I would like to personally thank whoever came up with the idea for Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse because it is pure genius. The concept, that is. To you, good sir or good lady, I tip my hat. Why no one ever thought before that playing a rampaging zombie would make a quality video game is mystifying. Now take that novel idea, throw it into a futuristic city designed by a sci-fi junkie from 1952, and add the ability to munch anyone you see turning them into zombies. All of this fun stuff occurs within the Halo engine as well. The result is a recipe for nothing but pure comedy gold and huge success.
So why is it that I feel Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse is nothing more than a dog-ugly, one-trick pony that fails to even remotely live up to its seemingly vast potential?
The game is frequently funny, is built on an engine with a hefty pedigree, and gives gamers the ability to munch people’s brains thus converting victims into a controllable zombie horde. How could a brilliant idea find itself left on the side of the road as ugly and boring environments, repetitive gameplay, and a bland story shuffle past? I honestly do not know. What I do know is that I was laughing hysterically for the first half hour I played, then stopped altogether once I hit the two-hour mark. So what gives?
First of all, the idea of a futuristic city as someone in 1952 would envision it is terrific. Robots run all of the lower-rung jobs like gas station attendants, maintenance, and tour guide. All of the vehicles have a hover mode on them, and the building and train aesthetics are taken straight from Metropolis. Overall, the visuals are great during the in-game cinematics and ridiculously funny. The Gastopia robot refilling the police car is a sight I’ll not soon forget. But when the game switches from the cinematics to the actually game itself, something happens that degrades the quality by a factor of 100.
The in-game and cinematic graphics share a similar style in that the entire game looks like it was filmed during the 1950s. The colors are washed out, there is extensive film grain, and there are even vertical lines from the top of the screen to the bottom of it. During the actual game play, however, the washed out look is even more muted and takes on a sickly green tone. After seeing the same effect used on the loading screen, I realized that the environment is supposed to look greener the more Stubbs is involved, but the level of green stays constant. When the game started, I thought it looked drab and dreary despite the fact that Punchbowl is supposed to be a land of almost infinite color. The result is a game that is bland and ugly from start to finish.
Looking past the environments is tougher than it sounds because the levels are so massive. The catch is that they feel just as empty. Stubbs can across a street in downtown Punchbowl and the skyline will stretch as high and as far as you can see. But nothing else happens other than a bunch of humans charging Stubbs, and the result is a huge sense of lifelessness to the entire proceedings. Playing a game where next to nothing is going on around the main character feels like walking through a museum. Everything is fun to look at, but all you can do is look at it all.
The character models all have the same moves, so it does not matter whether you chomp the brains of a SWAT member or a farmer because they will walk, attack, and fall in the exact same way. Throwing a gut grenade nets a green explosion which throws bodies far and wide, and again the models all flail exactly the same. This would be easier to accept in a budget title, but I would expect better since Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse retails for full price and uses the Halo engine. That game was exceptionally pretty, and Stubbs is just plain ugly.
I have a confession to make. I’m putting the soundtrack for Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse on my Christmas wish list. Listening to Ben Kweller perform a modern version of “Lollipop” while rampaging zombie hordes destroy civilization is pure unadulterated bliss. The soundtrack is chock full of alternative bands performing hits of yesteryear, and it is a sheer joy to listen to everything it has to offer. Of course, it has the added benefit of being the exact sort of morbid humor I personally dig. I loved chasing civilians around, blood spraying everywhere, and listening to Oranger sing “Mr. Sandman.”
That, my friends, is an inspired soundtrack.
Civilians sadly have only so many responses to Stubbs chewing on their brains, and gun shots unfortunately sound like little pop guns. The sci-fi ray guns though do have a solid punch behind them. The voice acting is gloriously over-the-top and is entertaining all by itself. The GuideBot’™ that helps Stubbs out cracked me up every time she appeared because actress Amy Warren reminded me of the great Edie McClurg with her relentless perkiness. Explosions and Stubbs’ own gastrointestinal destruction all have the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) amount of power to them. The further into the game you go, the more obvious it becomes that the developers pillaged every sound effect from every 1950s science fiction movie ever made. Suffice it to say, the effects are well used throughout, and the sound design is truly the highpoint of Stubbs’ adventure.
