Act: Zap! [by Garage Games]
Release Date: December 2004
Developer: Garage Games
System Requirements: Windows NT/Me/2000/XP (Pentium II 400, 64MB RAM,
OpenGL/DirectX8), Mac OS X, (G4 - 64 MB RAM, OpenGL), Linux (Pentium 400, 128MB
Players: Multiplayer only
Zap! is a new game from Mark Frohnmayer, the lead programmer of Tribes and Tribes 2. These were innovative games that completely redefined multiplayer team-based combat, introducing special roles for each team member and intricate strategies leading your team to victory by cooperation. While the reason he worked on such a low-profile project after the immense success of the Tribes series remains a relative mystery, the design goals are very straightforward: bringing strategic multiplayer gameplay to a simple, yet fun, 2D retro arcade game.
There are a bunch of different game modes in Zap! - from basic Capture the flag or Zapmatch, which play almost exactly like CTF and Deathmatch do in multiplayer FPS games, to modes with more elaborate rules and goals like Soccer, Zone control, Retrieve, Hunters or Rabbit. Some of them, like Soccer, use ball-shaped interactive game elements to create a mini-game of sorts where the basic gameplay is overshadowed by the specifics of the game mode. The others are mostly variations of the CTF theme, with zones you must capture by carrying a flag into it, flags you must bring back to your home base or, in the case of the Rabbit mode, using a single flag as a token you must hold while blasting other players to score points.
Your ship, even though you can't do anything to change its appearance, has a fully customizable weapon loadout consisting of 3 main weapons and 2 auxiliary modules which essentially function like special skills, allowing you to perform various specialized tasks. Both weapons and modules use the same energy bar, draining it at various rates depending on their power and complexity, forcing you to use the more powerful ones very sparingly to prevent yourself from getting into trouble and, since your ship can only be reconfigured at special resupply areas or when it respawns, you are encouraged to concentrate on a single team-supporting role at a time.
As the default weapon, the Phaser has pretty decent overall stats, having a minimal energy cost and a fast firing rate, but it doesn’t have much power. The Bouncer, as its name implies, fires projectiles that bounce off walls, the Triple fires three shots at the same time, covering a wide cone in front of your ship, and the Burst launches a powerful exploding missile. You can also plant Mines in strategic spots, preventing your opponents from reaching important level areas.
The modules, as opposed to weapons, don't have any offensive powers, but allow you to enhance your ship according to your preferred playing style. If you like knowing exactly where your opponents are so you can close in on them, there is the Sensor module which allows you to zoom out the map, seeing a much larger portion of the playing field. On the other hand, if stealth is your priority, you can turn your ship invisible with the Cloak module, sneaking behind enemy lines and performing a tactical strike or stealing their flag when they least suspect it. For those players feeling more comfortable in supportive roles, there is the Repair module, turning you into a "field medic" by enabling you to repair yourself as well as your nearby teammates. More generic modules include the Shield, which protects your ship from enemy bullets, and the Boost module, which allows you to temporarily increase your speed for a quick getaway or, perhaps, a fast burst towards the enemy flag.
Such detailed gameplay modes may seem a bit out of place in a top-down spaceship shooter with simplistic vector graphics but, since the multiplayer support is very good due to the use of the Torque Network Library (I managed to host a server with 99999 maximum players allowed, so it seems that there is no limit on the number of players per server), and the game plays really fast and smooth, it should be a lot of fun.
Even though the game actually boasts its lack of graphics with a rather pretentious "Don't let graphics get in the way of your gameplay" slogan, Zap! just doesn't look like a fully finished game. Visually, the game pretty much resembles your typical high school programming class project - the graphics serve only as the most rudimentary representation of the game objects, without much personality or style.
This might be just my personal preference, but I'd be much happier with the retro gimmick if the Zap! team didn't go so far into the past in their search for inspiration. They could have hired a decent sprite artist who could pull off a 90’s spaceship shooter style. The vector graphics look fine, though the hitpoint bar would have been better located on the edge of the screen where the energy bar is. This bar is situated right in the middle of your ship and it is often very hard to keep track of it when you're moving around.
