Zax: The Alien Hunter
Windows - 2001
Description of Zax: The Alien Hunter Windows
Zax: the Alien Hunter is the third recent release from Austrian-based producer JoWooD, following close on the heels of its solid, if unimaginative Nations, and GD award-winning title The Sting. It's a pleasurable, slightly nostalgic little game about blowing up robots. Banish fanciful descriptions like 'action-adventure' and 'role-playing elements' to the den of hyperbole from whence they came - Zax is a classic shoot 'em up, plain and simple, and it's a damn good one.
Attack of the Sprites
Interested parties should be warned that playing Zax may cause your 3D card to go and sulk in the corner, having little else to do but help out with some of the light effects. Zax's top-down isometric viewpoint looks down onto static, 2D backgrounds and animated sprites; in appearance, its closest comparison is probably Diablo, although Diablo's rather drab dungeons are replaced with verdant jungles and dusty temples. This is a 2D game that looks great: the scenery is varied and detailed, the characters are expertly animated and the light effects and explosions are top-notch. Its characters have been lavished with attention, from the scuttling motion of spider-droids to the way robo-gorillas knuckle their way through the undergrowth, and the gun that slides into place over the gorilla's shoulder when it is ready to fire. Zax himself can aim in any direction as he moves, and can be seen firing desperately over his shoulder when running away, or firing under one arm when shooting sideways.
The 2D approach means that Zax has very modest system requirements. JoWooD reckons a P233 will be enough to handle it, and a PII-333 saw only the tiniest quantities of jerkiness when the screen filled up with explosions, bad guys and laser bursts. Even then, these occurrences were extremely rare, and never impeded the gameplay. Thumbs up to JoWooD for remembering that not every PC gamer owns a 1-gig monstrosity.
A customisable zoom system allows you to play the game at any magnification. Although zooming out too far has significant effects on performance and zooming in too much makes the sprites look grainy and indistinct, there's still enough leeway between the two extremes to make the function an admirable option.
Ore and Crystals - are you sure this isn't an RTS?
Zax's justification for his antisocial behaviour is fairly solid. He's an intergalactic adventurer in search of Caranthian ore and crystals, two of the most precious substances in the galaxy because of their use in materials generators (a replicator by any other name). Approaching a supposedly deserted planet, his ship is, rather embarrassingly, shot down and he becomes embroiled in the native Korbo's battle to overthrow their false god Om, who is in fact an eeeeevil robot that forced the Korbo into slavery. An introduction rendered in nice static images conveys the initial details, and the rest of the plot unfolds in-game, through conversations with various characters.
Okay, it's not Booker-prize, but the plot is waffle-free and belts along at a cracking pace. Zax doesn't bemoan his fate, the Korbo are likeable and the horrid villains thoroughly deserving of incandescent laser death. There might not be many twists and turns, but you are never left in any doubt as to what you're doing and why.
An important element is Zax's ship, which is home to a helpful artificial intelligence called Zelon. It is Zelon who provides most of your objectives and information regarding your environment, and the ship serves as a base to which you can return, either on foot or using regular teleport nodes (so there are no boring periods of trekking back and forth to restock on equipment). The planet is rife with ore and crystals, which can be used in Zelon's materials generator to create new equipment. As time passes, the list of available kit expands as the A.I. invents new schematics for weapons, items, ammo, shields and power upgrades. The ship also contains a medical station where Zax can heal himself, and the materials generator can recharge his shield and his weapons, so it's a handy place to return to between major battles.
At its heart, Zax is about blowing up robots, and there's no point thinking otherwise. You see a robot, you blow it up. You see many robots, you blow them all up. The keyboard controls Zax's movement, while the mouse is used for aiming: an intuitive system that allows you to run in any direction while firing in any other.
