Zombies have achieved the position of the antagonist du jour, appearing as the foil in so many games that you may begin to sympathize with their plight to find brains. And dual-stick shooters are just as ubiquitous when you look at the catalog of Xbox Live Arcade releases. A marriage between these two mainstays might seem like a cliche-ridden bore, but All Zombies Must Die avoids falling into the trap of predictability by injecting a load of diversity into the mix. Crafting weapons, leveling up characters, and completing quests offer an uncommon amount of depth for a top-down shooter, and drop in/drop out co-op makes teaming up with friends as painless as it is effective. From a feature standpoint, All Zombies Must Die is an unquestioned success, but the execution leaves a lot of be desired. Clunky combat and tedious repetition ensure the actual act of playing is rife with problems, and uneven difficulty spikes lead to frequent frustrations. All Zombies Must Die does a fine job of separating itself from the monster horde, but its numerous flaws sap away much of the appeal.
All Zombies Must Die knows it's a video game. The hero--a nerdy everyman named Jake--is convinced a zombie apocalypse is a sure sign that he has somehow been thrust into a video game. After all, in the real world, it doesn't make sense for a freshly killed zombie to turn into a mouth-watering, life-giving turkey, so he grasps on to the most logical conclusion. His bitter ex-girlfriend Rachel doesn't buy into his wacky theory, and there are silly back-and-forth debates between the characters that makes the story scenes enjoyable. All Zombies Must Die makes frequent reference to video game culture to draw laughs, and though not everything will elicit a smile, there are enough clever nods to keep the story from becoming stale. Between-level loading screens might urge you to tap in the Konami Code or overtly bring up Left 4 Dead, and these screens do a good job of keeping your attention during down moments.
All Zombies Must Die takes place in a small town overrun by a horde of undead freaks. There are eight different areas and four unique characters that you slowly gain access to as you get deeper into the game. The action plays out much as you would expect; you walk around with one stick, aim with the other, and tap the fire button to extinguish your foes. Zombies burst into bloody chunks when you pump them full of hot lead, but your weapons lack impact, which dulls much of the excitement. The pistol has erratic aiming even at point-blank range and the machine gun might as well be firing peanuts. Melee weapons are even more problematic. Charging up is the most effective tactic, but it's impossible to take the time to do so when you're surrounded. Crowds are an ongoing issue in All Zombies Must Die. A flood of zombies can unexpectedly rush at you, and if you're in tight confines, it's incredibly difficult to break free. Poor collision detection and obscured camera angles pile onto the problems in these moments, and because you often have to travel through narrow corridors to complete levels, it's tricky to avoid these cheap deaths.
Despite these issues, it can still be fun to exterminate zombies when you get in a good rhythm. A wide assortment of enemy types require you to confront them in different ways, and trying to circle behind an armored SWAT zombie while avoiding the clutching claws of a mutant makes for satisfying encounters. If you use the formidable shotgun and have plenty of ammunition, you can avoid many of the problems, though a teeming gang can always surround you when you least expect it. These random difficulty spikes ensure things rarely go smoothly for long in All Zombies Must Die. Falling in battle means you have to replay long stretches, and all of that wasted progress is a serious detriment.
All Zombies Must Die uses objectives to hide the fact that most of the time, you're just killing zombies. Some of your tasks are obvious, such as exterminating a set number of foes, but most require thought beyond mindless genocide. For instance, you may have to kill 10 electrified joggers, so not only do you have to find these specific enemies, but you also have to zap them up with a cattle prod beforehand. Having to complete these specific goals makes this feel almost like a small-scale massively multiplayer online game, and the random item drop rates tie into this idea. Collecting three hamburgers, for instance, requires you to kill indiscriminately until the monsters drop what you want. Initially, this quest system is so novel that it adds to the fun. Dual-stick shooters usually don't present such diverse objectives, and figuring out how to progress is enticing. But things take a turn for the worse after a few hours. Simply walking from one part of the city to another requires you to complete a handful of quests. Tangible progress is replaced by these tedious goals, thus extending the length of your adventure long after the entertainment has faded.
Although the point-and-shoot combat is often flawed, there are environmental activities to keep things feeling fresh. As in other zombie games, car alarms factor into how you vanquish your foes. If you trigger this piercing sound to stun nearby zombies, then they have a higher chance of dropping important collectibles. Low on ammo? Desperate for more health? You can get out of a potentially bad situation with a bit of ingenuity. Radiation pits turn ordinary zombies into horrible mutants; this may sound bad, but they drop brains that give you temporary immunity. Plus, if you'd rather loot than kill, levels are littered with collectibles that do everything from refresh your life and pump up your experience points to give you access to developer trading cards. None of these elements are particularly impressive on their own, but they add much needed diversity to the mindless killing, which is certainly appreciated amidst the tiresome shooting.
There are also elements outside of the combat to keep you invested. In addition to bloody chunks of decaying flesh, zombies cough up experience points when they die. When you accumulate enough, you can upgrade your character's stats to improve your health, defense, speed, and power. Ultimately, speed is the least effective of these, so if you want to avoid death, all of your characters turn out with similar skill sets. But it's still nice to see your characters grow stronger while the world crumbles around them. There's also a simple crafting system that gives you access to interesting weapons. When you imbue your firearms with various elemental powers, such as radiation or fire, you can watch the zombies react to these horrific attacks. Although some crafting is required to advance the story, most of it is optional, and it's fun to experiment to see exactly what tool of destruction you can conjure up next.
All Zombies Must Die is an ambitious entry in the top-down, dual-stick shooter genre, and most of its ideas are successful. Giving you activities to partake in outside of combat does a good job of keeping you engaged, and even the story adds to the enjoyment. But the combat is so flawed that it saps much of that goodwill. Getting overwhelmed by a crowd of zombies (with little chance to escape) is an all-too-common cause of death, and the relentless backtracking makes progress a tiresome slog. All Zombies Must Die has a lot of potential, but poor design choices ultimately hold back its bold ambition.