With the ongoing mobile gaming boom that shows no signs of stopping any time soon -- if it ever will -- a lot of retro games that people have fond memories of are being ported over to iOS. One of them is The Bitmap Brothers' Z, now retitled as Z The Game.
But not all old games are as good as we remember them, and when you port a classic old PC game straight to the mobile platfrom, you better make sure it still holds up in the current age.
Z The Game (iPhone, iPod Touch [Reviewed], iPad -- universal app)
Let's get one thing out of the way first. Z was never the best real-time strategy game out there, and launching after Command & Conquer revolutionized the RTS interface model for decades to come didn't do it any favors. But it was a quirky game with a different type of gameplay and a lot of humor to boot, which made it a beloved title at the time.
Instead of harvesting resources, building unit construction buildings, and then building up an army to swoop down the enemy base, Z had a type of map control gameplay that you can see today in games like Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War series and Company of Heroes. Each level's map is divided in sections with a flag to capture, which gives you control of radar installations, unit production buildings, and repair buildings. Unit production buildings automatically pump out new units, and you can manually select the type of units they will be producing.
Z The Game is a carbon copy of the old game and brings all of the original's gameplay, graphics, and cutscenes to iOS. But that's also where it shows its age.
The biggest problem by far is the game's interface. You tap to select a unit, or drag a selection rectangle to select multiple units which automatically turns them into a group, and wherever you tap afterwards will attack-move that unit to that position. However, there is no unselect option unless you tap another unit. This leads to a lot of problems for effective control of your army of drunken robots.
It's all too easy to accidentally have the wrong units selected when you tap a building to manage its unit production, which leads to the selected unit attacking your own building. Sometimes if you drag a selection reticule with two fingers, the units will move to wherever your last finger left the screen. Try to select a unit and drag the screen to where you want it to go, and it can make them move to some point halfway where you dragged the map to. Especially on the iPod Touch's smaller screen, it can be a pain to manage your units' movement across the map -- an essential element for an RTS.
There are shortcut buttons to cycle through available infantry, vehicles, buildings, turrets, and combat hotspots. But in most cases it's faster and easier to just use the map to find idle units than it is to cycle through every single one of them. Additionally, vehicles and infantry can get stuck behind scenery which means you have to go back and manage them even more often. The entire touch control scheme just makes for an unwieldy system that doesn't feel like a good fit for mobile devices at all; it's supposed to make it easier to control, not harder.
Although you can get used to the broken control scheme after a couple of levels, it's something you are continuously reminded of. Eventually you learn to select a unit, switch to the pop-up map of the level, jump to the location you want that unit to move to, and tap there. It takes some getting used to, even for strategy veterans, and if you are expecting to select units and then simply scroll across the map to where you want them to go, you better unlearn that behavior straight away.
Another issue which stems from the game's age is that it's a bit unbalanced. While there are many different infantry types that are effective against the other infantry types and tanks, you can win any map simply by building up groups of tanks and sweeping from region to region. Since your opponent is continuously vying for control, you will need to defend some key production buildings in order to keep building those tanks.
But when you do have a couple of tanks at your disposal, you can easily wipe the floor with any infantry you come across whether they are anti-tank Toughs or measily Snipers. This reduces infantry to a type of unit you only need to capture empty vehicles, turrets, and control flags. Since each map is dotted with multiple infantry production buildings you end up with a lot of infantry that you will still move around, because you can, but they will generally become pretty useless as you progress.
Z The Game features 20 levels which can each take you around 7 to 15 minutes to complete, depending on how lucky or skilled you are at the beginning of any new level. If you are slow to start and leave vehicle production to fall into enemy hands, you'll spend a lot more time dealing with enemy vehicles and taking over those facilities than if you know where to go and how to gain early momentum.
The game will last you quite a while, especially since you'll likely get tired of the game after a level or two as almost every map plays the same way despite some minor variety in the levels' environments and hazards. Currently there's also no multiplayer, although this has been promised to be included in a future update shortly.
When it comes down to it, you should just ask yourself: "How much did I really like Z?" If you thought it was a cool game that you never finished, after realizing it was not really as great as you thought it would be, you're not going to find anything new here; you're more likely to shatter your fond retro memories. If you were a huge fan and played it to death, you'll get mostly the same experience with Z The Game except with touch controls instead of your trusty mouse.
That's not to say that it is a bad game. It's just the same old Z. Once you get around the control issues, it's fun enough to keep playing it until you are done with a level. And from the looks of the iPad screenshots, it will be a lot easier to control on the larger screenspace than the iPhone and iPod Touch touch displays. On the latter two, it will be more of a balance between retro memories, the fun the old game provides, and the feelings of frustration the controls will raise, resulting in a weird mixed sensation.
The controls will most likely put off the casual mobile player that is new to the game, especially when there is no tutorial to speak of, and the relatively high price doesn't exactly make it an impulse buy either. To fully enjoy this mobile port you need to be a pretty hardcore fan who was able to forgive the original Z for its faults, and who is then willing to overlook the additional issues with the touch controls.
Z The Game succeeds in bringing the classic strategy game to iOS, but in trying to remain faithful to the original it misses the mark for creating engaging gameplay that works on a touch screen. Yes, may of us loved Z back in the day, but that alone doesn't excuse Z The Game from being an almost straight port that does not draw on the strengths of touch screen interfaces.
THE VERDICT - Z The Game
Reviewed by Maurice Tan