Summary: Looking for something different? Are you a fan of melee combat? If so, you may want to check out ACE's Zeno Clash. With its unique gameplay environment and exciting combat, Tom came away impressed with this shooter. Read on for the full review!
Independent Developers and the Changing Game Landscape
Thankfully, distribution systems such as Steam, Impulse, and Direct2Drive reduce overall game production costs significantly, while also allowing independent developers an impressive reach to consumers.
This revolution in digital distribution has granted small development houses the means to produce games that are more focused on creativity and their original vision, without interference from outside publishers who may only be interested in seeing a return on investment. Zeno Clash falls into this category from the small development house ACE Team. Zeno Clash is the first retail release from ACE, although the team has released a few mods for older games like Quake 3 and even Doom 2.
ACE, based in Santiago, Chile, has developed and presented a game with some of the most creative backdrops and gameplay mechanics we’ve seen in quite a while. And priced at $19.99 on Direct2Drive and Steam, we’ll find out why it is one of the most refreshing gaming experiences we’ve seen so far this year.
Story and World
Zeno Clash puts you in the shoes of Ghat, a human of indeterminate origin, as he finds himself banished from his family for the explosive murder of his father-mother. Escaping from the relatively safety of the city of Hastledom, Ghat explores the beautiful, yet deadly world as he explains his actions to his female companion over the course of a few days. During this time, Ghat must fend off various creatures, assassins, and even his own brothers and sisters sent to seek revenge for his vicious attack.
The world in Zeno Clash is incredibly strange and exotic, from its foreign plants to its sometimes hilarious creatures that attack the player as he ventures from place to place. It’s never really made clear what made the world the way it is, all you know is that it’s a dangerous place to reside, so one must keep moving to stay alive. Everything from world to character design stands out as original in Zeno Clash. Enemy characters appear as amalgamations between humans and animals, from the Corwid of the Free with their freaky headdresses, to Father-Mother him/herself, a hermaphroditic anthropomorphic being responsible for your creation.
The story in Zeno Clash unfolds from Ghat’s perspective via flashback as he escapes his pursuers over the course of a few days. Zeno Clash’s plot is interesting and well written, and works extremely well to pull the player into the crazy world of Zenozoik. It’s somewhat of a shame we aren’t given a reason for how the world ended up the way it did, however, being thrown into the middle of the strange place gave us purpose to try to uncover as many of the worlds secrets as possible.
Controls are easy to learn and master, yet they never feel overly simplistic. After completing a few early tutorial levels, you are sent off on your way to punch, kick, and uppercut your way past those who want to stop you. Zeno Clash even features one of my favorite maneuvers, the classic Italian fighting move: Kicking people when they’re down. Combos are achieved through holding the attack button down, while weaving and bobbing out of the way of attacks is easy and satisfying to pull off. This becomes very important to master when combined with an appropriately timed counter punch, which can floor your opponent if pulled off correctly.
Weapons also come into play in Zeno Clash, whether they are brutish clubs or rudimentary firearms that shoot nuts, bolts, or even rocks at distant foes. Projectile weapons are varied, yet distinct and each one caters itself to different situations. While the ‘rifle’ causes some extreme damage, its limited ammo makes its unfit for taking on more than a few targets at a time. Conversely, the dual fish pistols boast the most ammo of all the weapons before requiring reloading, however, they tend to do the least amount of damage per shot.
The levels in Zeno Clash are about as linear as you can get without painting a big line on the ground and telling the player to follow from one end to the other. In fact, the boundaries used to push the player towards the end goal tend to be pretty arbitrary, from seemingly impervious fences to a desert landscape that attacks the player if he strays too far off the beaten path. Limiting the player to one distinct pathway can be counter intuitive considering the level of originality given the world design. You find yourself wanting to explore this strange and odd place, but you’re blocked in and forced along towards an inevitable goal line.
Zeno Clash also grants players the ability to play through a tower mode once you’ve completed the single player campaign. Tower mode essentially tasks the player with defeating as many opponents as possible, in the shortest amount of time. Zeno Clash supports leaderboards through Steam, so you can compare your score with that of your friends.
Zeno Clash uses the Source Engine from Valve, so many of the common effects we’ve seen from Source-based games make an appearance. While we give Valve and ACE credit for updating Source to keep it as relevant as possible, the engine still lacks the texture clarity and rendering capabilities of current engines. This is especially apparent when looking at foliage and grass, which is still rendered as a 2D plane. Textures and objects lack depth from proper shading and ground formations lack a natural flow, jutting wildly from the ground at odd angles.
Character animations are excellent however, as each NPC you encounter moves in a natural and very humanistic manner. However, I’ve always thought that the ragdoll physics in Source were a touch on the ludicrous side and this is very apparent in Zeno Clash. Kicking an enemy across the maps sends them flying all over the place, with unintentionally hilarious results.
ACE seems to have embraced the Source engines’ failings in way of designing the world as over the top and silly as possible. Let me assure you, this is a compliment in the highest regard. Everything from characters to objects is designed to play up over-exaggerated silhouettes, such as your trainer’s ridiculous single man-boob. Trees are a combination of simple shapes and rocks are almost uniformly rounded off.
The audio presentation in Zeno Clash is fairly well done, although the voice acting could’ve used a bit of work. Quite a few of the actors tend to say their lines lifelessly for the most part. Frankly, it sounds as if they are as confused as to what’s going as the player can be, as their lines can be stilted and wooden. Other audio effects are pretty well done, as each weapon is distinctive and unique. The Source engine’s excellent surround sound is put to good use here with enemy calls and attacks vividly coming from its requisite direction, giving the player plenty of time to anticipate onslaughts. Melee attacks however, sound excellent, as each landed five-knuckle sandwich delivers a gruesomely satisfying smack or thud.
Unique Game World: Zeno Clash features one of the most truly unique and creative game worlds created in a long time. Everything is fresh and different from anything we’ve seen before. Characters are visually interesting and creatures are strange and a little on the crazy side. I love seeing developers taking chances and I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen one go as far out on a limb as the ACE Team has with Zeno Clash.
Dated Graphics: While the source engine can look pretty good in some modern games, Zeno Clash tends to suffer a bit. This is mostly in part due to its lack of visual depth and simplistic object rendering. Textures just aren’t as sharp as other Source games and the 2D rendering of objects like grass and foliage are prominent enough to stand out in the mostly day lit gameplay.
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