Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse
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A game That makes you the zombie. A game with a wonderful comic spin and a '50s veneer. A game in which pedestrians scream, "He's eating, lie's eating my brains!" and, "Now I'll never go to college!" A game in which you can rip off your hand and have it scutter Thing-like through the level. Stubbs looked like a dead-cert a winner, a supreme reason for living. "Could it be magic?" we asked ourselves, with a collective shimmy of the hips. Could this really be the zombie game?
No, unfortunately not It's a broken game whose conceit far, far outweighs the consistency of both level design and action. All together "Oh, tits." Bit louder? "Oh, tits." Thank you. Let's see what went wrong.
Despite its faults, Stubbs The Zombie (the man and the game) is inherently lovable. In terms of pitch, angle and consistency of ribtickling, the chaps at Wideload, an offshoot of Bungie no less, have got it bang-on.
Stubbs sees you jumping up from the dead in the city of Punchbowl, a self-automated 'world of tomorrow' affair with chunky Robbie the Robot' robots, hover-cars and other faux-future paraphernalia so beloved by the gullible dolts of the American '50s. The on-screen action is even complemented by a flickery filter that presents the murderous rampage of the titular zombie with dust-specks, dampened colours and the occasional stray pube. Behind this, robots cheerfully fill up cars via their groinal attachments, citizens trot around their promised land of Americana and (if I heard correctly), policemen scream, "My wanking arm!" as Stubbs merrily relieves appendages from their sockets. Its presentation is impeccable, and it even has The Flaming Lips on the soundtrack.
No Ordinary Zombie
In the interests of creating a diverting game, Wideload has made sure that Stubbs dispenses of many hallowed zombie rules: he can amble at two speeds (one slightly faster than the other); he can jump; he can use bits of his guts as grenades and he can fart noxious gas. In many eyes, this rejigging of zombie lore would be a crime second to none, but thankfully key Romero-isms remain. Stubbs eats brains, those relieved of brains become his shambling followers, and these followers also gain a penchant for cerebral matter. Your zombie pals then amble around helping you off the innocent, absorbing bullets left, right and centre and generally causing a nuisance in the malls, streets, multi-storey car parks, police stations and bumpkin environs of fair Punchbowl.
You generally don't want your followers to be too greedy though, since chowing down on brain matter charges up your gut grenades and associated abilities, which unlock themselves as you stomp through the game. A particular highlight comes when you detach your own arm and control it skittering through the level, up walls and across ceilings, until you come across an armed man ripe for possession. Then, with questioning voices piping up around saying that you're "looking a bit different", or perhaps wearing a new shirt (with a green forearm attached to the rear of your chosen innocent's head) you can unholster his weapon, run into a room packed with his friends and colleagues and bag yourself some headshot decapitations.
On the surface at least everything appears well and good: it's gory, it's funny, its undead tongue is lolling out of a hole in its cheek. But the game mechanics simply do not work in any way, shape or sinister form. You can fill a game up with enough great tunes and neat gags to raise an instant smile, but if the rubric of being a zombie isn't fun, then where's the point? Combat is a button-tapping mess followed by rudimentary noggin-gobbling, the guns of the possessed are diabolical and your horde of zombie-followers are useless when the action gets going.
If this game had lived up to its ambitions, you could have had some sort of tactics in mind - creating shambling pincer movements with your followers perhaps - but as it is, everything feels loose and irrelevant Offing your foes too often becomes simply wandering towards an insurgent and taking their bullets one after the other, eating their brain and then standing behind a shed until you automatically regenerate. This isn't fun. It's like Wideload is somehow expecting you to use your skills in some way to get through it in a slicker way -but you're buggered if you know how.
Yawn Of The Dead
It doesn't help that your zombie powers are so few and far between either. Your poisonous farts are useless, while the limited availability of gut grenades and head-bowling ball-bombs, coupled with their complete inaccuracy, makes lightweight nonsense out of some wonderfully-crafted animations of cartoon violence. Vacant level design, meanwhile, has large areas populated by relatively few characters - despite the sizeable amount of zombies that may be futilely trailing in your wake. My biggest bugbear in gaming meanwhile, the 'Halo effect', in which the same interiors are repeated ad infinitum, also makes a return to the fray.
In essence, the game mechanics are as rough as a butcher's clog, yet it remains a game that will make you smile, and one that you'll finish - not least because it's so damn short. With the best soundtrack in history (Ben Kweller, Cake, Death Cab For Cutie, The Dandy Warhols, The Flaming Lips et al), and enough dainty '50s lip-gloss applied, despite its cavalcade of issues, there are reasons to play it - but very few reasons to part with your hard-earned cash for it. Certainly not on PC either - Stubbs loves the console, and loves it hard.
And with that, the last great hope for zombie gaming is snuffed out. But you know zombies - they'll be back for more. One day. One day soon.