Billing itself as a blend of Quake and Diablo, Zax: Alien Hunter is an isometric-perspective shooter offering 22 related adventures set across hundreds of diverse and challenging game maps in seven different environments. The game is designed to combine the fast, action-oriented elements of first-person shooter with the third-person intimacy of a role-playing adventure. The game's story is designed to support and accentuate, but not distract from the kinetic gameplay.
The player takes the role of the title character, a loner who grew up in poverty and now seeks his fortune in the desolate and dangerous reaches of deep space. Setting down on a seemingly deserted planet rich in valuable ore, the hero soon finds himself embroiled in a conflict of cruel alien captors and race of slaves that now look to him as their savior. In addition to the single player missions, multiplayer games are also supported, offering deathmatch, capture the flag, and the release's own "Salvage King" modes of competition.
After crash landing on an alien world, Zax (read: you) must collect enough ore and crystals so the ship can repair itself and he can be on his way. Unfortunately, you land in the middle of a tricky situation - the indigenous species, Zorbos, are being enslaved by the malicious entity known as Om. The Zorbo look to Zax as a savior of sorts, and he just can't bear to let them down - plus it's the only way he can collect enough ore and crystals to leave the planet. It's a tried and true formula and, frankly, it gets old real fast.
Zax manages to repeat itself enough times that I often said, "Didn't I do this already?" The majority of the action takes place in either lush surface landscape or underground caves that all manage to look the same. There are side-trips to dungeon-esque areas but the overall variation was not enough to hold my interest. The flora looks the same, the caves look the same. Over and over. The graphics themselves are actually good. Everything is crisply rendered - the killer spikes to giant boar to enemy units - but after you've seen the same painted landscapes, villages, lava, and cells, again and again they lose whatever allure they might have had.
Not helping any of this is the action itself which boils down to shooting enemy generators (so more enemies can't teleport in), hitting switches, grabbing energy signatures left behind by destroyed robots, and saving Zorbos. Zax is more arcade action than anything else. Shoot this, hit this switch, avoid the spikes, shoot some more. As you can imagine, Zax is easy to get into. You never feel that an area is over your head, especially when your ship is constantly creating new equipment, weapons, and shield and energy upgrades. In fact she'll usually radio you the moment before (or just after) you enter an enemy laden area. ("I've created a weapon and you're absolutely going to need it before you go through that door!") This usually necessitates a huge amount of backtracking to find a cluster of teleportation crystals to get beamed back to the ship so you can get the new weapon. Trading in your ore and crystals will generate the item of your choice (if it's available) like, medic kits, shield batteries, or mines. There's a pretty good spread of weapons to choose from but most of the weapons do the same amount of damage (I don't care what the stats say) so you'll go through most of the game using one weapon. Most useful is the grenade launcher that comes in handy blasting enemies around corners. Some items though are practically useless, such as the deployable sentry gun. Enemies will always ignore you and concentrate on the deployed gun(s). And since the gun is weak at the best of times, you're better off trading your ore and crystals on something more useful.
There's almost a complete lack of puzzles, unless you consider key hunts ("You'll need a key to get that other key to open the door so you can get the key that you really want.") and ray deflection problems real puzzles. If you do, you'll be more than pleased with what Zax has to offer.
The control scheme is reminiscent of Smash TV. The keyboard controls his movement and the mouse aims. The arrangement works well for circle-strafing and running one way and blasting the other. It took me a half hour or so to become comfortable with the setup.
Multiplayer is okay. At the very least you face opponents smarter than the computer AI. The three multiplayer modes do offer quite a bit of enjoyment, but finding a decent server can be tough.
Aurally, Zax lives up to the sci-fi setting with suitable soundtrack and laser beam noises. The sound effects seem to be a bit muted, but other than that I can't complain.
Even with all the problems Zax has, it has that charming "throw back to simpler console action games I grew up on" quality.
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