the experience is very much the same on Sony's handheld console. Like many other cross-play titles, its gameplay benefits from the system's portability, but in this case the handheld release is marred by frame-rate issues when the action becomes hectic. We also encountered a number of annoying bugs on both platforms, with some of our zombies becoming invisible or getting lodged in the scenery, rendering them useless. In both cases, these problems may force you to restart the chapter entirely, depending on the scenario.
There are certainly enjoyable moments to be found in Zombie Tycoon 2: Brainhov’s Revenge, but they’re buried beneath repetitive gameplay and unnecessarily frustrating mechanics. The multiplayer chaos is just enough to keep you coming back, but things are never quite as well crafted as the charming art direction would lead you to believe.