Underrated Review: Zax: The Alien Hunter
When I was in college, back in the early '00s, I worked at EB Games and had an opportunity to learn about a number of games that I otherwise wouldn't have known about. Zax: The Alien Hunter is one of those games. I recently replayed the game and given its general shroud of obscurity, I thought I would do my part to shed some light on this neat little game in the off-chance that someone out there might still be interested in checking it out.
Before we dig into the game, let's talk about how Zax was released and the companies responsible for it. Zax was developed by Reflexive Entertainment and published by JoWood Entertainment in North America back in late 2001. Reflexive Entertainment was a relatively new developer at the time and their previous game was Star Trek: Away Team, which despite receiving mediocre reviews, was a fairly high-profile release in a huge franchise. After Zax, Reflexive Entertainment would release quite a few games, mostly of the casual variety, but they did develop a couple of "bigger" games like Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader and Wik and the Fable of Souls.
As for JoWood Entertainment, they had been publishing games exclusively for PC since 1998 and had sort of found this weird middle ground between a budget release and a AAA release. I'm pulling from memory here, but I seem to recall their games initially retailing for $29.99 - $39.99. At the time, a PC budget release would generally be $19.99 and a AAA release would be $49.99. None of their games, including Zax, were really hits, at least not here in North America. Keep in mind they were based in Austria, so things may have been different overseas. But that didn't stop them from churning out a number of titles, many of which received solid reviews from both critics and consumers alike.
Unfortunately, 2001 was a long time ago and neither of the companies responsible for Zax are still around. Reflexive Entertainment was acquired by Amazon in 2008 and at this point is fully merged into Amazon Game Studios. JoWood Entertainment filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and eventually sold a lot of their content to Nordic Games.
So there I was in late 2001 and this random box shows up at EB Games:
The game looked interesting, but I knew absolutely nothing about it and at the time, there weren't many options for finding out more about a game if you didn't have a demo. Keep in mind that this was years before sites like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook would burst onto the scene. Not to mention the fact that I was still on a 56K modem (remember those?)
But hey, I'm a fearless gamer and I love trying out weird stuff. Once the price dropped a bit (hey, I was a poor college student!), I picked up a big box copy of the game, which still proudly sits on my shelf. I immediately jumped into the game and was hooked until I finished it a week or so later. After that, I placed the disc back into its case and it remained undisturbed until about a week ago.
No, It's Not Diablo
If you were to look at a screenshot for Zax, you might think it looks a lot like Diablo. I know I sure did.
But aside from the camera angle and having a ton of action, Zax is nothing like Diablo. Have you ever played the "Shooter" games, like Alien Shooter or Zombie Shooter? Zax is a whole lot like those. The controls are very similar to the "Shooter" games in that you have movement keys (I used WASD), then aim and fire with your mouse. There are a few other keys like for opening up the minimap or viewing your inventory, but that's pretty much it. Move, aim, shoot. Nice and simple.
And boy will you ever "move, aim, shoot" in this game! There are legions of enemies that all want you dead and it's very easy to go from full health + full shield to dead in about two seconds. And I'm not really exaggerating there. Zax is a tough game and you will need to be nimble and a good shot in order to see it through to the end.
So What Is It?
Okay, so you know Zax has lots of action and it's not Diablo. So what is it? I mentioned above that it's very similar to the "Shooter" games, and it is, but it's a bit more complex than those. For starters, there's a lot more story than in the "Shooter" games, complete with an opening cinematic:
After you crash land onto a strange planet, Zax (you) gets caught up in a revolution by a peaceful species known as the Korbo. You immediately receive a mission when you start playing and you'll always have some sort of objective to keep you moving forward. The game is linear in the sense that you always follow the same path, but at times the game feels more open that it really is. There are branching pathways, optional caves, and even a few hidden areas.
While exploring, you'll find ore and crystals, which are then used to craft new weapons, items, etc from your ship's computer. Again, the path here is linear in the sense that you can't really customize anything, but it's nice to upgrade some of your gear and not rely on random drops. The only downside to this system is that you end up with a ton of extra resources and it makes searching for them kinda useless for most of the game. Given that these resources are limited in the game, it would've been nice to actually use them.
Not Just Action
The game has a ton of action in it, but you'll also be solving some puzzles along the way. They're mostly key / switch hunts, but there are still some interesting situations and the game continues to throw new stuff at you right up to the end.
The story for the game is rather simplistic and incredibly predictable, but at least it's there. Although the characters are relatively flat, it was nice to have some context to all of the slaughter. The voice acting was completely uninspired and helps solidify the story as one of the weak points of the game.
The music and sound effects aren't amazing, but they're solid. They fit the mood and style of the game perfectly, so I really didn't have any complaints there. The graphics are actually quite good for a 16 year old game running in 800x600 resolution. The environments are very detailed and everything is aesthetically pleasing. Reflexive Entertainment would sort of continue this graphical style with Wik and the Fable of Souls, albeit with a side-scrolling perspective.
Infinite Enemies = Ugh!
Zax took me about 8 hours to complete and while I generally enjoyed the gameplay and found it to be quite addictive, it does have some negative aspects to it. My main complaint is that in order to mask the simplistic AI behaviors, the developers opted to include spawn devices throughout the game. These come in two colors: purple and red. Purple aren't too bad since you can disable them by destroying the corresponding control panel, which is often very close to the spawner. Their placement can by tricky to deal with, but it was a nice challenge at times. The red ones cannot be destroyed and will forever spawn enemies.
I know what you're thinking, how could this possibly be such a bad thing? Well, as soon as you kill an enemy, a new one will spawn in like a millisecond. I'm talking as soon as the first one dies, another one pops out. When enemies are packing rocket launchers and grenades that can kill you -even with full health and full shields- in no time, it makes some of these sections very difficult to navigate. Towards the end of the game, I had to replay a number of sections just to safely get through some devilishly placed spawners.
Aside from the aforementioned difficulty spikes, Zax offers a nice, challenging experience that will test your trigger finger.
Lost to Time
Given that the developer and publisher for this game are no longer around, it's unlikely that the game will ever have some sort of digital release. That's a shame, especially considering it's a solid game that still holds up today and surprisingly, runs very well on Windows 7. I installed the game using an original disc and it worked perfectly. The game loads fine, runs fine, and I had absolutely no issues with it. No crashes, no graphical / sound glitches, nothing. It has full control customization, mouse (wheel) support, etc. Sure, at times it felt like a clunky old game, but for the most part it has held up very well.
Zax: The Alien Hunter has been an overlooked game since its initial release and it's unlikely to garner any attention given its age, obscurity, and lack of a digital release. But with its superb compatibility and rock-solid gameplay, it's worth picking up for a few bucks to give it a spin.