Combining elements of the dual-stick shooter with elements of survival horror, Aftermath is a game unlike its peers. A lone survivor in a zombie infested city, you must survive the night with only a flashlight and whatever weapons you can scrounge on the streets. Aftermath, by TwoHeads Games, is incredibly atmospheric, permeated by a sense of desperation and a definite high point for zombie gaming on the iPhone.
At first glance, Aftermath appears similar to zombie shooters like Alive 4-Ever. But while Alive 4-Ever is all about shooting, Aftermath is more about surviving. Comparing the two is like comparing the film 28 Days Later to Zombieland. Both are about zombies, but the two are worlds apart in tone and impact. Aftermath is most definitely the 28 Days Later of iPhone zombie games. The very best entries in the Resident Evil series of survival horror games were those that constantly held you on the edge, where you never quite felt as if you had enough health restoratives or ammunition to pull a victory, where you felt imperiled and overwhelmed at every moment. Beyond the first few levels, Aftermath nails this as well. You constantly feel as if you are about to be overrun by the endless droves of undead, attempting to fend off attackers ahead while also fighting those in pursuit, and all the while eying your dwindling munitions in concern, navigating dark, rain soaked streets in search of safety. Aftermath is not a long game, but makes up for its brevity in intensity.
Environments and inhabitants are rendered in 3D, and the game is played from the vantage of a top-down camera that occasionally shifts to offer a partial over-the-shoulder view of what’s ahead. This often works to your advantage, showing opponents lurking ahead of you, but also limits your awareness of what’s coming from behind, which helps to build the zombie-rific sense of tension that makes the game so excellent. For the most part, your surroundings are veiled in darkness and rain. While you can sort of make things out in the darkness, you will mostly rely upon your flashlight to reveal your path and the dangers it holds.
Aftermath’s controls are a twist on the standard dual-stick setup; the left d-pad controls your lateral movement, while the right is used for turning. Your flashlight will illuminate the direction in which you are facing, and your survivor will automatically fire upon any zombies revealed in his narrow cone of light. Your current weapon and ammunition count are displayed in the top right of the screen; you can change weapons by swiping in this area, or reload your current weapon by tapping here. Once you’ve acquired grenades, you can throw them by tapping on zombies. Your pistol has unlimited ammunition, but becomes mostly ineffective against large hoards of zombies, and so you will mostly rely upon heavier weapons with limited ammunition when you have them.
It’s important to manage your ammunition carefully, as zombies will constantly spawn to attack you from all sides. Stay in one spot too long, and you’ll achieve little more than wasting ammunition, maybe even hampering your ability to clear the stage. It’s impossible to permanently clear an area, so it’s best to cut a path and stay on the move. One must also walk a thin line exploring the city streets; as often as your explorations will be rewarded with ammunition pick-ups, you will find yourself cornered in an alley by a mob of shambling corpses.
Atmosphere: Dark, rainy-soaked streets and alleys. Train yards illuminated only by the narrow beam of your flashlight, and the occasional flash of lightning. You can put your back up against a wall for protection, but then you’ll have nowhere to run should they overwhelm you from the front. You can hear the gut-wrenching groans of the dead all around you, but it’s so hard to see them. And punctuating the desperate lonesomeness of the situation, a somber piano plays. Do you run in search of safety, praying they won’t catch you, praying that anyplace can be safe? Or do you stand your ground, and hope to outlast them? Either way, do you have enough bullets? You can see grenades in that parking lot, beyond the fence. But is it worth the risk or the costs involved to retrieve them? You will spend this game weighing each and every decision, and praying that you might make each moment extend into the next. The game is intense, and holds you on the edge. Keeping you further out on the edge, there are no health pick-ups to be found; every fraction of your health bar is important.
Weapons: The pistol has unlimited ammunition, but limited effectiveness. The shotgun is good against groups and in close quarters, but has limited range. The machine gun offers a solid rate-of-fire and good range, but lacks accuracy and power. The sniper rifle has the accuracy, but only when you’re standing still or moving very slowly, and who moves slowly with a hoard of zombies at their back? Grenades are when you have them, but come in short supply and can often be risky to acquire. And if you use them all now, what happens later? Each weapon is distinct, offering both benefits and drawbacks, and requires you to constantly be aware of your situation and reserves. The one weapon that seems to have it all — range, accuracy, power and a fair rate-of-fire — comes late in the game, and you might not even find it.
Enemies: Aftermath offers a good variety of foes. As if regular, shambling zombies weren’t bad enough, the fat men act as meat shields for the others, projectile zombies hurl viral filth over long distances, and the bloody runner is much, much faster than you. All of these are manageable one-on-one, but when have you ever heard of zombies attacking alone?
Dynamic Lighting: Aftermath’s lighting effects are great. Your flashlight throws shadows from both zombies and environmental objects in real-time, and lightning flashes do the same. The shadow play adds a lot to the game’s atmosphere.
Short: Many games draw themselves out for too long, causing me to lose interest before reaching the end. Aftermath is not one of those games; not counting the time you will spend replaying stages on account of your premature demise, the entire game run shy of 30 minutes, and a good player could likely complete the game in far less time. The “Aftermath” survival mode extends the game some, but not by all that much. Of course, you will die, and so you will spend more than half-an-hour playing Aftermath your first time through. You can also go back and try to improve your score for each stage. And given the game’s price and the quality of the experience, it’s difficult to fault the game for length.
Hand-holding: Aftermath is difficult, make no mistake. But there is an amount of hand-holding that occurs between the in-game map and the objective indicators. The objective indicator always points you in the direction you need to go to complete each stage’s goal, and while you will occasionally hit walls that you’ll need to circumnavigate, using your map will ensure that you are never lost. While it’s easy enough to swallow that your character might be familiar with the city, and therefore know exactly how to reach the train yard, if that’s where he wants to go, it’s harder to swallow that he should know exactly where to find abandoned fuel containers or munitions from several blocks away. The game makes no distinction between locations and objects that shouldn’t be nailed down, and so each goal is treated the same as the next: follow the green arrow to objective completion.
Aftermath is the best and most authentic zombie game in the app store. Nothing else I’ve played comes even close to offering the amount of dread and desperation I experienced while playing it. These are not the types of zombies you fight with dandelions. There are no air strikes coming to save you, no health packs for instant recovery, no NPCs at your back, and no hope of anyone turning on the lights. To wit, there are no last-minute saves. Either you’ve got the stones and the bullets to survive the night and escape the city, or you don’t. And it helps to have mastered the moonwalk; you’ll spend a lot of time walking backward, trying to gun down pursuers while you work your way toward the next objective.
If you have any interest at all in the survival horror or zombie genres, you need Aftermath. And even those gamers not usually attuned to horror, zombie or survival titles may find themselves won over by Aftermath’s emphasis on atmosphere and genuine challenge, over the cheap gimmicks so many other games hang their hats on. For $0.99, you really can’t go wrong with Aftermath.
Aftermath is made by TwoHeads Games, and is presently available for the introductory price of $0.99 (usually $1.99); get it while the gettin’ is good. Reviewed at version 1.0.1 on an iPhone 3G.