Stubbs the Zombie Review

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Graphics: 8.0
Sound : 8.5
Gameplay : 9.0
Multiplayer : 8.0
Overall : 8.5
Review by Ben Serviss
Sometimes, the best ideas are the simple ones. Press jump twice to double-jump. Collect one-hundred coins for an extra life. Munch on the noggins of the living to refill your life meter. With Wideload Games’ new release, Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse, the player is cast in the role of the shambling undead for the first time in gaming history. Does this radical departure from the videogame norm succeed in capturing our hearts (and digesting our brains)? Stubbs’ strength lies in its unique appeal, and though it has a few issues, it turns out to be a solid third-person action excursion.

The tale of Stubbs is an odd one. Once a traveling salesman, Edward Stubblefield was brutally murdered and buried in a park in the city of Punchbowl. However, Punchbowl is no ordinary place—it’s a city of the future (that is, a decidedly ‘50s take on the future), constructed by billionaire tycoon Andrew Monday. As Stubbs, you find yourself resurrected in undead form, with plenty of ripe craniums available for the snacking. The ‘campyness’ level of the game is off the charts, as you’ll encounter numerous parodies of b-grade zombie flicks, wisecracking robots, and a storyline that refuses to take itself seriously. Of course, the effect is intensified by the buckets of blood and bodily chunks that get tossed around, creating a really weird aesthetic that’s half the fun.

Crafted by former Bungie founder Alex Seropian, Stubbs has a leg-up from the get go, in so far as it’s powered by the exquisite Halo engine. The feel of the familiar environment seeps through the entire experience, from the reliable camera, signature graphics style, even down to the menu structure. Wideload has kept a good amount of Halo gameplay standbys as well: the game autosaves your progress while you play, Stubbs’ health slowly regenerates ala Master Chief’s shield, and the playful physics of Halo’s vehicles makes a triumphant return. The graphics engine has been given a tuning, bringing it up to par with current generation visuals, and can easily render tons of undead with nary a frame-rate drop in sight.

Although Stubbs plays in an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective, the controls are similar to Bungie’s masterpiece. The left stick moves Stubbs while the right stick controls the camera, and clicking the left stick makes Stubbs duck. The right trigger and ‘X’ launch your main attack, a sort of zombie slash, which is used to wear down enemies. Once stunned enough you can press the ‘Y’ button to eat their brains, filling up your health and turning them into zombie allies. This is the most intriguing aspect of Stubbs’ gameplay—after doing away with your enemies they become fighters for your cause, creating a tenuous sense of shifting battle with a very organic feel. You have limited control over your zombies, with the two options being to shove them in a given direction, or whistle to your horde of undead to herd them one way or another. Both actions are executed with the ‘Y’ button, keeping most gameplay options context-sensitive and uncomplicated.

Stubbs has an arsenal of zombie abilities at his disposal. Pressing ‘B’ makes Stubbs rip a zombified fart, stunning all enemies in the area. The left trigger lets loose a gut grenade, wrenched from Stubbs’ ribcage; pressing the trigger a second time detonates it on command. The white button lets Stubbs tear his own head off and bowl it down the street; again, a second press detonates it with explosive results. Pressing the black button rips off one of your hands, letting it freely roam the level ala Thing from The Addams Family. Once an enemy is in range, pressing ‘Y’ sends the hand leaping onto the foe’s head, giving you remote control over his actions. Enemies wielding all sorts of weaponry from pistols to lasers can be possessed, and they exist as your only chance to get your hands on a gun during the game. Shooting is also done in the third person, and though it is handled well enough, it isn’t a main focus of the game. Instead, possessing key enemies at different junctures becomes a strategic choice, and isn’t just there for kicks. All of Stubbs’ abilities are fueled by brainpower (har har), so you’ll need to personally chomp on some skulls to get the choicest power-ups. These abilities aren’t tacked on; for the most part they’re integral to the level design, and if you want to get through some tough spots you’ll have to choose wisely.

Stubbs’ tone is quite goofy, with a script that pokes fun at clichés like white-bread suburbia, rural rednecks, evil scientists, and bad zombie movies. A solid part of Stubbs’ appeal is the chance to play as the undead creeping up on a victim, and the lines that your various live snacks shriek out can be quite funny the first few times around, with gems like “Stop eating me!” and “Spit that out, dammit!”. The liberal sprayings of blood that accompany a good meal are worthy of a Mortal Kombat title, with plenty of gibs to boot. The cut-scenes are often ridiculous, but it’s the inclusion of one mini-game that takes the prize as an indicator of Stubbs’ absurd atmosphere. I’ll give you a hint: it involves dancing.

If there’s one area where Stubbs falters, it’s in the level design. Some parts are relatively open with multiple paths available, while others are merely treks through same-looking corridors with no alternatives. And, in Halo fashion, a few of the early levels are reused later in the game. This isn’t as noticeable as you’d think, but it’s a minor gripe nonetheless.

The other nitpick is the lack of a run button. Stubbs’ basic walk is your typical zombie shamble, effective in scaring your prey but very slow. Holding down the direction you’re traveling in for a few seconds will make Stubbs break into a trot, but the addition of a dedicated run button would’ve sped up those long journeys through empty battlefields.

Rounding out the single-player mode is a cooperative mode, also realized in Halo fashion. Adding a second player to the fray greatly increases the strategic possibilities, and with the four difficulties to choose from, it offers a respectable quest to take on after completing the game solo. Most impressively, the visuals aren’t downgraded, with only a few special effects muted to allow for a smooth and consistent framerate.

The sounds of Stubbs play an important role in the game. The terrified shrieks of panicked citizens, the quips they drop upon being eaten, and the expressive zombie grunts all contribute to the fun. The music helps immensely to set the mood, with classic 1950’s tunes like “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “Earth Angel” permeating the experience. A mix of original artists and modern bands covering the retro hits makes for an enjoyable combination, something that even die-hard metal fans can no doubt appreciate.

While Stubbs is a well constructed, solid package, it doesn’t reach the stratospheric levels that its older brother Halo did. Wideload’s first title is nonetheless a fantastic game, as it takes an original premise and executes it with finesse and skill. With commentary by the developers available in secret icons after beating the game, it’s easy to see how these guys fit into the modern gaming scene. If Stubbs is the first Wideload that the ex-Bungie studio drops, we can look forward to future shipments of innovative and uncompromising gaming fun.