In the freemium first-person shooter Blood Zombies, you are a military officer fighting your way through undead hordes in rescue and survival situations, grabbing the gold and cash necessary to match the power of your guns and armor to the growing zombie population. That’s right — even in a world where the living are trapped together in refugee camps and the corroded remnants of civilization provide the backdrop for the undead onslaught, our capitalist economy is somehow alive and well. Cash is king in War Studio’s Blood Zombies, and the swiftly increasing difficulty of earning enough in-game money to survive means that you’ll definitely wind up spending real world funds for the firepower to survive.
From a bird’s eye view of a devastated city, arrows pop up indicating the aforementioned rescue or survival scenarios. Rescue missions require you to kill a certain number of zombies, and in survival missions you simply have to stay alive long enough to beat the clock as you shoot your way through waves of zombies. You stand your ground in a variety of post-apocalyptic street scenes, swipe on the left side of the screen to pivot and aim, and tap your gun on the lower right-hand side to fire at , and more. Overlaid mini-menus give you access to grenades and medikits, and along the screen edges there are bars that indicate your health level, the integrity of your armor, and whether your gun is overheating. The controls respond nicely and in spite of all the information present, the screen remains relatively uncluttered, leaving a clear view of the handsomely rendered junkyards and highways that are home to the walking dead.
You gain experience points with each mission you accept (more if you succeed, of course), and once you have accumulated enough points, the boss fight option appears. Once you have defeated the boss (a zombie colossus that turns red when vulnerable, and takes various forms from a strapping M. Bison-esque gunman to a massive vampire bat), you move up a level. However, your character doesn’t level up – only the difficulty does, and the more skillfully you play through levels, the more quickly the game will become almost unplayably tough. The survival missions get longer, the waves of dead get denser, and the individual ghouls themselves get stronger. The zombies you are accustomed to appear in color coded variations: yellow ones are slow but tough, green ones are weak but fast, purple ones will turn red and sprint at you when you draw first blood. The only way to close the gap between your strength and your increasingly threatening environment is, as with all freemium games, to collect as much coin as possible.
You earn game money for completing missions, achieving daily goals such as killing certain numbers of zombies or maxing out the upgrade level of a weapon, and getting headshots on zombies. . (The music itself, a clunky, emotionally neutral funk number, recommends that you kill the volume and choose your own soundtrack.) As with most item-based character development systems, you have to buy and upgrade weapons from the Desert Eagle to the AK47, armor upgrades and ammunition, and although you can pick up randomly generated medikits, grenades and power-ups as you play, you may wish to fortify your reserves by buying them instead. Power-ups can increase the money and experience points you earn, your ammo’s damage, and your gun’s fire rate or fatality rate.
The importance of stocking up on power-ups is a problem, because the rate at which you make money doesn’t keep pace with your escalating monetary needs. In this libertarian wet dream where guns and gold are the whole of the law, you don’t just trade precious metals for heavy artillery; you have to buy the ability to use more than one power-up at a time, buy the ability to use more than one gun at a time, pay to repair your armor any time it gets damaged, and pay to cool off your guns which overheat every time you use them. As the difficulty level increases, special items and power-ups become indispensable, especially in the case of boss fights. This usually means you have to slog through a death grind to save up enough cash to meet your needs; however, the armor repair and overheating factors mean that you effectively have to pay to play each mission. It won’t be long at all before you have to resort to downloading sponsored apps to get free gold.
And therein lies the true horror of Blood Zombies. The game’s incessant ploys for cash literally and figuratively wrench the player out of the game, Constant ads overlay every screen of the menu system: the item store, the map view, as well as the pop up that appears when you end a mission. The nail-biting anxiety of mowing down zombies gives way to the fear of accidentally clicking through to the Play Store; the agony of steadying your thumbs lest you click on an ad that will take you out of the game; and the anguish of wondering if the program is just lagging or if your frantic back button-pushing has finally crashed the app all combine to create a singular anxiety that is neither fun nor amusing.
There is nothing new here regarding gaming’s relationship to real and virtual money. What is really perverse about games in the Blood Zombies vein, though, is the absence of motivation for the gamer. Leveling up only makes the game more difficult, a more difficult game requires more expensive armor, more expensive armor is more expensive to repair, keeping zombies off your armor requires more expensive guns, more expensive guns need expensive ammo…and on it goes into an ever-darkening spiral of desperation and poverty which can only get worse as you play. Blowing the heads off brain eaters is a fine time-killing occupation, but the over reliance of Blood Zombies on the player’s paycheck may just remind gamers to get back to work.
Not for our money.
In spite of satisfactory gameplay, immersion in the mindless fun of killing zombies is interrupted by an insidious network of greedy developer ploys that you can’t live with and can’t shoot.