I remember the cover art for ZPC showing up prominently in magazine ads back on its release, and that image formed my sole awareness of the game. To this day, I still look at the stylized logo and see “NQU.”
ZPC stands for “Zero Population Count,” which should give you an idea of the kind of irreverent 90’s vibe they’re going for here. Alongside CyberMage, ZPC is most notable for being one of the first FPS titles to intentionally look like a comic come to life. It is not the first cel-shaded game – these are still traditional sprites, just drawn by established U.K. artist Aidan Hughes (most known for BRUTE! Propaganda and his KMFDM album art). Similarly inspired by Soviet and Chinese propaganda posters, ZPC uses its art style as a visual shorthand for the authoritarian regime you’re here to overthrow.
You play as Arman, prince of a futuristic society. An opening cutscene informs us Arman has been sealed in a coffin and shot into space. Someone busts you out, sending you careening back home to take on the Black Brethren – fascists clad in burly red uniforms or the smart suits of their aristocracy. Inter-level comic stills pair Arman with an enigmatic robed guide who will set up the coming scene and usually give you a task to fulfill. In a page maybe taken from Dune, you’ll spend 24 levels unlocking your bloodline’s supernatural powers, then storm your former castle to wipe out the government leaders within.
It’s unlikely anyone would remember ZPC if it weren’t for its art style, which remains absolutely unique to this day. I feel like the effect works overall and find the line art striking instead of pretentious and boring. The biggest complaint would be a lack of texture variety and an inconsistent visual language – in this level, a texture is a door when it was a wall in the last one – but overall, it’s grungy, it’s twisted, it’s punk. The art and stylistic design even gets better as the game moves out of its initial slums and into the large city blocks under lockdown.
Mechanically, ZPC flips the FPS script by having all enemies drop health instead of ammo. Ammo must be sought out and rationed carefully, while health is easy to get as long as you can kill enemies. As you progress, these health drops become darker shades of blue and can boost your health up to three levels higher than normal. Your heart health icon darkens accordingly. Unfortunately, you can collect health you don’t need – it disappears and you get no benefit. The pickup radius seems unnaturally large, so Arman’s fat, wide ass picked up a lot of health drops I intended to save for later.
As a consequence of having easy health pickups, your own health rollercoasters wildly. Enemies can knock off chunks with ease – up to 75% in one strike toward the endgame – so boosting your health beyond its default maximum and remembering leftover health drops becomes essential. It also changes how you deal with the bad guys. If you can fire and strafe behind walls, you should, but when cornered, you’re essentially required to jump in and go toe to toe with your pursuers. If you hang back and try to snipe them, you’ll inevitably catch explosive ammo and watch half your health vaporize. In the middle of a crowd, you at least have a chance of getting a health drop that will keep you going.
Generous health gets paired with relatively limited ammo throughout the levels. There will be a couple of yellow “W” doors (presumably branding for the “Whammo” clips) that signify ammo caches, but there are no other chances for supplies beyond these. I usually play FPS games on a harder difficulty, but after a few levels, I was not into this system. Enemies soak up more damage while ammo supplies don’t increase proportionally. I quickly found myself forced to use the weak “bludgeon” attack on every foe. You can keep a single enemy tied up by repeatedly pistol whipping them, then maneuver yourself so that additional baddies will shoot that guy in the back as they try to hit you. These tactics make it possible to survive, but it’s incredibly tedious.
The medium difficulty setting felt more balanced. You at least will usually have bullets for something. Your weapon is a Judge Dredd inspired handgun that shoots varied ordinance out of every nook and cranny – automatic fire, shotgun blasts, rockets, and so on. Most of these are satisfying to use and get introduced after struggling to defeat new baddies with the weapons you currently have. It feels great to be able to lance through multiple tough guys with a railgun shot, or to shotgun blast the heartiest guards that were giving you trouble earlier. Of course, your strongest ammo is always limited, so you won’t be skating through any of the levels. And even on medium difficulty, I was still running out of ammo in the late-game. I probably spent the last third of the normal game running and juking past every enemy that I could.
By “normal game” I mean that everything changes for the last four levels. Your gun is gone – replaced by three recharging psionic attacks that roughly mimic a rifle, shotgun, and rocket launcher. With infinite firepower, you have a much greater luxury of taking on every foe you encounter, which lessens the chances that you get overwhelmed. Since every defeated bad guy drops a health pickup, you’re pretty well set. To counter this, you’ll be facing legions of the toughest enemies in the game.
Everything runs on the Marathon 2 engine – I presume to allow easier release on both Windows and Mac. It doesn’t feel like a great fit. Action here is sluggish while everything in the design suggests “rock and roll.” A totally useless “Kills Per Minute” meter on the HUD encourages you to shoot a lot of bad guys quickly, but I’m honestly not certain I’ve ever filled it. Nothing seems to happen when you do, or the meter would drop by the time I found my next group. Besides, even if your foot speed allowed it, your fragile health and spongy enemies would make ripping around corners a bad idea.
The worst part of the engine is its floaty physics. As with Marathon, there’s no jump key – instead, when your “feet” leave the ground, you fall slowly while still moving forward. You’ll run off ledges to fake jumps, and ZPC asks you to do this often. I came up short more times than I appreciated, with lots of long jumps seemingly stretching the maximum distance that can be leapt within the engine. It also means stairs and elevators are a nightmare, as both trick the engine into thinking you’re no longer on the ground. Enjoy skating around inside an elevator shaft as the floor falls, or being repeatedly shot while “falling” down stairs and unable to stop yourself.
