A little over a year ago, Madfinger Games released the original Dead Trigger, a free-to-play zombie shooter - I loved it. What exactly did I love about it? It was simple but fun, and even though it eventually ended up as a free-to-play game (it originally cost a dollar), you could have a pretty good time blasting hordes of the undead without spending any money at all, as long as you didn't mind some grinding here and there. It wasn't perfect, but Dead Trigger made me genuinely excited about Madfinger's future endeavors, and so here we are with Dead Trigger 2.

Dead Trigger 2 uses the same basic mechanics as its predecessor, but has addressed its one real shortfall: a lack of depth. Dead Trigger, for all its fun, did eventually become very, very repetitious. The linear difficulty curve also meant that you'd reach a point where your grind to the next weapon upgrade got so long and became so necessary that it didn't feel so much like the game wanted to take your money as it didn't have any more content to give you. This is a curse for many mobile titles, particularly of the free-to-play variety - developers want you to keep playing as long as humanly possible (because money), but also know that beyond a certain level of difficulty or time invested, a decreasing number of players will continue to advance in the game. Thus, content tends to be intro-to-middle heavy, and quickly tapers off past what I'd call the "peak purchase point." From an economic standpoint, it's obvious why. The problem for Dead Trigger was that the "PPP" came far too early because there wasn't enough content to keep things interesting.

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Dead Trigger 2, however, attempts to solve this in two ways. First, it's harder. A lot harder. Second, there is undeniably more content, and more drive to advance the game's story (which is actually almost respectable).

Unfortunately, I'd argue it almost feels like a sadly wasted effort (at least from a gamer's perspective), because DT2 has succumbed to a scourge worse than undeath: greed.

Gameplay

There isn't much to the execution of combat in DT2 - point at zombie, shoot at zombie, revel in said zombie's comical dismemberment. No updated mechanics like cover or crouching, no big changes to the gun firing experience. That said, Madfinger did pretty well with the basics in the original Dead Trigger. For all the criticism one might levy on account of simplicity, the DT combat system is very approachable, which is absolutely critical in a free-to-play title, especially when you're in the mobile FPS genre.

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But let's step back, because the biggest changes in Dead Trigger 2 are largely outside of the zombie-killing experience. The entire mechanic of upgrading your weapons and other equipment has been overhauled into an admirably organized abode, aka the "hideout." You actually begin the game with several story missions in which you rescue members of your resistance team who then become the permanent occupants of this hideout, crafting and constructing your various anti-zombie sundries.

Weapons and new items are unlocked either with gold (surprise!) or by finding blueprints, which drop from super zombies (more on those assholes later). Once you collect all the pieces of a blueprint, you can research the item in question through the appropriate member of your team. If it's a gun, this means you also get the gun once the research is done, thankfully. And yes, there is a time element here: while research and upgrade tasks start off at a rather innocent 5, 10, or 20 minutes, they quickly become six hours or more. You know where this is going, too - a speed-up button. Which costs gold.

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See you in 6 hours. Or about a buck fifty.

Predictably, your team members themselves also require upgrades in order to upgrade your weapons or build new, more advanced ones, many of which are all but explicitly necessary to advance in the game. And, I'm not kidding, your team members' upgrades require an upgrade. So far, all of these upgrades have used in-game cash (acquired through missions / level-ups), not gold (gold is a separate currency, as in DT1), but it's easy to see how the entire experience is insanely frustrating because of this, and even a bit confusing.

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Note that M-16 level 4 is blocked until I upgrade the gunsmith. And costs $48,000. And 12 hours of waiting.

The real problem, though, is that it is all so unapologetically about profit. Why do your weapon upgrades require upgrades to your team members that then require an upgrade to your team? Because money. It doesn't make the game more enjoyable, more immersive, or more challenging. It just makes it more effective at extracting currency from players. It is utterly without taste. And there is nothing more insulting to me, as a gamer, than a completely arbitrary timer whose only purpose in existence is to to be sped up in exchange for money. It goes beyond the already controversial free-to-play model and blatantly handicaps those who refuse to pay to play by depriving them of what they've already earned with a big fat "screw you." Unfortunately, the money-grubbing doesn't stop there.

The original Dead Trigger had super zombies of a sort, though they were relatively rare - seldom seen outside of the survival challenge mode. That was fine, they added a bit of strategy and complexity to the game that forced you to rethink your combat approach and respond effectively. In Dead Trigger 2, I have thus far encountered five different types of super zombies, all of them extremely annoying and difficult to kill, and not really in a fun way. You see, super zombies are resistant to pretty much every gun at your disposal. They soak up bullets unflinchingly, like an old traffic sign on a country road.

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A panzer - time to give up.

Super zombies are basically designed to get you in a situation where, without using a consumable item, you're going to die. Rampagers are the worst, charging at you at a high rate of speed and then smashing you into submission. Kamikazes have an explosive barrel strapped to them, resulting in insta-death if they get close to you. Radioactive scientists quickly reduce your health if they get within a certain distance. Vomitrons hurl blood clots at you with startling accuracy. Panzers can take more fire than a concrete bunker. They all have varyingly large amounts of hit points. I could lay down 4 clips of M-16 ammo into a Panzer and I'd empty maybe a little under half his health bar. I just sit there and die if one appears in most levels. It's not worth the effort.

