Imagine if you will, a parched territory, a desolate scrub of land, the kind of place where animals stay hidden during the day for fear that they might pop like a kernel of corn. It takes a certain breed of human to choose to live in a place like this: proud, self-sufficient, primal, rugged. Or perhaps just plain crazy.
Super Energy Apocalypse, a real-time strategy game with an environmental conscience from Lars A. Doucet, captures the grittiness of the Texas wilderness and adds a new challenge rarely encountered by the likes of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston: a zombie invasion! Luckily, the setting is not the Texas of the frontier era but a hypothetical New Texas republic formed in the near future. For modern technology is your only hope of survival—and yet it is also your greatest limitation. The zombies thrive on pollution, whether it be trash, smog, or nuclear waste. You might get along fine for a few rounds with just your dirty, polluting fossil fuels, but pretty soon you'll want to upgrade to something a little more friendly to the environment, and a little less tasty to the zombies.
First-time players should start their campaign on Level 1. The in-game guide, Dr. Ananastasia Wurstwagen, does an excellent job of stepping you through the game mechanics without making it feel too much like a tutorial. You travel with her across the apocalyptic New Texas countryside, building up defenses against the zombie onslaught in a race to save the last remaining human strongholds, all the while making sure to clean up after yourself. Each new location adds another level of complexity to your arsenal of available buildings. New locations also bring new energy sources, which let you produce cleaner power and fuel, although it may not always be as efficient as good ol' petrol.
Analysis: Super Energy Apocalypse plays a bit like a tower defense game, in that most of the time is spent getting ready for the next wave, and the player is offered no control over the targeting of the enemies. Planning for the battle is the critical strategic element, rather than the battle itself. The zombies come out only at night, so use the daylight wisely!
The real twist that sets Super Energy Apocalypse apart is the balance that originates from having to clean up after yourself. Leaving waste lying around not only causes pollution, but can set in motion a nasty feedback loop: when zombies eat the waste they become stronger, which lets them trash more of your buildings, which turn into more waste, which allows more zombies to get stronger, and so on. Additionally, overbuilding your encampment without upgrading your fuels will lead to too much smog, which also strengthens the zombies.
Lars has also hidden a clever little resource management game within the bounds of Super Energy Apocalypse. Energy can come from many sources, and its relative abundance changes with each new level. Your trucks can be set to run on any one of four fuels, which each have different efficiencies, cleanlinesses, and each depletes a different resource (fossil fuel, natural gas, energy, or food). Defense buildings each require different resources too. All of these systems must learn to play nicely together, as you will need each one functioning if you are to pass the hardest levels.
Although it played just fine, the submitted version of Super Energy Apocalypse (upon which the judging was based) suffered from a number of somewhat minor deficiencies which prevented it from claiming first place: a bit of unbalance with some resources, a bug here and there, lack of a save feature, and some performance issues for some machines during the heat of battle. All of these problems and more have been fixed in the subsequent updates and the game is currently, at the time of this review, up to version 1.2. The only further change I can suggest is to get rid of the infinite time limit for completing certain goals; it's too easy for players to build up their resources, in particular the research points, since the upgrades they are spent on remain through all future levels. Start the countdown as soon as the player receives their first objective, and if they cannot complete all objectives (including survival) by the level's end, then they must replay it.
Nonetheless, a well-deserved congratulations to Lars for taking Second Place in our 5th Casual Gameplay Design Competition, crafting a quirky, fun, and well-balanced game. His creativity exhibits itself throughout all aspects of the game, from the random bits of humorous dialog to the intricate resource system and the solid inclusion of the Upgrade theme.