Smile and Nod

Smile and Nod: Turn Based

Russ Pitts | 21 Apr 2008 17:00
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Now here's the part where we remember wishing upon a star can be bad for you. As awesome as the realization of any dream may be, once you have it in your hands, once you can actually turn it over and look at it's unfinished underbelly, you realize you don't dream in enough colors to ensure you'll always get exactly what you want. Or, rather, that your dream engine often skips a few steps, and what comes out is just as likely to annoy as entertain.

The problem with TZW is the Boxhead mechanic isn't a perfect fit with a strategy-type game. It's like using an SAE wrench to work on a Japanese car. Standard-to-metric conversion work great on paper, but as the crash of the Mars Orbiter proved, they can be fatal in the real world.

In TZW, the zombies pour on in waves as deep (or deeper) as in any Boxhead game, and you mow them down by applying an excessive amount of firepower, each boxy-looking zombie falling away like old bills yet to be filed, each turning the ground that familiar shade of red. You still acquire more weapon upgrades by killing lots and lots of zombies, and you still progress through the levels by clearing them of every single zombie, mummy or what have you. It is, after all, a Boxhead game. But marrying this mechanic with the fortress building aspect of a strategy game makes is difficult to enjoy either one.

You can create a base as elaborate as you like, but you'll still have to go outside to collect the loot, and slaughtering zombies willy-nilly to acquire bigger and better weapons means you're often stumbling over and around your battlements, which then become an impediment to you, rather than the swarming undead. More often than not, you have to pick one strategy or the other, close your eyes and power through.

The problem is the game seems bound and determined to ruin your strategy, whichever you choose. Either you run out of weaponry to lob at the undead just as they're tearing your barricade apart at the seams, or you find yourself needing the support of a heavily fortified position and scramble back to where you thought you'd left one. In the first case, you discover rather quickly that a fortified position doesn't stand a chance of surviving unless, for some reason, you're running around outside providing an assist. In the second, you discover that unattended fortifications tend to be destroyed. In both cases, victory is elusive.

In a simple, one-screen, one-strategy, kill-them-until-you-can't game like The Rooms, the no-win scenario is easier to swallow, but in a game as potentially nuanced as The Zombie Wars, the conceit feels out of place. With all that potential depth, the fact winning isn't even a possibility is hard to swallow. Worse still, it's not fun. Like life. Like sorting through a box of old letters a week after filing your taxes and finding proof you received money you didn't claim.

Also like life, this game is hard. Not hard like I may master it some day with a little effort, but "there's no way I'll ever get good at this" hard. Even on easy. Which is not only not fun, but kind of retarded. As Katie Stone Perez, executive producer for Xbox Live, said at her GDC panel, if you're going to have an "easy" mode, make it easy, FFS. OK, I added the FFS, but the rest was Katie.

Playing TZW, I was reminded of all the obstacles in my way in real life, how the turns between beat downs were never quite long enough, the rewards never quite good enough, and the challenges just a little harder than I would like. In short, looking over my shoulder at the work needing to be done, and in front of me at the game on the screen, I was never quite sure which I was avoiding for the other.

Russ Pitts is realizing he takes some things way too seriously. His blog can be found at

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