Z by the Bitmap Brothers is probably not one of their most well known title. The team was one of the more (in)famous British developers of the early 90s, their games instantly recognizable by the in-your-face “cyberpunk” style punctuated by aggressive techno beats. Unfortunately, with that style being outdated by 1994, they never managed to escape the “cyberniche” they dug for themselves with titles like The Chaos Engine. Nevertheless, they soldiered on through the latter half of the nineties and oughts, never again replicating the level of popularity that Xenon and Speedball 2 brought them.
Z, whose development started on Amiga but ended up being a PC exclusive, was supposed to be in direct competition with Real Time Strategy heavyweights like Warcraft 2 and Command & Conquer, but with a humouristic sci-fi vibe and a lightning fast gameplay, in line with what the Brothers were famous for. It sold okay, never managing to gather much of a following at the time, even though a sequel was released five years later, in 2001. So, was it a “hidden gem” or a mediocre attempt at reclaiming past glory? Let’s find out.
Is it me using the game or is it using me?
As an exception to the rule, I will start with my personal experience: I bought a used copy of Z not long after it came out, since I never had enough money to afford a new one. Adjusting the value for inflation, a PC boxed game back in 1997 costed as much as two newly released AAA pc games today. What a deal, huh? Hence, caveat emptor, as a kid who only had a small monthly allowance I always tried to cover all possible bases before buying. So, I read the reviews and played the demo, which only showed the first level.
Since my favourite RTS at the time was Warcraft 2, mainly because of the little touches of humour, Z seemed to be right up my alley: not only it had funny cutscenes but played wildly different from Red Alert which, at the time, I openly hated, for some reason that I can’t remember. What I hadn’t forseen is that by playing the one level demo I had basically seen almost everything the game had to offer, the twenty or so levels that followed were just more of the same.
Here’s a spoiler for you: despite everything I’m going to tell you, I don’t really regret blowing my monthly allowance on Z, even though I never even got beyond the sixth level. We’ll get back to this later.
Now, let’s see how Z works.
The simpler the design, the more crucial it becomes
Z is RTS distilled down to its purest form: there’s no building, no ammassing resources, little planning involved. The player’s objective is always to bring down the enemy fortress, accomplished by guiding the red robots to take control of territories via touching the flag. Some territories will have factories, which will automatically build the selected unit; after waiting for the unit to be built, it is possible to send them to battle. Fighting is also automatic, the robots will fire when the enemy enters their field of view, I don’t think it is even possible to order them to stop.
That’s really all there is to Z, not much ingenuity: wait for the factories to finish building and send the robots to battle.
Of course, the more territories one conquers the less the wait for the units to be built, this means the player will have to carefully balance the initial attack (which is, for most maps, the essential moment) and defense of the territories conquered until the army is strong enough. The only variable to this is represented by the empty vehicles found in the levels, that may somewhat offset the player’s initial disvantage.
Every 2 or 3 maps, the game introduces some new units or elements, but the basic gameplay design idea never changes. It would have been interesting to see some twists, a 3/4 player game with the CPU, at least some semblance of plot, a new enemy every 4-5 levels… something! There is nothing: always the same 1-vs-1 match.
Can't find your own path? Bomb everything
Frankly, I’m not one to hate on simple ideas if the design is especially well done. Unfortunately, there is a single bad design idea which destroys everything: it is not possible to control a single unit.
The player is always controlling a team, which again would be fine, except that the Bitmaps didn’t really make the game “team friendly”. There is no way to make a precise selection of the units in a team nor can it be disbanded and reformed, like one would in Warcraft 2: drag a square around the desired units and hope for the best. One can never be sure of who exactly is in the group you have selected; sometimes clicking on a unit means selecting another 20 by accident.
The pathfinding is also one of the worst I’ve seen in an RTS from 1996: ordering the units to move somewhere just means giving them a generic destination. Then, they automatically decide which path to take: sometimes they follow the obvious road, other times they don’t, there’s no rhyme or reason. But one can be sure that, as soon as they find an obstacle, they just start bombing everything in order to progress.
While these could be considered minor annoyances, let us not forget the bigger picture. Z is a game where one is constantly racing against the CPU to keep territories and vehicles in one’s property. A team left alone to walk on a path, while the player is busy tending to other tasks, might just mean they will get annihilated in seconds.
One day we'll laugh about this!
Going back to the initial premise, I mentioned the humour and the funny cutscenes. Playing it in 2020, the intro movie is still kinda amusing even with its juvenile 90s humour: the two robots act like they’re in a deleted scene from American Pie, waking up drunk and having to obey General Zod’ strict orders.
Every other sequence is – unfortunately – much less funny, ending up being downright repetitive. In a recent interview, Mike Montgomery, designer, said the humour and cutscenes were added at a later stage, in order for the game to “make sense” to come out on a CD-Rom. Otherwise, “the whole game could be released on two floppies!” said Montgomery, so I guess that is the reason there is basically no plot to speak of and the humour is juvenile and pretty lazy.
Sometimes, after completing a level, the player is rewarded with a cutscene with the two soldiers from the intro – nowhere to be found in the levels anyway – travelling between the maps and bickering with each other. After trying a map ten times and having as the only reward for completing it, a 40 seconds unfunny repetitive cutscene, persevering becomes kind of a moot point. Especially, because the player already knows what’s in store: bigger maps, same frustrating gameplay.
Z was converted for Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn; recently, what’s left of the Bitmap Brothers “reworked” it to run on Android and iPad. Unfortunately for PC owners, the “remaster” found on Steam leaves much to be desired. In keeping with the slapdash nature of the game, “remaster” means just that the game now is forced to run at higher resolutions, aaaaaand… that’s it. The cutscenes are of the same quality (apparently the source was lost), the gameplay is intact, every problem is still there. One would be probably better off trying the free remake that is out there.
Distilling a whole genre down to its core components may sometimes be the key to success, but the resulting game must be slickly designed, the controls fluid and, above all, it must be fun from the get-go.
Z, while fun in short bursts and with its juvenile humour, becomes a slog in the long run, having to constantly battle the imprecise unit controls and the frustration caused by the poor AI of the robots. Still, as mentioned a couple of paragraphs above, there’s something about Z that prevents me from staying mad at it. It’s not because I spent money on it, cause I sure am still angry about other purchases (Dreams to Reality, your day shall come!), maybe nostalgia gets the better of me. There’s something honest about its slapdash juvenile humour and lackadaisical attempt at frenetic RTS gameplay. It shows its heart as a product of people that began their career in the early 90s, when games were far from perfect but still very straightforward and open hearted.
It is not a particularly memorable game, but one I often revisit with a half hearted smile. I sure wish I could find it more fun than I usually do, or that I could bring myself to complete it but… alas, it is not apparently going to happen anytime soon. Z is a nostalgia capsule that is bound to bring some kind of joy for anyone that played Pc games in the 90s back then, it sure won’t win any new fans since it has badly aged both in humour and design.
The sequel? Well, that’s a story for another day.