Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Death Penalty

Here we are, once again, in the Halloween season, and as has become custom I've caved and stuck to the general pattern that every other writer on the Internet has followed and tracked down a crappy Halloween-themed game to review. It seems to me that, more often than not, my Halloween pick has tended to have something to do with zombies. I'm not entirely sure why - perhaps it's the popularity of zombie movies and my own fondness for the genre that makes me gravitate towards them so much. There's also the fact that most zombie games tend to be violent shoot-'em-ups that allow the player to pile up huge numbers of bullet-riddled, undead corpses, which I for one can attest is quite cathartic after a long day.

Unfortunately, like so many zombie films, zombie games are an incredibly mixed bag. For every fun-filled romp like Zombie Hooker Nightmare, we get a dull and frustrating title like the subject of this week's review, Death Penalty. Taking its cues from the superior Zombie Baseball, which had you decapitating ghouls by smacking them with baseballs, Death Penalty goes for an English variation. You take on the role of a soccer player who has arrived to find the opposing team have succumbed to the zombie plague. As your team mate throws you balls from the sideline you try to land a well-placed volley into the faces of the deranged cannibals. The game is nice enough to let you play in your favourite team's colours, so I went with my childhood favourites Blackburn Rovers, figuring that if they got devoured no one would miss them.

The first level is a perfectly fine introduction to the finer points of play. Using the mouse you can move the player back and forth, and a click of the left mouse button will have him kick with all of his might. The trick is to time your kicks just right to get the maximum force behind the soccer ball, sending it across the pitch and into your undead opposition. And hey - while the game may have other faults, the controls work. Hitting the zombies won't really be much of a problem, and you can get a second kick of the ball if it bounces back towards you, effectively doubling the damage. You also have the ability, once per level, to kick a zombie in the balls and put it down permanently. I'm pretty sure that's a red card offence, but I guess the referee has more important things to worry about, like trying to find his missing liver.

So, I don't have anything bad to say about the actual gameplay. Once you've successfully completed a level, you get the opportunity to improve one of your stats, either kicking power or the speed with which your team mate throws in the balls. And as the game progresses you'll get new types of ball that will help you kill zombies faster. But it's from the second level onwards that things get a bit iffy.

At first impressions, it looks no worse than before. Naturally, there are more zombies, including one or two who climb out of the ground (what they were doing there in the first place, it's hard to say, but as far as I know the Stadium of Light isn't built on an Indian burial ground.) But really, it shouldn't be a huge problem - just make sure every shot counts and use the metal-plated ball for maximum damage. No, it shouldn't be that much harder than level one. And yet, it is - much harder, to be exact.

I don't think the zombies are moving any faster, nor are they any stronger. Indeed, I should have the advantage here, what with my upgrades. So how come I kept getting eaten again and again by the zombies? Well, the first reason could be because the stat upgrades are of little benefit. I tried increasing the speed of throw-ins - no luck. I tried upgrading the power of my kicks - same result. The metal ball certainly did a better job than the original leather one, but other than that I saw no significant change in skill between levels.

Another problem might have been the sheer idiocy of my team mate. Although I could move my character more than halfway across the game screen, the other guy only threw balls to the same spot. So if I can't control where the balls will be thrown, and if the guy throwing them only ever picks the same spot, what's the point of moving around? Sure, I guess it gives me a chance to kick the ball again, should it roll back to me, but other than that there's no real reason.

I wouldn't mind except, even when I'm trapped at the very edge of the screen and a zombie is bearing down on me, that son of a bitch still throws the ball to the same damn spot. What am I supposed to do, weave around the zombie? This isn't the FA Cup final - I don't really have that option!

I probably wouldn't get so annoyed about dying so often if there was some kind of save feature. Considering the overwhelming likelihood of death, having the chance to save the game or including a lives system would have been a godsend. Naturally, the developers of Death Penalty don't bother. So I was trapped in a vicious cycle, playing my way through the piss easy first level only to get chewed up (literally and figuratively) in the second. And if you do happen to get through level two, things don't get any better. From zombies wearing road cones over their heads to a weird combination of a soccer player and the Black Knight, you're not just thrown into the deep end - someone forces your head under the water and keeps it there. And of course, dying only means you're sent all the way back to square one.

I know for a fact that it is possible to make a decent game like this, and I know that there are plenty of zombie titles that entertain gamers the world over. But, once again, I have stumbled upon a putrid pile of rotting flesh, the electronic abomination that is Death Penalty. There's no fun, no scares, and no way I'll be going back to this game any time soon.

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