The wait is finally over! Zeno Clash is out today, and if what I’ve heard in IRC and the forums is any indication, this game is hotly anticipated. It first entered the world as an obscure and bizarre trailer that confused all who saw it, but over the past year it has gained ground and become one of the most eagerly awaited PC games of the year, due in no small part to its absolute weirdness.
I’ve gone through the full single player game and checked out Challenge Mode – how does the game hold up? Does it deserve all the hype it’s been getting?
Hit the jump to find out!
Zeno Clash (PC)
Developed by ACE Team
Published by Valve
Released on April 21st, 2009
Zeno Clash is the first full game released by ACE Team, a group of former mod-makers from Chile. Having cut their teeth on Doom 2 and Quake 3 mods, they’ve been around since 1999 and recently decided to form an independent game studio. Zeno Clash is a great first game, and while it has some flaws, overall the experience is worth your time and money.
ACE Team has asked that we not give away key story points, so I will try to summarize the story in the most non-spoilery way possible. You play as Ghat who, after an event in the beginning of the game, is on the run from his family. He is joined by a female around his age named Daedra, and the two escape away from the city that they once called home. After running a significant distance, you learn some interesting information and return to the city to settle an old score. I know that’s vague, but it’s really all you need to know to get started.
If that’s too vague for you, don’t worry. You’ll find out all the story elements pretty quickly -- the game is relatively short. The single player mode can easily be completed in around 5-7 hours (possibly less if you play on normal difficulty). There are 18 different levels, each with one or two major fights. Once you complete the game, you unlock Challenge Mode. Challenge Mode is a tower – 5 levels of a tower, with each level having 5 floors. The higher up you go in the tower, the harder the challenge. Completing a full “level” (5 floors of a tower) makes you eligible for the leaderboards for that particular level. Be warned – challenge mode is DIFFICULT. I moved through the single player game on ‘Hard’ difficulty with relative ease, but I can’t even beat the first tower level.
Most of the game’s levels play out fairly similarly. There’s some exposition and plot revelations, and then you fight. Sometimes you fight before you get to the plot point, but that’s typically how it goes. Nothing is ever quite EXACTLY the same, but you’re not going to be surprised by any sudden crazy new gameplay introductions. What DOES change from level to level are the environments and (usually) the characters you interact with.
Let me say now, the art direction and character designs are by far my favorite part of Zeno Clash. The world is richly detailed, with each level/location really having a distinct and unique feel. With a couple exceptions when you return to previously visited levels, the backgrounds vary wildly: a bustling city, a barren desert, a forest filled with insane people. A lot of attention and detail went into each of the levels, and it certainly shows.
Similarly, the character design is just as unique and fantastic. While a couple of the characters (including the main one) look like regular humans, most of the people you’ll encounter in the game have character designs you likely haven’t seen anywhere else. Short fat elephant men, female weasels with four breasts, a giant bird-man with a human face, a giant nose, and huge talons – in almost every single level you’ll run into a new character you haven’t seen before, and I can’t think of a single character design that was disappointing in the slightest. The character voices, however, are a bit less exciting. The voice acting isn't awful, but it's not great, and it really sounds like each line was recorded independently of the rest. I like a lot of the various character accents and speech mannerisms, but at times, the speech just doesn't seem to really...fit.
The graphics in general are also impressive, and with relatively low system requirements Zeno Clash should be accessible to a wide swath of PC owners. I was able to run the game with most of the settings maxed, and it looked pretty freaking fantastic. It’s not Crysis, but it pushes the limits of the Source engine and overall looks better than most other Source games currently available. I did run into a couple of graphical hiccups, particularly on levels where the ground was uneven, as I found myself kind of ‘stuttering’ and bouncing around as (I presume) the game attempted to figure out exactly where I was standing. This occurred pretty rarely though, and didn’t really detract from the game. I do recommend changing all the graphics settings BEFORE you load up a saved game, as I found more often than not fiddling with the settings while I was paused would cause a crash. ACE Team says they’re aware of crashes if you change the shadow settings in the middle of a game and that it should be fixed by release, but I also had crashes changing the resolution, the anti-aliasing, and vertical sync. This may be fixed by the time the game is formally released, but it’s something you may want to be aware of.