The good thing about controlling the zombie hordes is that it is very easy to do. The left thumbstick controls Stubbs’ movement, and even though he initially shambles, he will pick up speed the longer you point him in one direction. The right thumbstick is for the camera, which is no where near as problematic as it is in a lot of third-person games. The left trigger throws Stubbs’ gut grenade then pulling it again will cause detonation, and both the right trigger and the X button are for melee attacks.
The A button is for jumping, the Y button is used for both insta-kills, like brain chomping, and activating either people or gadgets. The black button is for rolling Stubbs’ head like a bowling ball, and the white button is for throwing Stubbs’ hand. Whenever he takes off his hand, the game switches to a third-person view behind the hand and you can then maneuver it up and down walls, then hit the Y button to possess a human. Once possessed, the human is controlled by the player exactly as they would Stubbs, with a few exceptions. The B button then draws or holsters the human’s weapon, and the black button abandons them completely and returns Stubbs’ hand to his arm. Controlling a vehicle is as simple as moving the thumbsticks in the direction you want to go in, and if it comes equipped with a weapon then the right trigger will fire it.
This is, of course, the default control scheme. The developers included a few others and while they all have amusing titles, I found the default to be my best bet for destroying humanity. But as they say on the internet, your mileage may vary.
The future looks bright for the residents of Punchbowl, USA, a true city of the future built during the 1950s. That is until Stubbs the Zombie climbs out of the ground with a lit cigarette, rumpled brown fedora, gaping wound in his side and a hankering for human brains. Thus begins Stubbs’ quest for answers and grey matter, in no particular order. I realize the horse I’m beating has been dead for ages, but this is such a classic case of a great concept gone awry in the execution that I simply cannot let it go. It is so much fun controlling Stubbs and turning men wearing black leather jackets and women wearing poodle skirts into an army of rampaging, brain-hungry zombies that it defies adequate description. Suffice it to say that I threw my head back and roared the first time I ripped off a teenybopper’s arm and beat him to death with it, while my wife hid her eyes in disgust.
By no means is Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse high-brow entertainment, but it will greatly appeal to the 10-year-old male in all of us for a few hours at least. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the game lost me, but I think it was during either the third or fourth mission. After that I realized I had seen both death animations, and already laughed at the things people said as Stubbs ate them. Then the game kept recycling the same environments, the same death animations, and the same audio clips and it just became stale. It did not help my enjoyment that the environments looked like they were built by a first-time level designer using an engine capable of much better.
The way you play the game is quite simple. Attack the nearest people, convert them into zombies, send them forward to attack and convert other people, rinse, repeat for as long as you play the game. There are a few bright spots though where the monotony is utterly destroyed by a moment of sheer brilliance. The boss fights, for example, are as entertaining as they are challenging. When Stubbs encounters the chief of police, I expected a long drawn out gun battle. What I wound up with was a dance off on a Simon Says-style dance floor. The four floor sections would light up with the corresponding color of the button I had to press, and it was glorious. But as a counter-point, the entire attack on the police station prior to the boss fight was filled with endless waves of police in an environment so large and bland that it managed to feel empty even with dozens of enemies on screen.
It’s neat to be able to detach your hand and use it to crawl along the ground, or up walls and ceilings, and then use it to possess human opponents. It’s not so neat when this only comes into play a few times in a game that is already too short. My sentiments are exactly the same when it comes to taking off Stubbs’ own head and using it as an explosive bowling ball. It’s funny the first time, amusing the second time, and dull the third time onward. Then the player finds themselves using the same old attack moves against wave after wave of opponents, and very little changes. It is also tough to figure out where you need to go, because you have to pay attention to the environment more frequently than not. For example, when Stubbs is going through the parking garage level, there are directional arrows on the ground but nothing more specific. It would help if there was even that much in some of the vehicle levels where you just have to drive around until you find your way.
I tried to play through Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse again but just couldn’t. There just is not a whole lot of game here, despite the frequently hilarious jokes and cut scenes. Eating people and converting them into an army is fun for the first few levels, but after that I began to wonder what else there was. The game is basically a one-trick pony, and while that trick is fun at first, it wears out its welcome a lot faster than I thought it would. Sure, gamers can partner up and zombify a whole city together, but it feels like there should have been more. My advice is to wait until this game drops to around the $25 mark, because I would feel ripped off were I to pay twice that. It can also be completed within a standard rental window, so take that for what it’s worth.