A mad scientist has a secret base on an asteroid, presumably because the rent is reasonable. Playing as special operatives Cye and Chrome, you'll take down this base one alien environment at a time, all while fighting hordes of mutated insectoids that spring up and attack in coordinated waves. It's one part tower defense, one part arcade blaster, two parts KEEP SHOOTING BECAUSE THEY'RE EVERYWHERE!
ZAMB! Biomutant Extermination is big on frantic fights-for-your-life as well as careful attack and defense strategies. The latter is a feature that's easy to miss when there are a dozen exploding ticks on the screen. The game is divided into about 30 levels across three unique environments, starting with a basic workshop and moving to a lava-filled mine and the mad's lab. Rounds take place on small maps with a few twisty passageways and a handful of nuclear reactors. The goal is to hack then protect those reactors from the alien bugs that pop out of the many (many) spawn points.
Joining you for this insane ride are Cye and Chrome, special operatives who have a serious dislike of biomutants. Cye carries claw-like weapons he uses to smack enemies from close range, dealing a decent amount of damage but also putting himself in harm's way. His special abilities are a handful of spells that do everything from toss ice mines to heal turrets and electrify groups of foes. Chrome totes a pulse gun that lets him hang back and damage insects from afar. His turrets are the bread and butter of your defense and can be picked up and moved by either player.
Placing turrets or using Cye's powers consumes resources (those little blue diamond things). A few resources can be nabbed by breaking crates on the stage, but most of them will be obtained by defeating biomutants. Levels give you just enough currency to get by. You'll never feel like you have an excess and can unleash powers all willy-nilly, creating the feeling of scarcity even though there are insects packed full of diamonds all over the frelling place. Try to stay calm as you scream and yell for your life.
Between levels you'll get to upgrade Cye's powers and Chrome's turrets using skill points gained by leveling-up. Each one has its own set of stats you can bump up, from turret range and damage to a powers' cooldown time and effectiveness. You can reset skills at anytime, which actually becomes an important feature later in the game when you have to to fine-tune your strategy. Each character can only carry three abilities into battle, and certain ones are more effective against certain bugs.
Speaking of later in the game, ZAMB! Biomutant Extermination gets serious about trying to kill you at about the halfway mark. Suddenly your battle-tested strategies are failing after the first wave. Spawners seem to belch out enemies on opposite sides of the map, forcing you to run around trying to keep your non-centrally-located hacked reactors safe from danger. It's intense, and it's a little sudden, but once you reach this point you know what the game has to offer.
ZAMB! Biomutant Extermination comes with three different main modes: single player, local co-op and online co-op for two players. Solo ZAMB! is a surprisingly different affair than co-op ZAMB!, even though you play the exact same levels. It all boils down to your partner's AI. The computer is generally better at pulling off precision attacks than a human player, setting up strikes that get damage done without sacrificing HP. Meanwhile, us meatbags are just mashing buttons hoping to win. The pathfinding can be a little wonky. "Hey buddy, let's walk here and see what's down this corridor. Oh, you're trying to walk through a wall? I'll come back and hold your hand." Since so much of ZAMB! Biomutant Extermination takes place in close-quarters, pathfinding doesn't become an issue often. Even when it does you're rarely in a life or death situation, so it's a minor nuisance at its worst.
ZAMB! Biomutant Extermination had local co-op first, followed by online co-op added just before it left Early Access. Online works just fine, but there is one "feature" that might bug the vinegar out of you. When you're playing online, each person is sitting in their own house with their own monitor, right? ZAMB! Biomutant Extermination doesn't differentiate between local and online co-op, so even though your partner isn't in the room, you still have to share the same screen. That means no splitting up to keep separate reactors defended, you've got to stick together no matter what. It's occasionally maddening to run into this limitation, especially since ZAMB! won't hesitate to spawn enemies on opposite sides of the map. It's frustrating at first, and even though you eventually get used to sharing a camera with an online co-op partner, you'll still crave the lost freedom once in a while.
ZAMB! Biomutant Extermination looks great. The artwork has some real character to it. The downside is that some areas are a little too busy, what with the dozens of skittering bugs, twitching decorations and flashing UI icons all over the place. This is somewhat exacerbated by the tilted point of view. ZAMB! tips the landscape so the top of the screen is further away, making things up there a little smaller. Seems like a lot of stuff goes on in the top part of the map, and on more than one occasion you'll wish you could zoom the camera in a couple of notches so you can see if you're doing the hitting or getting hit yourself.
ZAMB! Biomutant Extermination feels like an old arcade game, the kind where you stand with your buddies for hours as you celebrate every victory and curse every defeat. It's fast-paced and difficult, but there's enough reward in it to keep you plugging away even when you die. The scoring system turns ordinary levels into replayable "gotta get the stars!" stages, most of which are surprisingly tough to get. Charging through the main campaign in co-op will take between five and six hours, but if you want a decent score, you can add a few more to that length.