Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing, in your memory, you might adore a title to death, but when it's ported and released to a modern system, you often find your favorite games broken or boring. Bitmap Brothers' Z [$4.99] was a favorite of mine when it was originally released in 1996 and for better or worse, Kavcom Limited's port hasn't changed much in the games structure.
Other than a few tweaks to the user interface, the core of Z is exactly as you remember it. An expanded view of the battlefield is enough to make the bigger screen on the iPad the more enjoyable experience, but it's not impossible on the smaller screen of an iPhone/iPod Touch. All that said, it is a fifteen year old game, so don't expect a whole lot of bells and whistles here. Or a tutorial for that matter, but we'll get to that later.
Z is technically a RTS game, but although cut from the same cloth as Dune and Command and Conquer, it's a different suit altogether. There is no resource management and units can be built up ad-infinitum provided you have control of an area. To gain control, you capture a flag and subsequently get access to a building that produces units on a small plot of land. To finish a map, you need to capture all points and destroy the enemy's stronghold. The faster you complete all these tasks, the higher your score, which can be viewed and compared through Game Center.
At your disposal are six robot soldier types and several types of tanks, jeeps and armored carriers, all of which you'll be deploying over the course of twenty levels. The premise for all this war mongering is a thin story about two warring robot factions, one of which is lead by your leader, General Zod. While the plot is about as loose as it can be, cutscenes in-between missions tell the story of two bumbling robots named Brad and Allen, who are something of a cross between Bill and Ted and Beavis and Butthead. In its humor and its presentation, Z is bleeding the mid-'90s all over the place.
Control is handled with a single tap to select and another tap to set a destination. You can select multiple units by pinching, but each unit is generally grouped together in twos and threes already. The same goes for picking which units to build out of your base, tap once to bring up a build menu and hit the scroll marks to pick a unit. As these things often tend to go, more units become available as you advance through the campaign. Unlike most RTS titles, your ground units can pick up different weapons and grenades off the ground and they can get into enemy vehicles if you're lucky enough to kill the driver without blowing up the whole thing. It's an added layer that replaces resource management in your strategy -- if your snipers can pick off a driver, you get a free vehicle, but it's a heck of a lot easier just to blow it up with a tank.
I'm only telling you all this because the game doesn't. Some of it is tucked away neatly in the Help menu, but most players are used to booting up a game and running through a tutorial -- you won't get that here and the already difficult game is a bit harder because of it. There's also a difficulty toggle hidden awkwardly away in iOS's system settings.
Where Z still stands out is in its auxiliary presentation. Sound effects and voice work still add a humorous glow to the whole experience and the music, which ebbs and flows with the combat sounds great. This isn't a game you'll find yourself muting after ten minutes. Graphically, the game holds up on style alone. You're not going to find fancy 3D, fantastic animation or even that much diversity in the environments, but it looks good, albeit clearly created in a far simpler time. Plus, there's really nothing better than robots in cowboy hats yelling at you.
The only feature that's truly lacking is the multiplayer, which, if memory serves, was rather entertaining over a 28k modem back in the day. This seems like a perfect fit for a mobile version, especially over Bluetooth or WiFi and it's a weird omission from the iOS version.
While the look and play of the original is intact, it also means some of the problems have carried over. Pathfinding is still a bit off and you'll often find units walking into walls. The same goes for the enemy AI, which seems to randomly fluctuate between brilliant and idiotic on a whim. The humor will appeal to some more than others, but it never gets too in your face or offensive to totally put anyone off. For their part, the controls take a bit to get used to and you'll often find yourself sending units in the wrong direction with a miss-tap. It's an easy remedy, but an annoying quality nonetheless.
(Video from PC version.)
There is a deep point of entry and the difficulty curve ramps up pretty quickly, but if you can handle it, there is a great RTS game hidden in here that's unlike anything else. The controls could certainly have been tweaked a bit further and the interface cleaned up, but overall, it's a solid strategy game with different mechanics than most. At first glance, Z might scare off people, but once you figure out how it works it's perfect for fans of both casual and deep RTS games, it's just too bad there isn't a little more handholding from the outset to bring in new fans.
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