It's a fair bet that we'll all be in a considerable amount of danger when the zombie apocalypse comes. But Burn Zombie Burn, the new downloadable action game for the PlayStation 3, suggests that mobs of deadly zombies aren't so dangerous that you can't have some fun at their expense. The game's scoring system uses a terrific risk-vs.-reward mechanic that makes Burn Zombie Burn stand out from the slew of top-down shooters on the market, even if some control issues and lack of variety hold it back it from true greatness.
As Bruce, a cocky combination of Bruce Campbell and Elvis Presley, you take part in a series of standoffs in relatively small, enclosed spaces against unending hordes of undead. Your goal is simple: to stay alive as long as possible and earn as many points as you can. When they first appear, zombies are typically of the aimless, shambling variety. They're easy pickings, but they're also worth hardly any points. The key to scoring big is to set as many zombies on fire as possible, because each burning zombie contributes to your current score multiplier. But a zombie on fire is a zombie with a purpose: to pursue and kill you. This creates a delicate balancing act. You'll want to maximize your multiplier while keeping the deadly throngs of flaming zombies manageable and avoidable. It's tricky and compelling.
Contributing to the complexity and the challenge is the variety of zombie types you'll encounter. You'll face several varieties in addition to run-of-the-mill shambling corpses, including dancing zombies in tutus, zombies who will charge right at you--easily identified by their oversized football helmets--and exploding zombies, who have an infuriating tendency to take out the flaming zombies pursuing you and wipe out your score multiplier. This all adds up to create an experience that looks very simple on the surface but actually requires you to take a variety of things into account at any given moment.
Of course, every zombie hunter worth his salt has a number of effective tools at his disposal, and Bruce is no exception. In addition to the comically snub-nosed pistol that you always have available, a good variety of weapons will spawn during the zombie onslaught, from typical shotguns and Uzis, to a selection of more unusual contraptions. There's a dance gun, for instance, that compels the undead to get their groove on, "Thriller"-style, making them easy to avoid or kill. There's also the clever brain gun, which fires brains that the zombies are helplessly drawn toward. Bruce is also handy with a chainsaw, and seeing zombies sent hurtling through the air after being hit with a powerful swing from a baseball bat is satisfying. But the greatest tool in the war against zombies is TNT, which, when used skillfully, can not only take out huge numbers of zombies at once, but can also rake in the points like nothing else. Like the variety of zombies, the selection of weapons adds another element of complexity and strategy to the action, because you'll want to seek out and use the most effective weapon for the moment.
As good as all this is, Burn Zombie Burn is a bit lacking. There are only six relatively small levels, and you'll want to familiarize yourself with the geometry of each one to avoid being cornered. Yet while each has a unique helpful event that you can trigger by pushing a big red button after certain conditions are met, the differences between them aren't substantial enough to significantly affect the gameplay. The same can be said of the three basic game modes on each level. In addition to the standard Freeplay mode where you play until you run out of lives, there's a mode where you must also worry about protecting Bruce's girlfriend (and his car) and a timed mode where you'll need to grab clock pickups to keep the action going, but these are only minor variations on the core game. A selection of one-off challenge scenarios, which do things like arm you with an exploding zombie head or put you in a room with a big zombie zapper in the middle, require you to approach the action differently and are more interesting as a result.
The controls are also needlessly complicated. You move Bruce with the left thumbstick and fire with the X button or R1, using L1 to lock on to nearby enemies and L2 to strafe. You can try to point Bruce in a certain direction with the right stick if you're holding L1 (the game calls this aim assist), but he won't always listen--presumably because he knows better than you that his current weapon can't reach the zombies in that direction. The lack of a standard dual-stick control scheme is conspicuous, and Bruce's tendency to decide for himself what to lock on to makes it difficult at times to pinpoint your intended target, like that exploder that's about to take dozens of flaming zombies with him. The local split-screen two-player game modes--a cooperative one in which both players share a multiplier and a score, and a competitive one in which they don't--are enjoyable, but it's disappointing that there's no online multiplayer available.
The visuals are simple but are humorous and enjoyable. The six environments are charmingly cartoonish renditions of typical zombie movie locations, such as a drive-in movie theater and a secret laboratory, and Bruce's unabashed enthusiasm for mowing down legions of the undead is infectious. Particularly great is the look of wild-eyed glee on his face when he holds up a lawnmower to slice zombies to bits. The music is generic and unremarkable, but the sounds of mindless droning zombie voices and weapon fire fit well with the action, and Bruce's small selection of comments fit the character well. He embraces his role as a cliche action hero so completely that he's not even afraid to make a wisecrack about killing zombies and chewing bubblegum.
It's worth noting that Burn Zombie Burn presents a pretty stiff challenge. Even earning bronze medals on some levels will take some players a good deal of practice, so the game is better suited for those who relish a tough climb up the leaderboards. At 10 bucks, the game doesn't feel totally fleshed out, but the unique scoring system can make it hard to put down, compelling you to take bigger and bigger risks in an effort to improve your scores.