Ah zombies. They’re one of the few enemies that no one has any problem slaughtering in large numbers. If the Red Dawn remake had zombies instead of Chinese or North Korean villains no one would have had a problem with it. A properly done zombie game can give you hours of satisfying gory fun like Left 4 Dead, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare DLC and the classic Sega Genesis Zombies Ate My Neighbors. A badly done zombie game can be a disaster like the notoriously janky Resident Evil 6 that had such poor controls it was the subject of a youtube parody series. While Earn to Die won’t motivate anyone to make a parody series because it has a solid concept and satisfying graphics, it unfortunately falls short when it comes to its un-engaging gameplay and controls.
The plot is the usual zombie apocalypse trope, the undead have risen and human civilization has collapsed. You’re a younger Clint Eastwood look-alike who’s trapped in the desert surrounded by swarms of zombies in New Hope, Texas. Your goal is to drive to a military airbase in Oregon where a helicopter is waiting to evacuate you.
The gameplay is a traditional 2-D side-scroller. You have access to a variety of vehicles that you can use to get to your destination including a run-down rusted buggy, a pickup truck, a van, a race car, a Humvee, a school bus and a big armored military truck. You need to use these vehicles to cut your way through swaths of zombies as you drive from checkpoint to checkpoint to eventually reach the helicopter. In the beginning your resources are limited; you just have the little buggy, no money and little fuel so you won’t make it far into the level. It’s a little off-putting at first to come to a dead stop a fraction through the level. You get awarded different amounts of money based on how far along the level you get.
Each vehicle can be upgraded to improve your zombie crushing ability. You can retrofit your vehicle with machine guns, whirring chainsaws, expanded fuel tanks, better engines and powerful boosters. These upgrades will help you get further in each level until finally you reach the checkpoint (It remains a mystery who you’re paying for upgrades if civilization has collapsed). Each level is about the same length and has various obstacles like pits, ramps, boxes, explosive barrels and, of course, zombies.
The zombies come in all shapes and sizes. You have walkers that stagger around and stare at your approaching car with a glazed look until you smash into them and send them flying through the air. You have bigger more hearty zombies that are tougher to knock down and some of them look like they have armor. Finally, you have the running zombies who chase after your car and cling onto it, at first I found this exciting trying to dodge and shake them off my car. It wasn’t so scary when I realized their only purpose seems to be to slow your car down and make you burn more fuel rather than eat your brains. Surprisingly, in what seems like a major oversight by the game designers, there are no upgrades like oil slicks, flamethrowers or mines that can keep the clingers off.
Regardless the game seems promising at first glance. The graphics are crisp and the gore is appealing. The game has a good physics engine so it’s satisfying to see your car smash through a pile of zombies sending them cartwheeling through the air or rip them into bloody chunks with a chainsaw. The background is dull desert scenery that transitions to grassland with some trees as you get closer to Oregon. The music is nothing special. It has a rock feel to it but never changes throughout the game.
Earn to Die isn’t hardcore at all despite the promising setting and vehicles. In fact it’s so easy that I beat the entire thing while cooking dinner (chicken alfredo pasta for the inquiring minds). I found myself bored after the first two levels. Each level comes down to mashing the acceleration button down until your vehicle runs out of fuel. Then you use the in-game money you’ve accumulated to buy further upgrades that will finally get you over the finish line. Aside from the acceleration there’s a boost button for the thrusters so in some areas timing it properly can help get you further. There are two other buttons that let you tilt the car in a particular direction but I never used them which didn’t hinder me at all.
Ultimately the game really comes down to buying upgrades and new vehicles. It’s designed to be addictive by making it impossible for your starting car to be good enough to take you to the end of each level. You’re required to continually buy new cars and new upgrades until you get to the armored military truck. You do get a small amount of pleasure in watching your incremental progress upon each new upgrade but that ends once you’ve maxed everything out.
Replayability is nil. There are too few levels, the gameplay is mindless and the vehicles are too few. Once you’ve maxed out the upgrades of all your vehicles you inevitably win without any challenge. At $1.19 there is too little content for a paid game. It feels like a free beta rather than a full release. The gameplay mechanics need to be reworked by involving the player more, incorporating skill and timing. New upgrades, vehicles and levels also need to be added. Earn to Die has the potential to be a good zombie game, it just needs a lot more work.