Reviewed: December 3, 2005
Released: October 17, 2005
When Alex Seropian left Bungie during the development of Halo 2, Xbox fans feared that an era in Xbox gaming was coming to an end. The Halo creator and Bungie cofounder, Seropian, eased gamers fears when he explained that his leaving was not so much out of any differences of opinion with his fellow workers – it was simply because he longed to return to his hometown of Chicago.
Seropian left Bungie on good terms, and with license to use the Halo engine he had once helped create, returned to his native Chicago and formed a new development company called, strangely enough, Wideload (observant Halo fans might recognize the Wideload name and logo from certain Halo munitions).
The first Wideload offering has hit the shelves and surprisingly – it has nothing to do with alien invaders, haloed planets or a fella named Master Chief. But do not fret gamers, Wideload’s gameplay does borrow heavily from the Xbox’s coveted tale of the Covenant, and even features its own Chief – Chief Masters, in fact – but this Chief is more into cutting rugs than he is into cutting aliens.
No, this time around our hero is a rotted-out corpse of a man named Stubbs the Zombie – and just like a bad George Romero nightmare-come-true, the name of the game is eating brains, as Stubbs assembles an army of zombies to wipe out the futuristic town of Punchbowl in Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without a Pulse.
The story is cryptic (no pun intended). Basically, the year is 1959 and somewhere in Pennsylvania lies a futuristic utopian society called Punchbowl. Punchbowl is the brainchild of rags-to-riches billionaire playboy, Andrew Monday who sees to it that all residents are happy, healthy and equal in every way.
Then one day, in the center of town, the festering, rotting corpse of door-to-door salesman Edward “Stubbs” Stubblefield emerges from the earth, and begins a reign of terror on the town by transforming innocent bystanders into his personal army of zombie brain eaters.
You play as Stubbs, and the reasons for his reemergence after a 26-year long dirt nap are slowly dished out over the course of the twelve varied levels of brain eating. The course of events see Stubbs doing everything from simple hack-and-slash style melee attacks on hapless citizens, to impaling inbred hillbilly-militia types with spiked tractors, to contaminating the city’s water supply with, well…pee. Lots and lots of yellow, flowing pee. And just in case you care to ask – yes, at some point there is a context-sensitive “pee” button, and it is possible (yet not very effective) to spray your enemies.
But nitrogenous waste is not Mr. Stubbs only line of defense. In fact, his entire body is a veritable plethora of cool gadgets.
Take, for instance, Stubbs’ guts, which can be thrown at enemies and detonated for a killer and aptly titled “Gut Bomb”. The effect is very similar to Halo’s frag grenade, although the squishy nature of the spleen hinders it from bouncing around as much.
Then there are Mr. Stubbs’ gaseous releases, which stuns a large radius of attackers around our stinky hero, long enough for him to gorge on the hapless victims’ cranial matter.
Some might like to detach Stubbs’ self-detonating head, and bowl it Kingpin style into a wall of oncoming humans. The effect is nice, but a bit difficult to line up correctly.
And finally, I saved the best for last: a detachable hand that spider-crawls across the floor, up and over walls, and leaps onto an unsuspecting human’s head – burrowing into his or her cranium for maximum undeadly possession. If the possessed person happens to be holding a weapon (which they often are), Mr. Stubbs can commence to blasting away at the surrounding humans.
The really neat thing about the game is how it integrates – nay, demands – the use of these unique gameplay elements into the game. There are certain areas where you simply must use a gut bomb, or possibly a human possession, to simply get through the level – going is with limbs flailing will just get you dead…or deader…really dead…whatever…quickly.
The bonus is that using these items generally leads to some very hilarious moments – I mean, it’s great fun when militia attackers suddenly realize that their inbred hillbilly brother has suddenly has an extra hand burrowed into his skull, which happens generally after he starts unknowingly peppering them with buckshot. Or, when a nice huddle of NPC’s suddenly goes airborne due to a perfectly thrown gut bomb.
But, the game doesn’t let you off that easily – these “weapons” don’t come cheap – you must use them judiciously, and they may only be refilled by consuming human brains…lots of human brains. The way it works is that there is an onscreen meter showing a head, a hand, a pylorus, and a fart-thing.
Eating one human brain will instantly fill the entire hand, as well as a smidgeon of the other three. Eating more human brains will eventually fill the others to capacity – but you do have to eat quite a few brains to fully stock your cache, and that isn’t always easy in the heat of the battle. This is especially true since you can easily kill your enemies “too much” to eat their brains – you have to catch them at just the right moment where they are incapacitated, but not decapitated.
Another great thing about the game is how this army of undead that is created is actually quite helpful to Mr. Stubbs’ undertaking (again, no pun intended). In fact, in times where Stubbs’ energy becomes low, he can easily back off and let his little soldiers of death take care of business until his health regenerates.
There are also a few vehicular levels to give the game variety. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that using the Halo engine, the vehicles all control like Banshees and Warthogs, depending whether they hover (sod-o-master, and truck) or are affixed to the ground (tractor, military jeep). The levels are generally straightforward Carmageddon-type fare, but there are some that find you in timed runs, delivering zombies to switch triggers or the like. For Halo vets, controlling the vehicles will be a walk in the park – but for newbies (like my PS2 pal, Tom), expect to be fumbling around a bit.
And jeeze, I nearly forgot to mention the dance sequence. Yes, I said dance sequence. Basically playing out like a the classic electronic game Simon, the dance floor is surrounded by lights corresponding to the color and placement of the Xbox controller’s face buttons. Police Chief T.S. Masters (Chief Masters, Master Chief, get it?) challenges Stubbs to a dance-off, where he conducts sets of moves to the lights, which Stubbs must then repeat. The moves start off in easy groups of four, and then escalate into faster and more difficult groups of five and six double beats. By the time you hit the bonus stage, it gets nearly impossible to keep up.
