The Bitmap Brothers were 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Unfortunately, with that style being outdated by 1994, they never managed to escape the “cyberniche” they dug for themselves with titles like The Chaos Engine.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?
In this instance, I would like to start with my personal experience.
I bought a used copy of Z not long after it came out, no way I 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 all the way, 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.
Your objective is always to bring down the enemy fortress, accomplished by guiding your robots to take control of territories via touching the flag. Some territories will have factories, which will automatically build the selected unit; you wait and send them to battle when ready. Fighting is also automatic, the robots will fire when the enemy enters their field of view, I don’t think you can even 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 you conquer the less the wait for your units to be built, this means you’ll have to carefully balance the initial attack (which is, for most maps, the essential moment) and defense of the territories you’ve conquered until your 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!
You get… nothing: it’s 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: you can’t singularly control a 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 your team nor can it be disbanded and reformed, like you would in Warcraft 2: here you 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 you click on a unit and select another 20 by accident.
The pathfinding is also one of the worst I’ve seen in an RTS from 1996: you order your units to move somewhere, but that is just the generic destination. They, on your own, decide their own path: sometimes they follow the obvious road, other times they don’t, there’s no rhyme or reason. But you can be sure that, as soon as they find an obstacle, they just start bombing everything in order to progress.
If you hated the pathfinding in Warcraft 2, Z will most likely enrage you.
Minor things, you say?
Yes, but not in a game where you’re constantly racing against the CPU to keep territories and vehicles in your property. A team left alone to walk on a path might just mean defeat.
Oh but 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 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, just for the game to be shipped on a CD-Rom. Otherwise, “the whole game could be released on two floppies!” said Montgomery, so I guess it makes sense that there’s basically no plot to speak of and the humour is juvenile and lazy.
Sometimes, after you complete a level, you’re rewarded with a cutscene with the two soldiers from the intro, that you’re not controlling in the levels anyway, travelling between the maps and bickering with each other.
After you’ve tried a map ten times and the only reward for completing it is a 40 seconds unfunny repetitive cutscene, persevering becomes kind of a moot point since you’ll be watching them over and over again.
Also the player already knows what’s in store: bigger maps, same frustrating gameplay.
Z was converted for Playstation, Saturn then recently what’s left of Bitmap Brothers “reworked” it to run on Android and iPad.
Unfortunately for PC owners, the “remaster” you will find on steam leaves much to be desired.
In keeping with the slapdash nature of the game, “remaster” means you get to play the game 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. You’ll be probably better off trying the free remake that is out there.
As we all know, 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 minute you get your hands on it.
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 your robots.
Still, as the spoiler warned you, there’s something about Z that prevents me from staying mad at it.
It’s not because I spent money on it, 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, as we have noticed, but it is 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.