I was thinking about writing the whole history of the Bitmap Brothers, impressing you all with my extensive videogame history trivia knowledge (the chicks dig that sort of thing), but in this case I don’t have any. I do remember playing the original Z; I think I had just moved to Massachusetts, so that would have been round about ’96. It was an RTS with the unique quality that you fought for land. Well, I guess overall in most RTS games you’re fighting over land – taking this bridge or that resource deposit or that ridgeline – but in Z by holding onto a chunk of land (actually the flag that told you who owned that particular chunk) you held the associated factory that stood on that land, and could use it to make more units. The strategy for this was a little different. On top of each factory was a clock that indicated when the next unit would be built, and you would time your attacks to take the flag so that the unit that came out of the factory was yours and not your enemy’s. Waiting for that heavy tank to roll off the assembly line and reinforce your defenses became a bitter struggle, as your enemy could take the flag a scant two seconds before the tank was finished and make it his own. Z was also among the most frustrating game I’ve ever played because, although your units were supposedly robots, their aim absolutely sucked, and the computer could manipulate units quickly to get them to dodge bullets. You realistically given mouse control could not, and some frigging grunt that ducked all my shots would always mow my tanks down. Despite the fact that it regularly kicked my ass, I still thought it was a great game. I also remember that the game had a pretty twisted sense of humor, with cutscene images of robots taping ‘kick me’ signs to each others’ backs. What else can I tell you about the Bitmap Brothers? Nothing. I’m pretty sure they must have made other games between then and now, but I’ve never played or heard of any of them. If you want some info, do a web search. I’m using all my meager 56k-modem bandwidth to stream porn and I don’t have a single byte to spare.
So, the sequel. Hmmm, not so good. If you think of Z – Steel Soldiers as a 3-D version of C&C, you won’t be far off. The game is still a land grab as in the original Z, but for resources, not buildings. There’s no resource harvesting; you get cash depending on how much land you hold (again represented by little flags), that you can use to make buildings and units. It’s a little disappointing that when you take a chunk of land you no longer automatically get control of the buildings in that area, which was the primary thing that set the first Z apart. That whole strategy is gone, as you need to use a tech bot to take possession of a building, and that feels very C&C-ish. Another perhaps unintentional consequence of the lack of resource harvesting is that you never run out of cash as long as you have land. The money keeps rolling in forever and you can end up with truly monstrous collections of units that you can simply use to swarm the enemy, and that feels very C&C-ish too.
Lots of stuff that is kind of taken for granted in the RTS genre is conspicuously absent. Most notably, the game has no unit formations available at all. When you grab a collection of units, that’s their formation – all spread out or all clumped together, standing around picking their noses, whatever. Fast units will reach their destination quickly, leaving the support of the heavy armor in the dust, so there is really no point in attempting to make groups consisting of a good mix of troops. Units also clump up badly at bridges and in narrow passes. Units under attack are not assisted by nearby units automatically, and units told to attack, say, a building, will continue to shoot at the building even if someone else comes along and starts shooting at them. And yet they won’t start shooting at nearby enemy buildings automatically, so you’re forced to sort of micromanage each engagement as best you can, mouse clicking wildly. Sometimes I would be amassing troops near, but out of range of, an enemy flag defense position, and some of my units would “sense” the flag nearby and go for it, only to be ground up by his defenses before I could grab them and order them out of range. Also I found that once I set up a workable defense around a flag, the computer would throw hundreds of units against it, always in tiny, bite-sized groups that my defenses could handle easily. It wouldn’t attack in force, and it wouldn’t get any smarter. There are other examples, but I think you get the idea – the AI is pretty piss poor. Multiplayer support through GameSpy is probably better because of that, but the whole 56k porn thing leaves me out of that loop. On the plus side, my local cable guys have announced broadband service beginning this fall. Hide the women and children!
The graphics are a little bland, the landscapes being rather unvaried snow, desert, or grasslands. Steel Soldiers uses the familiar overhead isometric camera, and that works well. The buildings look exactly like 3-D replicas of their original Z counterparts. Soldiers are a little indistinct. The ability to differentiate machinegun-toting psychos from flame throwing pyros in a crowd is a little dicey – now that I think of it, C&C had the same problem. When tanks or buildings or bots explode the flames are nice. It’s regrettable that they leave no wreckage or damage upon the landscape. It would be cool to have some heavily fortified area with the carcasses of dozens of burned out robots piled up in front of it. There is the typical minimap in the lower corner (once you’ve built or captured a radar, a la C&C). In the upper corner appears a camera view from combats occurring around the board. Some people might be able to make use of this, but I found it merely distracting. Sound effects get louder as you get nearer to the combat site, but that’s old hat now. The robots yell “Aaah, they’re killing us!” and “Oh my garsh!” They unfortunately yell this every single time they’re attacked, even when one lone enemy psycho walks up to a group of 40 soldiers. It’s funny for maybe the first 100 times, but then gets more than a little tiring. They also, if memory serves me, are exactly the same as the original Z. The same sound clips? Maybe. The game ran pretty much without problem for me, but readers have written to me asking about bugs they’ve run into (I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about these problems, but they email me nonetheless). I’m still running Win98, and I realize that puts me kind of out of step with lots of people who have migrated to WinMe or Win2k. On an aside, I’d like to hear from people about how that went; in particular I’d like to hear about compatibility issues with older games.
The same twisted sense of humor is there as the original Z. The cutscenes are extremely well done, with good voice acting, funny dialog and characters, and they advance the plot nicely. It’s almost unfortunate that you have to wade through the poor RTS game to get to see them. The whole game plays not even as well as Dark Reign 2, and frankly that game was something of a dud. There are a number of units and buildings to play with (the game claims there are 30 different units and 20 buildings – I didn’t keep count), but they’re all a rehash of the typical land, sea, and air units that you’ve been seeing since Total Annihilation came out I don’t know how long ago. The missions are a simplistic mix of protect this unit or rescue that unit, but more often than not it boils down to destroy every enemy unit on the board.
If this game had come out, oh, maybe 18 months ago, I would have been happier with it. I guess timing is everything. Z – Steel Soldiers: I think we’ve come to expect more.