The Z Games: Zerg and Zombies Run Amok in Two of the Year’s Best Videogames

Two of 2013’s most notable games so far pit humans against foul, oozing, nightmarish foes. In one, you fight the slavering horde; in the other, you are the slavering horde. How fun is that?

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is an RTS (real-time strategy) game that puts massive armies of terrifying insectile creatures at your command as you seek revenge against your humanoid enemies. Unlike, say, a frenzied zombie slaughter-fest, the RTS genre puts a premium on strategic, chess-like deployments as you establish bases, harvest resources, upgrade your technologies and/or genetics, and maneuver military units across fantastic alien landscapes.

Dead Island: Riptide is an in-your-face FPS (first-person shooter/slasher) that plugs you into the skin of a desperate human protagonist trapped on a tropical island overrun with zombies. The action is furiously fast-twitch and visceral as you hack, slice, behead, bludgeon and blast your way through mobs of howling, flesh-starved monsters.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm

SC2HOTS_SE_NA_FOBEven casual gamers may be familiar with the venerable StarCraft franchise. First introduced by Blizzard Entertainment back in 1998, the original StarCraft is one of those rare classics that’s just as much fun to play now as it was 15 years ago. Industry critics generally consider it one of the most influential games of all time, placing StarCraft in gaming’s pantheon with genre trailblazers such as Myst, Doom, SimCity, The Sims, Legend of Zelda, and Grand Theft Auto III.

A sprawling space opera of magnificent scope, the StarCraft universe features three exquisitely balanced races. The Terrans are most familiar, being humans who originated on Earth. The Zerg are voracious mega-insects with a collective Hive mind that obeys the will of their Queen. And the Protoss are classic aliens, a sapient humanoid race with advanced technology and powerful psionic powers. All battle for supremacy across the Koprulu Sector of the galaxy, a vast reservoir of multifarious homeworlds.

When its long-awaited sequel, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, was finally released in 2010, the basic gameplay remained the same, much to the fanbase’s delight. That story focused on the Terran race and its hero, Jim Raynor, leader of a rebellion against the oppressive Terran galactic government called the Dominion. Raynor also spends time fighting Zerg infestations … and one of StarCraft’s Shakespearian ironies is that Raynor’s true love, a trained agent and assassin named Sarah Kerrigan, was captured by a Zerg swarm and transformed into their immensely powerful Queen of Blades. Wings of Liberty ends with her reclamation and reunion with Raynor. Things are looking good for the star-crossed lovers.

Queen of BladesAh, but then along comes Heart of the Swarm, the next installment of the series, released to great critical acclaim in March of this year. Kerrigan, named in a 2010 Gamespot survey as the greatest villain in videogame history, is on the road to recovery when the evil Emperor Mengsk carts off her man Jim. It’s rarely a good idea to enrage a queen who once had fifty billion insects the size of Land Rovers at her command. Now all she can think about is tracking down Jim Raynor and razing the Dominion.

The game’s early missions challenge Kerrigan to reestablish and consolidate her control of the Zerg swarm. Once the Queen of Blades is in charge again, she begins to roll across Dominion-controlled space, planet by planet, devouring fleshy foes and their puny defenses. You deploy horrible troops with names like Roaches, Mutalisks, Swarm Hosts (vile creatures that spawn attack-bugs from their backs), Infestors, and other such abominations … including some Abominations.

Between most missions you return to Kerrigan’s “flagship,” a gargantuan spacefaring Zerg creature called a Leviathan. Here you spend the spoils of conquest, upgrading units and the Queen herself. Then it’s off to devour another planet. It’s the perfect mix of hectic real-time tactics and thoughtful strategic planning.

Dead Island: Riptide

DI_RipTide_2D_SteelbookSometimes you find unexpected depth in a game that on its surface appears simple in concept. Two years ago, the original Dead Island came out of nowhere to score well with gamers and critics alike. The premise couldn’t be simpler: stranded on an island infested with zombies, you must fight your way off, using anything you can desperately fashion into a weapon.

Despite the fact that zombie themes seemed overused even then, Dead Island’s realistic combat system and liberating, open-world “sandbox” design delivered intense action and surprising freedom of play as you roamed the infested island. Throw in some role-playing character progression and a clever, robust weapon customizing system, and Dead Island turned out to be one of the sleeper hits of 2011.

Now comes the inevitable follow-up, Dead Island: Riptide. One is hard-pressed these days to find games that aren’t sequels with that requisite colon in the title, separating old and new. But in gaming more so than movies, “sequel” can often mean “better.” This is truly the case with Riptide, which goes to school on its predecessor by reprocessing the good stuff, hacking out the bad stuff, and adding a bit of new stuff that adds a bloody sparkle to the gameplay.diriptide-screen02_ed

The story is forgettable and entirely beside the point: you are a survivor of the first zom-pocalypse, tossed by a titanic storm right back into the doomed archipelago from whence you escaped. Look, it’s all just an excuse to hit monsters with electrified hammers and spike-encrusted baseball bats, then slice off their appendages with cleavers, katanas, and axes modified into super-weapons at the workbenches you find throughout the game.

The island of Palanai is beautifully rendered, the perfect vacation spot. But the natives are restless, literally. Just remember: Zombies are already dead, and their sole purpose is to eat your brains. So it’s guilt-free mayhem as you hack and slash your way through the local neighborhood watch groups.

Sound grim? It is grim: gloriously grim. Enjoy.

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