So, the game looks great, but how does it play? I found the overall experience to be quite enjoyable, but Zeno Clash isn’t without its flaws. Originally, the game was billed as a ‘melee combat’ game with a bit of shooting thrown in. When you enter combat, you of course can use your fists, but there are also usually guns scattered around each of the levels. These range from dual pistols shaped like fishheads, to rifles, to regular crossbows, to crossbows that shoot exploding darts. Usually you start with the pistols or the rifle, and can pick up the stronger weapons somewhere in the level.
I found that combat tends to lean more towards ranged shooting than actual melee fighting. In terms of hand to hand combat, the one on one battles are fantastic. Fighting a single opponent in hand to hand is all about timing, precision, and reading your opponent to anticipate what they’re going to do, and these one on one fights were where I had the most fun. When you fight multiple opponents however, which is fairly often, it’s generally much easier to grab a gun and hide behind a piece of scenery while sniping away at your opponents. The guns don’t do a great deal of damage, but they all have a knockdown effect, and if you hide in the right spot usually only one or two opponents will charge at you at a time, making them easy targets to take out.
If you do decide to take on the groups in hand to hand combat, be prepared for a difficult time. It’s certainly not impossible, and I may have just been bad at the melee combat, but I found myself having some difficulty with the targeting system. Assuming all the computer opponents can see you, they’ll all come after you at once, making them extremely hard to deal with. Locking on to an opponent helps you direct your attacks, but allow restricts your vision so that you can’t see anything coming at you from the side or behind. More often than not, I would just start punching an enemy when I would be interrupted by someone I didn’t see who had entered combat behind me. I usually ended up just grabbing whatever gun was on the floor, run as far away as I could, and just slowly pick my opponents off one by one. Considering that the enemies will also pick up any weapons laying around and immediately start shooting you, more often than not you'll find yourself in the middle of a gunfight. Even the final boss, who is supposed to be defeated using a combination of hand to hand combat and the pistols, I found to be easier to beat just by keeping distance and slowly plinking away at him with bullets.
The story of the game was quite interesting, but I wish it had been fleshed out just a little bit more. The events that transpire over the course of the game are fairly well explained, but it's a shame that more background wasn't given on the characters and the reasons underlying their actions in the game. Even on completion, I still wasn’t entirely sure who Daedra was, how Ghat knew her, and why she was helping him escape in the first place. Additionally, the last couple scenes of the game were a giant WTF moment for me. I don’t know if it’s leading into a sequel (I hope it is), but the final scene was somewhat of a letdown, just because it was so random and unexplained. The core story itself is engaging and entertaining, but I feel there is so much more they could have done to make it more cohesive.
On a more positive note, one thing I thought the game did particularly well was the progression of difficulty throughout the single player levels. Except for a couple of story-centric levels, most of the fights you get into are just slightly harder than the previous ones, and introduce one or two new concepts that you have to deal with. It’s nothing overwhelming, but the learning curve is such that you may have to restart one or two times when you run into a new situation. Even if you’re an expert at harassing your enemies from long range, eventually that tactic won’t work anymore and you’ll have to adapt in order to stay alive. As I played through the game, I found myself just barely surviving many of the fights, which brought a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction I feel is sometimes lacking in modern games. Knowing I just made it through by the skin of my teeth, and that one more hit would have killed me and sent me back to the beginning, made my victories that much sweeter.
Another thing I really enjoyed about the game was the Challenge Mode, even though I wasn’t very good at it. While it’s likely that you’ll finish the single player game relatively quickly, the Challenge Mode should extend the game for a number of extra hours, especially as you strive to beat your friends’ high scores on the leaderboard. You may think you’ve got the game down pretty well, but be prepared to be tested. The challenges throw together a whole bunch of individual scenarios from the main game that you wouldn’t expect to be paired together, and expect you to deal with them with little more than a single gun and a couple of bombs (if you’re lucky).
Overall Zeno Clash is a solid, enjoyable game that has a few noticeable flaws that don’t significantly detract from the overall experience. While I would have liked to see a bit more emphasis on the melee combat and less on shooting, I think you’ll still find that most battles give you a bit of a rush and are enjoyable to play, particularly the unique boss battles. I predict that anyone who preordered this game will be happy with their purchase, and if you haven’t picked it up yet, I would strongly consider it. It may not be the best game that you end up playing in 2009, but it’s certainly worth checking out. I know I had a lot of fun playing it, and I’m looking forward to what ACE Team releases next.
Score: 7.0 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)