Zap. Pling. Crash. Bonk. That's about it. All the sounds are basically there just to let you know that you have fired a shot, hit a wall or activated your shield. Some of the sound effects are a little annoying and would be much more enjoyable if they were a bit more subdued, but they still do a fair job in replicating generic retro arcade game audio. Unfortunately, there is no background music at all and, for a fast-paced game like this, a soundtrack with a few energetic tunes would have been very welcome as an enhancement to the gameplay.
Regardless of the level type you choose, most of the gameplay elements will be the same with slight variations in the strategies and, of course, different team goals. You will steal flags, dodge turret bullets, disable force fields and battle your enemies using a wide array of weapons and tactics. The weapons are explained in a neat-looking series of help screens, the tactics are left for you to figure out for yourself.
When I first started the game, I expected it to be almost unplayable due to a lot of inertia, given that the top-down view and the triangular design of your spaceship suggested a heavy Asteroids influence. Much to my surprise, the inertia just wasn't there. Your ship stops as soon as you stop pressing the directional buttons, making the controls much more responsive and appealing to people like me who can't survive more than half a minute in a game with Asteroids-like physics.
Although a gamepad is officially recommended, a keyboard/mouse control combination works very nicely too, with the only possible issue being the lack of a customizable keymap - something that is promised to be "fixed" in the next big Zap! publish. The controls may take some time to get used to at first since your ship can move in a different direction than it's firing in, but as soon as you get the hang of it, it's pretty easy to perform even the most complicated maneuvers.
The main selling point of Zap! is its gameplay. While marketing a multiplayer-only game with no graphical bells and whistles is a very ambitious idea, how well it will catch on is another matter. You could, for example, get a game like Tribes in a bargain bin for the same price as Zap!, and you’ll have a better chance of finding friends to play it with you. Mostly though, I just don't have the feeling that this game was really ready for commercial distribution.
Zap!'s game designers would like us to think that this multiplayer team-focused cooperative gameplay is a very new and innovative concept, but it's not really the basic concept that's new - it has already been seen in first person shooters. What's different is its application to a top-down 2D spaceship game. The concept translates fairly well to Zap!'s uncommon genre, although the multiplayer strategies still don't stray too far from the ones developed in Tribes. The visuals are gone and the game is less than 1MB in size, but the core elements still remain, enabling the player to focus exclusively on the gameplay.
Some old classics, like Scorched Earth, are truly party games - you can invite people to your place and have a blast playing them. One of the great features in Zap! is the integrated voicechat, which allows you to socialize while you play, though it is often with people you don't know. The basic gameplay concept sounds fun, but the most important ingredient in this type of game is the people you are playing with. The AI bots in Zap! have a tendency to either make suicidal runs at you or get stuck in map corners. Zap! doesn’t have a huge playerbase, so it can be difficult to find someone to play with, though you can take advantage of Zap!'s LAN capabilities and invite your friends to a LAN party. It would be nice if there were a split-screen option that would allow the game to be played by more than one person on the same computer.
The omission of eye candy is a pretty bold statement - one that, I'm afraid, might not attract as many gamers as it should, no matter how good the other facets of the game might be. Make no mistake about it, though - they are good, and Zap! has very solid foundations. The gameplay depth looks really promising and it would be a real shame if something much greater didn't evolve from what Zap! is offering today.
There is a distinct possibility that the game has been released much too early, with only the gameplay-related systems truly done but, like many indie games, Zap! is in state of constant development, evident from both the official forums and the Zap development blog. This shows that the game has, over time, been improved, and that there are many improvements still on the way so, hopefully, Zap! will eventually get the most important feature of a multiplayer-only game - a bigger player base.
Added: May 13th 2005
Reviewer: Damjan Flegar
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