ZPC (short for Zero Population Count) is an example of how a game with all the right elements can fail to come together in a satisfying fashion. You may love this game and find it completely engrossing. On the other hand, you may become so annoyed and frustrated you’ll write it off in short order. In order to be fair, I stuck with this game, but was ultimately less than satisfied.
The game’s biggest strength, its art, is actually its biggest weakness. All of the art in the game is the handiwork of Aidan Hughes, well known for his work in a variety of underground venues, most memorably in connection with German industrial band KMFDM. All of the graphics in ZPC are two-dimensional woodcut-style images with very stark contrasts – quintessential Hughes. While this is so visually appealing and works so well in a variety of media, it doesn’t seem to work in a computer game environment.
There’s two reasons for this. The first is the use of the Marathon 2 engine from Bungie. Quite frankly, I think this game engine is inferior to others currently on the market and its flaws are magnified by ZPC‘s two-dimensional images. Targeting is much more difficult than it needs to be, particularly while trying to traverse stairs or shooting at distant targets. Many games have some form of auto-targeting or compensate on the viewpoint while ascending or descending and it’s irritating not to see something like that here. Some of the surfaces are mapped poorly, making it difficult to maneuver around obstacles. Objects like trees and barrels block your shots when you’ve obviously got a clear line of view or interfere with your movement when logic dictates they shouldn’t. Another problem may just have been the machine used to play this game, but there are times when manuevering aroung corners and obstacles was a problem. You may find yourself unable to move forward or even sideways and must instead use the “strafe left” and “strafe right” functions while moving backwards to quickly disengage from whatever was blocking your path (which often seemed to be the remains of a dead body or fragment of wreckage, thouch occasionally it was just a random projection of the landscape).
The second problem is an aesthetic one. I think this particular style of art is better suited to things like posters, album covers and animations. Those familiar with Aidan Hughes’ work for KMFDM will likely recall the video for A Drug Against War. ZPC is, in essence, a video game version of that video. Much of the same imagery is recycled wholesale and, although it’s been expanded on greatly, I kept expecting a more cinematic game than the one that was delivered. I would have liked this game better if there had been more animation besides death scenes and the between-levels cut scenes.
The music and sound are suitably epic for a game in which you play a warrior messiah. Roland and Paul Barker are heayweights in the field of industrial music which is appropriate for a game seeking an “alternative” audience. My biggest complaint was that there didn’t seem to be enough music. The only music I heard was in short bursts between levels and the lengthy and impressive introductory track. Music is a major factor in building atmosphere in a game and should have been more pervasive than it was. In many cases, the music was localized to specific locations and of a monotonous martial variety, which fit the graphics but didn’t go far enough toward creating an overall mood.
The game’s premise is fairly straightforward and interesting. Arguably, it’s the best part of the game. You’re the warrior-messiah, the surviving heir from a long line of leaders. Exiled to space in cryogenic sleep, you’ve returned after a hundred years to overthrow the totalitarian rule of Black Brethren and free your people from slavery. The story is more interesting than the typical extra-dimensional portals and alien invaders so prevalent these days. If you accept the idea that you and you alone can save the world, you’ll likely enjoy discovering the different levels and the idea of working toward your ultimate destiny. If that leaves you cold, there’s a whole crop of first-person shooters on the horizon that you can demo.