The best though, is when you and a friend take on the citizens of Punchbowl in the two-player split-screen cooperative mode. As with Halo, cooperative mode treats you as a team and will not end the game should one of you die – it will just make the dead player wait until the combat is over (or the other player is far enough away from the combat zone) to trigger a respawn. What this means is that the players can ladder off of each other’s lives, and pretty much cruise through the game in a single sitting.
To add to the fun, cooperative pairs can use decoy tactics, in which one draws fire while the other sneaks up behind for an instant kill, or to dole significant damage on a tough bosses. Even the Chief Masters’ dance-off makes considerations for two players, automatically switching back and forth between both players. It all comes together for a great way to spend a Friday night with a friend.
As you can tell, the game is filled with tons of really cool concepts, and if it weren’t for the fact that the main crux of brain eating begins to get a repetitive and mundane after a while – I would really be singing Stubbs’ praises. But when you take a quirky underdog game like Stubbs and compare it to other quirky underdog games like Psychonauts – where something new and amazing is constantly being thrown at you – well, there’s just no comparison.
And the fact that Stubbs moves so slowly, so plodding, so deliberate, is enough to drive you batty after a while. I know, I know – the man is a zombie, and zombies move slowly, it is in their nature – but dragging ass through huge sprawling levels, only to pick up a half-step of speed after a dozen slow shuffles would give a sloth an anxiety attack. Again, I know it is a zombie game, but the zombies in 28 Days Later ran their butts off – and they were not any less of zombies, were they?
The Halo engine is getting old, people. While Stubbs generally gets the job done in the graphics department, it definitely looks a bit outdated compared to the current generation of games.
The character modeling on the Stubbs character itself is pretty darned good; gamers can swing the camera around to see detailed pieces of flesh hanging from the cavernous torso, bulging eyeballs and refined facial features on his rotting face, and the omnipresent cigarette, which casts slight orangey glow and leaves a thin trail of smoke.
Otherwise, things look a bit drab. NPC character models are recycled heavily, and the backgrounds generally tend to take on a very dull and repetitive look. If you remember some of the repetitive levels in the original Halo, you will feel right at home in Punchbowl.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some bright spots here or there. A cornfield scene requires our hero to sneak through rows of beautifully rendered 3D cornstalks and surprise awaiting farmers, and in the city itself, some of the 50’s themes storefronts feature humorous neon signage and “in” jokes. And little details like the detail of bones and flesh inside the possessing hand, or the skull-opening exploits of the zombies, are top-shelf.
The game features a bit of filtering to give it an aged look, but the result is an overall visual package that tends to look a bit drab and uninteresting.
Man, was I disappointed with the sound in this game. It’s probably because I came into it with such high expectations and felt so let down in the end.
I mean, getting word that the soundtrack was going to feature bands like Death Cab for Cutie, The Raveonettes, The Dandy Warhols and especially my long-time (like 16 yrs, people) favorites the Flaming Lips all singing specially commissioned covered of 50’s songs – I was more excited about the damn soundtrack than I was about the game.
Then the game starts, and the menu screen is rocking and I’m hearing a cool-as-hell version of Mr. Sandman, and the game starts and…silence. Well, not exactly silence, but definitely no freaking music. Just a bunch of grunts and groans and “brains…brains…” and shuffling feet, and bystanders screaming, “He’s eating my brai…urrrgh!”.
Really, the only place where music barely comes into play is in the menu screens and during the aforementioned dance-off scene – and even there it is only in snippets long enough to do one cycle of Simon-like moves before it switches to a different song.
The cityfolk do come up with some pretty funny cracks, like wailing over the fact that you just ripped off their “favorite arm” or the mentally challenged hillbilly militia folk jabbering amongst each other about “another derned zombie”. And all of the voices are well done, especially in the cutscenes.
Still, Stubbs could have used a bit more punch in the sound department – at least to help keep gamers from dozing off.
Due to the liberal health system and ample autosave points, experienced gamers will easily finish Stubbs over the course of a couple of evenings. Pair up with a buddy in cooperative mode, and the game can easily be finished in a mere matter of hours.
One might think that the game’s brevity would be disappointing, but all in all the progression of events is quite satisfying for what it is. In fact, I am not sure that I could have taken much more. And yes, much like Halo, once the story is finished the gamer can go back and try the same levels with more and harder enemies – but I don’t foresee many forums loaded with gamers bragging about beating Stubbs on Legendary.
But hey, any game that offers such a seamless integration of cooperative play into the main storyline deserves extra credit. Gosh, let me think…the last games to successfully integrate cooperative play this well were, hmmm…Halo and Brute Force. Imagine that!
Playing Stubbs with a friend was a real blast, and being able to pull off collaborated decoy attacks really made the game feel like a true team effort.
Stubbs is a very impressive debut for the fledgling Wideload. It is very apparent that Seropian and crew know, for the most part, what is required to make a great game.
Stubbs is a technically solid title that features some incredibly unique gameplay elements – I mean, the possession mechanic is hands-down (no pun intended) one of the coolest things I have ever seen in a game, and never before has farting in a crowd been so helpful.
But make no mistake – Stubbs the Zombie is no Psychonauts. The trippy concepts and humor may be there, but the sluggish movement and slow pacing of the zombie subject matter tends to really put a hamper on the fun right whenever the action really begins to pick up.
Still, Stubbs is well worth checking out, and Bungie fanboys will definitely want to pick up a copy for posterity’s sake. I sincerely hope that Wideload keeps making games, because we need more developers willing to step out on a limb and try something new.