The last time Judge Dredd was featured in a video game (Little Big Planet costume packs notwithstanding) was in 2003's Judge Dredd: Dredd vs. Death. Now eight years later, the British comic icon is back in developer Rebellion's new iOS title, Judge Dredd vs. Zombies. It's a universal iPhone/iPad app priced at a competitive 99 cents, but as thrifty smartphone owners all know, even a $0.99 purchase requires some research before taking the plunge. Is Dredd's latest adventure worth taking?
If you're looking for an epic Judge Dredd gaming experience based on the comics, let's stop right there. This is not the game for you. While the word "zombies" in the title could imply a tie in to Garth Ennis' epic "Judgment Day" zombie storyline, Judge Dredd vs. Zombies involves nothing of the sort. The closest you get to a story is a single briefing screen telling you that Zombies have infested Mega City-One and that Judge Dredd is the "Solution." In fact, other than scattered badges and the occasional logo in each level, the only sights you're going to see are Judge Dredd, zombies, and generic looking building interiors. To be fair to the developer, though, it's what was promised in the title and by golly that's exactly what's offered.
The game is a very simple "virtual stick" shooter in a top-down perspective. Unlike other games in the genre that use twin sticks, Judge Dredd vs. Zombies only incorporates a single stick to control moving Dredd (your right thumb is reserved for tapping the "Fire" button or reloading). This is because the game has a very intuitive auto-lock system that automatically snaps Dredd's aim to the nearest enemy. On the off chance that the auto-lock doesn't work, you can simply tap any target on screen and Dredd will focus his aim there. It's a great counterbalance for the imprecision of twitch aiming on a mobile device and feels tight and natural without feeling like the game is playing itself.
The game contains 30 levels, broken up into three 10 level episodes. You can earn up to three stars on each of the 30 levels along with a commendation, which as far as we could tell, is basically a "fourth star." Though the game doesn't tell you this explicitly, it appears as if the number of stars you are awarded depends on how high your score is at the end of the level, something you'll have to build up by killing zombies in rapid succession to keep up a multiplier bonus. Take any damage or wait too long and your multiplier resets to zero, although collecting golden Judge Badges scattered across each level will keep the combo meter going temporarily while also adding some points to your score.
Earning more stars in a level will also up the amount of credits you'll earn after the mission to be able to spend on upgrades and weapons. Judge Dredd vs. Zombies offers four weapons for you to choose from, two of which are unlocked from the start of the game – his trusty Lawgiver pistol and the Scattergun (shotgun). A sniper rifle and a rocket launcher are available for purchase if you have enough credits. You can also choose to spend the credits you've earned to upgrade each gun's reload speed, damage, clip size, and rate of fire. Finally, before each level, you're also offered the option to buy up to three temporary "Special Equipment" upgrades from a selection of seven. These can range from body armor to faster reload times to having a more forgiving combo meter.
Playing through the first three levels of the game, you'll see the game shaping up to be a fairly entertaining, if very simplistic, shooting game. Killing zombies and picking up shiny things is just what the doctor ordered if you're looking for a quick violent distraction on your iOS device. Unfortunately, just when you think you're starting to get into a zombie killing groove, the game turns into a frustrating black hole of difficulty.
Around the fourth level or so, all of the satisfying one-hit zombie kills you've been getting disappear because the game starts only sending golden zombies at you that require anywhere from 4-6 shotgun blasts to kill. You go from feeling like a badass Judge killing zombies left and right to an overwhelmed weakling in over his head. Then the game starts to get downright rude by locking you in very small rooms or corridors while these super-zombies materialize from the ground on all sides. Judge Dredd can only take about four hits before dying and to make matters worse, health packs are about as rare as comics with sketch variant covers. In fact, in the first ten levels, we found that only about six of them had health packs and never was there more than one in a level. Of course, none of the levels have checkpoints, so if you die, you'll have to start again from the beginning even if you've killed 110 out of the 114 zombie quota to finish the level.
Compounding the problem is the fact that since all the zombies now take so many shots to kill, it's virtually impossible to keep the combo meter going by simple virtue of not being able to kill zombies fast enough to satiate the meter's requirements. Because of this phenomenon, even if you channel your inner Dredd and make it through the end of a grueling 114 zombie endurance test, you'll most likely only come away with one star from the whole ordeal. Oh, and by the way, in order to unlock the second episode you'll need to average two stars on each level in episode one. To unlock the third set of levels, you'll need to average even more than that. It doesn't take long to realize that getting to even play all the levels in the game will be nigh impossible without outside help.
This is where the game's upgrade system is supposed to come into play. After all, a stronger Judge Dredd should make for an easier zombie killing experience, right? Unfortunately, the game is insultingly stingy with the amount of credits it doles out to you for finishing a level. As an example, in our first playthrough of episode one, we earned a total of 18 stars and only accumulated 6,000 credits. To provide context for that amount, it costs 5,000 credits to buy a temporary upgrade that makes the combo meter more lenient. If you're thinking you can just replay the easy levels over and over again to rack up those credits, think again. You only get credits the first time you obtain a new star on level completion.
It's pretty obvious from the difficulty level and credit stinginess that Rebellion wants you to take sips from the microtransaction nectar cup early and often. Tap the conveniently placed "Upgrade!" button on the main menu and you're immediately presented with an option to unlock all the levels for $1.99. You're also generously offered credit packs costing anywhere from $1.99 to $29.99. If the game were free, we might have been able to tolerate the necessity for in-game purchases, but it's not.
Despite having solid core game mechanics and well a well-executed presentation, Judge Dredd vs. Zombies is dragged down by an unsustainable difficulty level along with an unpleasantly aggressive pushing of in-app purchases. Even though the game is ostensibly only $0.99, we can't recommend the title even to the most masochistic of gamers as it's virtually impossible to experience all the content in the game unless you pump more money into it. Unless Rebellion tunes either the difficulty or credit earning system to something more reasonable, your time and money are better spent elsewhere.
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