The most interesting Simple 2000 titles all start with a great concept. Volume 95, The Zombie vs. Ambulance (say that title to yourself, out loud), has that in spades, but is a concept enough to carry a game?
You control the last doctor alive in a city that’s been overrun by zombies. Ignoring the pleas of the other remaining hospital staff, the main character takes it upon himself to rescue every citizen that has survived the zombie apocalypse, using the last ambulance left in the hospital’s garage. Zombies roam the city’s streets and are spawned from thin air at a steady pace, menacing your vehicle and its passengers. What’s the solution to the problem? Running the undead over at full speed, of course. Guts and gore go flying everywhere with a successful hit, and multiple successive kills fill up the requisite combo meter. High combos add bonus time to the timer that limits the amount of time the player has before the hospital is overrun and it’s game over.
At its core, the game takes most from Crazy Taxi and Carmageddon. The game gives the player free run of the city, with access to outlying areas cut off initally by thick gates. The city exists in a perpetual night of the living dead, and spooky, minimal ambient music never really gets in the way – nor stands out too much. The areas outside the urban center of the city include a downtown area surrounded by a canal, a thickly-forested area with lakeside cabins, and a rocky desert. Each survivor’s location is marked by a bright circle of light, and of course, the all easily dodge out of the way of your oncoming ambulance if you happen to get overzealous. When survivors are rescued, they must be shuttled back to the hospital as quickly as possible, as each has been infected with the zombie virus and will undergo a transformation – causing them to turn on you – if they’re not treated. Some individuals go sour sooner than others, too, so sometimes a tough decision might be necessary on a particularly long trip.
Rescued citizens populate the hospital’s parking garage bit by bit. Mechanics develop new parts for your ambulance and larger vehicles for you to drive. A policeman huddles in a corner, paralyzed with fear. Civilians express their fear and anger, and politicians implore you to rescue more of their class, so (of course) decisions can be made and order can be restored.
This is one of the nicer-looking Simple 2000 games out there, approaching – or matching – the look of a well-crafted Dreamcast game. It runs at a solid thirty frames per second and generally lacks the aliasing that usually plagues D3 releases. Humans and zombies alike are well-modelled, if workmanlike. There’s little variety in how the zombies are portrayed, though admittedly, this is part of what makes budget games based around them so relatively easy to produce. The view distance is short, and the player might end up relying more on the radar map for navigation than what’s onscreen when a turbo boost is used, but buildings and other landscape features are effectively portrayed.
There’s a boss for each section of the game, and while they can sometimes be interesting (like the wall-climbing, guerilla-soldier zombie), beating them really just involves having your ambulance decked out in its most lethal parts and running into the boss over and over.
The game isn’t without its charms. Ambulances may be rather deliberate and clumsy vehicles, but in this game’s universe, they can drift (or powerslide, if you prefer), making cornering a breeze. Different ambulance parts contribute to different statistics, such as top speed, maneuverability, defense, and kill-ability. Figuring out how to make the deadliest vehicle possible with accessories like a bladed bumper and spiked wheels, creating huge combos, is good for a visceral thrill, and is the most arcadey the game gets. And high combos like these are good for more than just the signt of a high onscreen tally: the development of new ambulance parts is measured in zombie kills, so mowing down a bunch of them in a short time is an easy way to get that rocket engine you’re lusting after.
Unfortunately, technical problems and poorly-measured pacing drag the game down. The first ambulance in the game can only carry two passengers, and each successive (and expensive) vehicle adds one more seat of carrying capacity. Therefore each trip can only be long enough to pick up a few passengers, and returning from a trip and starting out again means sitting through five-or-so seconds of loading on entering…and again on exiting…the garage. In addition, each outlying area of the city takes about the same amount of time to load on entry and exit, followed by a short cinema showing the ambulance entering the new area, with the area’s title overlaid. This game demonstrates exactly why games like Grand Theft Auto III were built to have as little in-game loading as possible. The loading feels like it occurs almost constantly once one really gets going in the game, given the short duration of each sortie. It’s not long before the game makes one feel as if he or she is grinding levels in a slow-paced RPG. The tension created by risking longer trips out into the city against passengers’ endurance and the overall time limit is effective, but having to return to the parking garage each time destroys that and causes the fun to be doled out in tiny little bites at a time. There’s no possibility for long strings of successful passenger deliveries, Crazy Taxi-style, no room for the kind of thrill that can bring.
In the end, the game is stretched so thin by this pacing that it becomes drudgework after most of the parts have been unlocked, which happened after about five hours in my experience. A complete playthrough should run between ten and fifteen hours, if the player’s willing to put in that kind of a commitment, but the novelty may well have run out before that point. Vingt-et-un Systems have shown with this title that they’re one of the most ambitious developers working under the D3 banner at the moment, but they still have a lot to learn about properly pacing a game built around effective reuse of few resources.