Marathon’s grenade jumping appears here as well, though now in the form of the “chi punch.” This blasts out a psychokinetic orb that pushes enemies around, flips switches at a distance, or flings you backward when shot at a close wall. Look down as much as you can, get some speed, and launch yourself backwards at a sometimes game-bending height (letting you skip parts of levels).
The nice part of this is that it doesn’t damage you, so you can experiment without lobbing explosives at your toes. The bad part is it’s tricky and inconsistent to pull off. I don’t think you’re ever required to use it – the areas I did jump through probably had a secret door or other way to get to them. But it’s very unclear what the “correct” path was supposed to be, and most of those jumps were endless repeats until it finally, mercifully, worked. It’s likewise helpful to get you out of the engine’s shaky implementation of water if you should fall in.
Level design is just okay. Some of the cities are impressive, but a lot of the rest end up being abstract mazes. There’s a chapter in the sewers, which is just as winding and annoying as it always is. The areas in the cities often look great, but don’t feature any logical layout. There’s some limited attempt to tell story within the environments, but it’s always wildly over-the-top setups driving home that the Black Brethren are Very Bad Guys™. What do these “perma-crates” hold? *gasp* My followers! What’s this strange machine smashing up? *gasp* My followers!
As the game progresses, hidden doors, teleporters, portals, and impossible architecture start to get introduced. The level inside the Propaganda Stadium is basically one enormous collection of secret doors, while level 24 has a mind-bending number of portals and false walls you can walk straight through. The last third of the game is far more abstract and confusing than the first part, asking you to make leaps of faith into lava pits or run past “collapsing” ledges that pretty much require you to burn a save on knowing what’s coming.
Along with this, the game embraces teleporting enemies – mostly to create ambushes in areas that looked like they were going to be safe. I get the desire to keep you on your toes, to keep surprises around every corner, but the placement often just comes off as cheap. Blocking you in the middle of a “jump” so that you fall into lava is uncalled for. Trapping you in a hallway between two sets of enemies that immediately shred you is just mean. It’s more bullshit “Gotcha!” moments that pretty much rely on you to have saved recently.
Speaking of saves, because this is a HaRdCoRe GaMeR’s game, you cannot quicksave anywhere you like. Collectable “memory orbs” must be used, forcing you to choose which traps and jumps you want insurance against. It’s a slightly better system than Marathon’s restrictive wall terminals, but the same rules apply – if you die and your last save was in the last level, well, you know where you’re respawning, and it ain’t the start of the current one.
ZPC could also easily be subtitled “What does this switch do?” Levels aren’t particularly vast, but you frequently encounter unlabeled switches that open unlabeled doors. Backtracking to find what changed is a necessity, while the automap is of little help. In later areas, you can’t even recognize that there’s a door that you should check back on. Some switches I caught opening up parts of the level geometry, some switches I could not begin to guess what they changed. But I got to the end of the level, so it clearly worked out. Just don’t expect to have much of an idea of what you’re doing or where you’re going.
Paul and Roland Barker (from Ministry and the Revolting Cocks) are given billing for providing the soundtrack, but it doesn’t work like you’d expect. Music doesn’t play over the levels. Instead, it seems like programming objects embedded in the walls play short, five-second repeating clips. It sort of works, in that key areas will have a booming, military-esque beat to accompany your battles, but much of the game’s slaughter will be a cappella. The game and the manual both sometimes explain this away as coming from giant propaganda speakers, but that gimmick isn’t used consistently.
Contemporary reviews for ZPC were more favorable on the Mac than Windows, and the game sure leans into Mac and Vidmaster culture. Levels have cheeky names just like Marathon – “Permashed Potatoes,” “Love and Rockets,” “Dag Snabit!.” Your emaciated followers are blown up for laughs, pretty much mirroring Marathon’s BOBs, with the only consequence being that their life drops are mildly toxic instead of restorative. With the rocket jumps and the heavy difficulties and the weird physics, this comes off way more like a spiritual successor than a game that just happens to use the engine. If you liked Marathon, you might enjoy what’s going on here. Well, provided you liked Marathon for the awkward combat and not the involved story.
When I wrote about Marathon 2, I said that “the gameplay is good enough to support the plot, but not that great alone.” ZPC makes a great example of this. The story here isn’t much beyond “fuck the establishment!” and that’s fine – I was 14 once too. But the gameplay driven by this engine isn’t that great alone. It’s gleefully quirky, bloody, and challenging in an outdated mid-90s Mac sort of way, but it’s just not a smooth shooting experience. When it’s cumbersome to play, it doesn’t matter how cool the art is. There are so many FPS titles from the era which play better than this one, so even the novelty of Hughes’ art makes it difficult to recommend.
Striking art style. Nice variety of weapon and enemy types. Some in-world storytelling that sets up what the bad guys are about.
Winding level design with a number of “gotcha!” traps and teleports. Marathon 2’s weird physics and slow gameplay, without a rich story to distract you. Occasional bugs and elevators that didn’t trigger. Some textures scroll, and I’m not sure they’re supposed to.