Ah, Z. A game all but forgotten by the annals of gaming history; an unconventional RTS released in the wake of C&C’s runaway success that would deserve its obscurity but for one curious quality: Z foreshadows most of the new and revolutionary gameplay mechanics of RTSes which were released a decade later. Now matter how pretty the graphics or detailed the slaughter of titles like Dawn o fWar and Company of Heroes, Z not only got to the territory control mechanic nearly ten years before they did, it actually took a damn good stab at it. By 1996 standards, anyway.
In Z you control the army of the red robots. The red robots are engaged in a war of extermination against the blue robots, who are identical to the red robots in every respect except their colour. I guess this makes you robot Hitler or something. Anyway, you (and the blue robots) start each mission with nothing to your name but a single territory containing an HQ fort with some meagre manufacturing capacity. The fort can make just about anything but the amount of time it takes to do so is dependent on both how powerful the thing you’re building is and the number of territories you’ve taken with your little robot soldiers; bigger units = more time taken to build it, and more territories = less time taken to build it. To take a territory all you have to do is touch the flag inside it, which will also give you complete control over any factories that are inside that territory.
There’s a certain runaway momentum to Z, therefore; more territories equals more factories to build things and less time taken to build them. However, the ease with which a territory can change sides means that if you spread yourself too thin defending what you’ve taken can be a complete nightmare, and there’s an added frisson of all the factories having clearly-visible countdowns to the completion of their next construction project on the front of the building. If your opponent takes control of the territory before it’s finished this countdown doesn’t stop or reset; instead it just keeps on going, and the heavy tank you spent the last seven minutes building winds up in the hands of the enemy because you couldn’t keep hold of the flag. Striking the correct balance between taking more factories and being able to protect them long enough to build something useful is probably the major gameplay element of Z.
Coming in a close second is the combat, which is considerably more thoughtful than that found Z’s RTS peers at the time. Units come as either single vehicles – jeeps, tanks, rocket vehicles – or squads of tiny infantry robots. Tiny infantry robots are quick to build but the cheapest of them are armed with only rifles and machine guns, making them about as useless as you’d expect when they come up against a tank; infantry squads can pick up a limited supply of grenades which give them some anti-armour capability, but they need to get in close to use them. By contrast the tank can easily one-shot an entire squad of infantry with a single shell before they ever get into range to hurl their explosive pineapples.
Given the inherent vulnerability of the tiny robot men you may be wondering why you’d bother building any in the first place; there are several compelling reasons to do so, not least of which is that the factories scattered around the map are split into infantry factories and vehicle factories. The map will start with several empty vehicles dotted about, and it’s also possible for infantry – especially Sniper infantry – to snipe the driver out of a vehicle. Your own infantry can then crew it and turn it against the enemy. Infantry are also the only units which can swim across water; this is important when many of the territory-controlling flags are located on isolated islands, not to mention the fact that vehicle-carrying bridges can be blown up and rendered unusable until they are repaired. While they are still decidedly inferior against tanks in a straight-up fight and thus tend to be more of an early-game unit than anything else, the infantry squads of Z do remain useful throughout.
Z also does a few interesting things with terrain. There are several planet types you can fight on – desert, snow, lava, that sort of thing – and each can present you with different opportunities and dangers. Going for a pleasant swim in a jungle river could prove unexpectedly hazardous when a crocodile rears from the water and swallows one of your infantry whole. Lava flows might crisscross the train like rivers, but you obviously can’t swim across those and you’ll have to find a bridge. The high mesas separating different areas on the desert map can be demolished and/or burrowed through if you have a sufficient quantity of explosives, allowing you to come at the enemy from an unexpected direction (this would be more useful if there were any kind of fog of war in Z). Also there are penguins.
All this stuff makes the battles in Z a rather engaging back-and-forth affair, with jockeying for position and small-scale skirmishes being the order of the day rather than all out cataclysmic warfare. Sadly all good things must come to an end and eventually one side or the other will get the upper hand, parking a dozen tanks outside the enemy HQ. From there they can either blow it to smithereens directly, or else send in a unit to blow it up from the inside (this can be done by a single infantry robot, making sneak attacks on the HQ entirely viable). Then they win.
I think one of the reasons I like Z so much is that it looks and plays like an RTS as imagined by an Amiga developer. In fact it is an RTS as imagined by an Amiga developer – the Bitmap Brothers – and it shows the same blatant disregard for genre conventions as all the best Amiga games, flouting the build-base-crush-enemy paradigm dictated by Command & Conquer with admirable flair. It’s also fascinating to look back at it and see how much it resembles a modern RTS like Company of Heroes – territory control, powerful vehicles, detailed and semi-realistic infantry combat, it’s all here in one shape or another. Z may have ended up being bastardised into an iOS game, but I’ll always remember it fondly for just how damn fun it all was.