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The Legend of Arman
From the earliest days, a royal line of God-Kings has benevolently watched over us, guiding the actions of all nations. And the world prospered; until the Black Brethren arose.

Jealous of the King's powers, they swore to eradicate the Royal Line. The King's heir, Arman, was still a child when the Black Brethren stormed the palace atop Mount Psion. They killed the King and exiled Arman into space for eternity in cryogenic sleep.

The age of despair had begun. Death camps. Torture. Brainwashing. Environmental corruption. Genocide.

It's 40 years later. And Arman, the last of the Warrior Messiah's has returned. Vengeance will be his. 

  • The alternative first-person action epic.
  • Vengeance is yours in a twisted universe filled with death, torture and corruption - 24 huge levels plus 11 network levels.
  • Art and concept by underground phenomenon Aidan Hughes.
  • Ripping soundtrack from renowned artists Roland Barker (Revolting Cocks) and Paul Barker (Ministry).
  • Space no flesh in 8 player network mode.
~ from the back of the box
In the era where a first-person shooter was still referred to as a Doom clone, a game designer would have to do a lot to make their game stand out from the many other copycats. Some would slap on a known IP such as Star Wars or Aliens, others like Hexen or Duke Dukem 3D would focus on tight and entertaining gameplay. Most would sell their product based on the copious amount of violence and gore. ZPC: Zero Population Count by Spec Ops developer Zombie lands firmly in the latter, but it would also do with style.

And what style it has. The art design was brought to you by UK-based underground comic book artist Aiden Hughes. His high-contrast art style satirising corporate and popular culture is heavily inspired by Soviet and Chinese propaganda posters here making it a perfectly striking fit. Brute Magazine, the publication his art is perhaps best known for, has the tag line "Sheath-bursting romance! Two-fisted action! Hard-boiled adventure!". Says it all, really. 

These walls usually mean a secret area is hidden behind it (left).
Find one of these red rooms and you'll be greeted with ammo, power ups and a cool musical sting (right).

It works well on the aging Marathon 2 engine. The thick outlines and bold colours stand out from the competition. Coupled with a stonking soundtrack by Paul and Roland Barker (from Ministry and the Revolting Cocks), few games looked and sounded like this in 1996. Hell, few games do now. My only gripe is that the visual design can often come in conflict with readability. Interactable objects like doors and switches often blend in with the rest of the art assets and can easily be missed. The automap does help a little in this regard as it doesn't differentiate between doors and walls, only showing what your character has physically seen.

Using Bungie's Marathon 2 engine, ZPC was heavily criticised for being behind the times when it landed in 1996. You can see the limitations of the engine when it comes to how levels are presented. Repeated wall patterns, highly pixelated textures and character sprites, hidden switches and invisible doors make the level much more frustrating than they need to be. In fact, if not for this the level design would actually be pretty decent. If more care were taken on how the art assets are implemented, it would alleviate a lot of the problems I have in this regard.

Set in a punky dystopian future where the nefarious Black Brethren hold the country in an iron grip, a band of resistant fighter monks - the Templars no less - have finally found Arman, their royal descent and saviour; you. Not only are you the rightful ruler of this land, but you are also endowed with psionic abilities. Don't get your hopes up over these magical abilities. All it really allows you to do is punch the air with the Chi Punch. It will eject a puff of wind from your palm that doesn't do a lick of damage, but it will push you back with some force. Enough force that if aimed right could see you jumping gaps or reaching areas you're not supposed to have access to quite yet. The level design makes has moments where this is incredibly useful for speed runners, but mostly it's only used to flip switches from a distance.

Switches will open a door, trigger a trap or do something else in the level you're never quite aware of (left).
Your Chi Punch can activate them from a distance making for some nice puzzle-based moments (right).

Even with this psionic ability, ZPC is still all about the machines that go boom. The only weapon you'll begin with is the multi-purpose Johnny 7. You won't even have ammo, but it can still make for an effective blunt object at close range. Should you pick up the correct ammunition, it will also function as a machine gun, shotgun or a grenade launcher. It has a whole seven different modes according to the manual, but in actuality it comes off as artistically lazy when all weapons look the same.

More interesting is the health system being tangentially tied to morality. At the centre of the bottom of the screen, you'll find two bars either side a big anatomically correct heart. O2 on the left only takes effect when underwater while on the right you'll find the basically useless KPM or kills-per-minute count. It's little more than a high score. The heart, however, will get darker the stronger it gets. Collect the drops of 'nectar' left behind by fallen enemies to increase your health, but beware of bad 'nectar' dropped by innocent civilians. This will damage you greatly, even if their deaths still count towards the KPM.

The AutoMap will show where you've been and point out the exit - but not much else (left).
Greedy Bureaucrats will not harm you, but are no innocent civilian either (right).

In a rather bizarre choice, the ability to save is also boiled down to a collectible power up. Circular Memory Orbs are often found in hidden areas where you'll also find the majority of ammo deposits. Each one allows you to save once, and if you run out... tough! Either loose your progress or spend up to half an hour scouring the map to find another one. If you die it's even worse. The game will unceremoniously close dumping you back to the desktop. At least it runs well enough on Windows 10 using DDrawCompat.

Playing all of the old-school first-person-shooters for this site has made me realise something; the most grievous gripes at the time mean little today. Many publications tore ZPC to pieces back then and, while it's no classic by any means, it didn't deserve that. In fact, I'd say it deserves something of a reappraisal. Retro gamers of today may be specifically drawn to those design quirks looking for a taste of those concepts that are no longer catered for. For all its faults, ZPC was a blast to play. It's a visually interesting, frenetic and violent shooter and it doesn't need to be more than that. 

To download the PC game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DDrawCompat to run on modern systems. Macintosh manual included. Read the ChamberNotes.txt for more detailed information. Tested on Windows 10.

File Size: 105 Mb.  Install Size: 152 Mb.  Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ


Z.P.C. Zero Population Count is © Zombie LLC
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me

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  1. I don't know what's more evil, hidden walls being necessary to progress, save being a pickup or closing to desktop on death, very hostile lol.

  2. This download tells me I have to have a CD copy of the game on my PC. What?

  3. Keeps crashing for me as soon as the intro video ends, didn't change a single setting, I'm on windows 10.

    1. I have the same problem. After the video it sends me back to the desktop. :/

  4. It works fine for me. (win 10 pro)

  5. I'm listening to the soundtrack now. Claims of its greatness were *not* overstated.

  6. In answer to the critics, ZPC was originally going to use Microsoft's pioneering new graphics card but had to use instead the dated Bungie game engine when Microsoft decided to postpone the release. It set us back half a year while the game was completely redesigned and a lot of the really intuitive and original features were scrapped.

  7. well then why don't you give the people a good version of the game? Most of us have no knowledge of cybernetics no?