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Zeno Clash Review

By Jeff Buckland, 4/28/2009

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Played on:

PC

For years now, we've heard Valve Software talk about the benefits of bringing the Steam platform and the Source engine to independent developers, allowing them to fully integrate the latest features they've implemented - like achievements, modding capabilities, and community integration - into upcoming independent games. So far, we've seen this mostly materialize in third-party Source engine mods, but now we're seeing it in actual fully-fledged games. Zeno Clash is one such example - this Source-engine first person action game from ACE Team Software. In it, you'll play as an outcast human on an alien world who has to fight his way to freedom after committing a pretty nasty deed in his hometown of Halstedom.

The game is played entirely from the first-person perspective (except for cutscenes), and you'll use your fists, hand-held melee weapons, and makeshift firearms in battles with multiple enemies in mixed brawls and firefights. But the thing that stands out the most is the game's bizarre setting and characters, which resemble some kind of mix of primitive tribal society, Spore-looking landscapes, and a stilted dialect that borders on the ridiculous and downright goofy at times.


The atmosphere ACE has designed here is almost too weird - Zeno Clash doesn't really even start to develop its gaunt, often boring main character Ghat until you're hours in, and the other characters aren't exactly compelling, either. It seems that the developers intended for the protagonist's female companion, Deadra to be attractive, but it doesn't exactly work. It probably has something to do with that hair of hers.

Luckily, the game's biggest feature - hand-to-hand melee combat - is generally pretty satisfying and fun to use, even if there are firearms often kicking around nearby. You can block, evade, employ quick combos or two different types of power attacks, sprint and do this rather awkward running elbow move, and perform some basic grapples and throws. Unfortunately you can't jump, which takes aerial attacks out of the picture altogether. I know that some developers specifically want their characters not to have a bunch of acrobatic kung fu moves, but in a lot of ways the history of beat-em-up games, first person or not, almost makes jumping attacks compulsory for a fun experience. Hell, even F.E.A.R. had them.


The shooting mechanics in Zeno Clash are a little strange, and the weapons you use look even weirder. While there are city areas in the game, the characters and most of the settings represent a rural tribal society that is very, very primitive. While the bone- and feather-covered akimbo pistols, dual-firing crossbows, and rudimentary rifles do show us an interesting new take on how to fit some fairly standard-behaving guns into yet another really strange world, maybe it wasn't the best of ideas. That's especially obvious once you figure out that tossing the guns aside and using your fists is just as effective, if not more so, than going armed - unless, of course, you've got a specific ranged fight on your hands.

Throughout the game you'll see touches of strangeness akin to games like Giants: Citizen Kabuto or Psychonauts or even a Guillermo del Toro film, but maybe with not quite that high level of artistry. There are bouts of humor in here as well, like the parachuting suicide bomber squirrels that one high-up boss tosses down on you. I admit that the game's ridiculous and weird dialog - and some of the made-up words that are used - was something I really hated at first, but it wouldn't make much sense for characters inhabiting a world like this to talk like Wall Street bankers, either. Somewhere in there is a middle ground, though, and wherever it is, Zeno Clash almost surely missed the mark.


With the use of Valve's Source and Steam technology, Zeno Clash is built entirely on a tried-and-true platform that works on a wide range of PCs with minimal hassle. Steam integration and achievements allow ACE Team to introduce some new challenges to the game (beyond the actual Challenge mode that's also included) that will test players' skill a little more thoroughly than the regular campaign will. And the developers aren't done, either: an SDK for mod-making, future downloadable content, and a demo for the game are on the way. All of these features together make for post-release support that PC gamers really want (well, assuming the DLC is either free or cheap). In the past, this stuff often required a ton of effort on the part of major publishers to do, but now Valve's bringing all of those features and tech to more game developers. Whether you wind up liking Zeno Clash or not, this kind of effort on the part of Valve and ACE Team should make PC gamers happy.

The sense of heft behind Ghat's fists in Zeno Clash is probably the game's biggest draw, even if the game's striking visuals get you interested first. While this strange world and its even stranger inhabitants might serve to distract you from the game's solid fighting action, it eventually does come around and remind you, time and time again, how much fun it is to smash someone in the face in the midst of a five-person brawl. Much of Zeno Clash simply doesn't quite work for me, and overall the experience and story aren't really too satisfying, but the action holds it together just well enough to get you through to the end. The game might not be worth the purchase for those that aren't terribly interested in first-person melee combat, but for anyone that's looking for that - or at the very least an imaginative, slightly crazy game world to beat people up in - then this is a fine choice to make. Zeno Clash is available on Steam or Direct2Drive for around $20.

Overall: 79%

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