So, what kills super zombies? Why, explosives of course! And how does one get explosives? Money! Explosive are non-replenishing consumables (as opposed to ammo, which is) that must be purchased from your friendly engineer. The problem is that the economics of explosives are clearly weighed against the non-paying player.

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The average mission a few hours into the game yields around $800-1100 of in-game currency. 2 grenades cost $200. Your typical super zombie can generally be killed with 2 grenades and some gratuitous lead expenditure, and each mission typically has 2 super zombies. That's $400 a mission. Later, grenades become pretty useless against super zombies, and you have to resort to land mines or explosive chickens (yes, really), which are even more expensive per unit (land mines are $600 for 3), even though mission rewards don't scale up all that much. You can upgrade your grenades (then they get more expensive, yay!), but eventually you're going to get to a point where you then have to upgrade your engineer (not super cheap), and then, upgrade your entire team (very expensive) so that you can upgrade your engineer again (expensive), and then upgrade the grenade again (more expensive).

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I have a simple question: does this sound fun to you? I've wasted so much time in this review talking about the absurdity of in-game currency, but that's because it's such an absurdly huge part of the game. THAT'S BAD. If you want a feel for how expensive some things are, let's do a little math.

Upgrading your team to level 4 (allowing them access to then be upgraded to level 4 individually, so they can then make level 4 items), costs $40,000 in game currency. 1 gold is equal to $300 of that currency (you can't buy currency, only gold, which you then convert). So that's 133 gold. The smallest denomination of gold you can buy is 150, which will cost you $3 [of real money]. Oh, and don't forget about that speedup, which will cost you yet more gold (probably somewhere in the 100-200 range), since the level 4 tech upgrade has a 24 hour wait timer.

But wait, there's more! You'll have to upgrade your guns, which rather quickly reaches into the tens of thousands of dollars of currency for each by your second upgrade on a particular weapon. Then there's the whole issue of difficulty. Your character has a ranked experience level, and the more missions you do, the more experience you get. The higher your level, the more difficult the game becomes. This essentially makes grinding a diminishing return activity, because you're slowly making the game harder on yourself. Yes, this is actually what happens.

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Even at the $10 buy-in level, which is 1000 gold, I doubt you'd have enough funds to get ahead of the difficulty curve for more than a few experience levels / 10 or so main campaign missions. It really is that bad right now. While I think Madfinger probably has some fine-tuning to do here in order to keep players happy, I also don't believe they're going to budge that much in the near term. This game was clearly designed to make money, not appease gamers.

You can, of course, use TapJoy offers to get some free gold and give yourself some breathing room if you're trying to play without dropping any cash, but your advantages will be short-lived.

Graphics, controls, and sound

Dead Trigger 2 is quite impressive visually, though not leaps and bounds ahead of anything we've seen on mobile to date. The graphics are very good, but they're not the big step forward I think the first DT was at the time it was released for Android.

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Tegra 4 devices get enhanced water and smoke textures, but even playing on an NVIDIA Shield - which is designed for high-intensity gaming and features a built-in exhaust fan - frame rates on the Ultra High graphics settings dropped into the teens when large amounts of smoke or water effects were being rendered alongside the zombies. I had to turn the graphics down for the game to run completely smoothly.

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Controls in DT2 are superb. I've been using Shield most of the time, but I did try it on a Galaxy S4 and even on a 5" screen it remained quite playable. The controls in the original DT were excellent on touchscreens as well (though obviously a physical gamepad still wins out), and back in the days before my Nexus 7 died, I remember being pleasantly surprised at just how usable they were.

Sound effects seem substantially more varied and of higher quality than in the original, with voice acting actually sounding fairly professional. Many parts of the game feature voiced-over narration, and your nameless hero has a few Duke Nukem-esque catchphrases he intermittently mumbles while mowing down scores of your undead foes.

Conclusion

This game, for me, is ruined by the presence of in-app purchases. While the original Dead Trigger was explicitly designed to be approachable without spending any money at all, the same obviously cannot be said of the sequel. Dead Trigger 2 is an attempt to monetize the casual audience aggressively using an admittedly well-designed and intuitive shooter platform.

Given how overplayed the zombie genre is, though, and how much work obviously went into this game, to me it's a bit sad to see the talent Madfinger clearly has for making games poured into such a blatant money grab. There is so much potential in this game that is utterly squandered by timers, gold, and gameplay that is designed to frustrate players into making purchases. I'd also like to point out that my experience will be easier than most people's - I've been playing DT2 with an NVIDIA Shield, meaning a real, high-quality controller. I'm also no slouch when it comes to gaming; I played away most of my childhood with Call of Duty, Day of Defeat, Counter-Strike, and a half-dozen other twitch-response shooters. This game would be substantially harder with touch controls, and I doubt I would have had the patience to make it as far as I did without a gamepad.

I have little doubt there will be "balance" updates to DT2 in the coming weeks and months, and that as time goes on (read: cash flow slows), Madfinger will start easing up on players in order to keep them in the game. But for now, with an average rating of 4.3 and over 500,000 downloads on the Play Store, it's the numbers that do the talking, and the numbers say money.