About half the weapons are energy-based, which all run off the same battery and have varying degrees of power usage. This battery can be recharged by running over the blue power signatures left by exploded robots, and Zax's shield works in a similar way. Only when the shield is depleted will he begin to take physical damage, and picking up yellow energy signatures from robot corpses will recharge it. Other weapons, like the pistol, plasma thrower and rocket launcher have separate ammunition, which can be salvaged from enemies that use similar weapons. So, the basic premise of the gameplay (blowing stuff up) provides you with the resources you need to keep doing it. There's nothing to distract you from the action, no real pressure to conserve ammo - "just get out there," Zax says, "and make robots explode."
There are eighteen weapons to make use of, including portable gun-turrets and remote drones, and there's enough variation in them to add an extra layer to the action - grenades can be shot while in the air but will bounce around corners, while pistols and autorifles do little damage but have a high rate of fire and are very accurate.
Enemies become tougher and tougher and pack increasingly unfunny weapons as the game progresses. Scattered about each level are teleport pads that beam a steady stream of bots into your location and can only be stopped by finding the control panel for the pad and (surprise) blowing it up. That's another nice little touch. In many firefights, you'll be looking for a clear shot at the teleporter controls while trying to beat back the hordes of robots. The enemy A.I. doesn't need to be particularly sophisticated in a game like this, but even so Zax models line of sight adequately, allowing you to sneak by those that aren't paying attention. Occasionally you'll have to defeat a boss robot to proceed, and in another clever twist, these monstrosities are all hosts for the same malevolent spirit, which adds a certain "I'll get you this time Tweekie-features" motivation.
Zax isn't entirely about robot-exploding; there's a fair amount of lever-pulling and key-hunting and enough puzzles to give you a breather, if barely slowing things down. Often these take the forms of reflecting beams between different crystals to allow access to different parts of the level. Other times you'll have to escort a friendly character through a level and keep him from harm, or free captives and provide them with a clear path to an exit. A later stage requires a stealthy jailbreak, sneaking past guards until you can retrieve your weapons. Level design is excellent, with plenty of traps to avoid and secret areas to investigate.
Additionally, Zax supports three multiplayer modes: Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Salvage King (where players battle over the possession of crystals) for up to 16 people.
The Merry Sound of Robots Exploding
Zax gets extra points for its sound. Lasers sizzle, robots threaten in brilliantly metallic voices, and the retort of bullets and their impact on robot armour sounds great. The voice acting is very good and Zax has a bewildering array of comments he throws out during battle. "You can't find good help," he complains, when one of his drones is destroyed; "This party was too crowded anyway!" when he blows up a teleporter control panel. You can tell when his shields have been depleted without having to look at the readout, because he starts shouting "OW!" when lasers hit him. These remarks aren't so frequent they get repetitive, and even two-thirds of the way through the game, I was still hearing new ones. There's also quietly atmospheric, unobtrusive music in the background. Sometimes you'll catch a snatch of it between the sound of robots exploding.
It has to be said that Zax is a very simple game. It doesn't do anything radical, nor does it push the capabilities of your PC. Modern gamers are used to more diverse, more sophisticated products and may find Zax somewhat archaic and simplistic. To some extent, that's true: shoot-'em-ups are archaic, but when was the last time we saw one that wasn't a first-person shooter or a space sim? And while blowing up robots is a fairly simplistic activity, it's also a fantastically fun one. There's a reason all those shoot-'em-ups were so popular.
Zax is an old-style game given a contemporary(-ish) coat of paint: an unfolding plot, actual characters, better graphics... but every little facet of it has been honed to perfection. Each item you find in the game has its own graphic and brief description, and every save file is accompanied not only by a screenshot but by details of your current mission objectives and statistics so you can see exactly where you were. The gameplay is fantastically addictive - always challenging but never frustrating. Were Zax not priced at the full £30 we'd feel easier in recommending it, but as it is, potential buyers should be sure what they're getting: a classic, retro-style arcade shooter, although one impeccably executed.
Review By GamesDomain
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