This Rebel Does Have A Pulse After All

Most reviews of Wideload's debut effort, Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without A Pulse have been far more routine and uninteresting than the game itself. Barely a few hundred words, they run down the same checklist of pros and cons as if there was actually only one person who had played the game and written a review, and the rest were all cribbed from that original effort. This is probably not too far from the truth.

The usual litany goes like this: respect for the game's central "high concept" conceit, which is "a zombie game where you play the zombie" and a grudging acknowledgement of the game's sense of humor. The soundtrack is always mentioned, with a list of bands I'm obviously too old or out of touch to have heard of, who admittedly did decent covers of 50's standards.

Then, the review notes some of the controversy regarding the game's gore, accuses it of being too short and/or repetitive, and caps it off with some unrevealing series of numbers or snide advice about rental.

I'd like first to respond to each of these elements that most of the short reviews have in common, and then go on to take a more detailed look at what Stubbs is.

Dawn of the Dead Meets Tomb Raider

The central idea behind Stubbs is easy to communicate-- a zombie game where the player is the zombie. It's a nice idea. One can imagine that the appeal of it was easy to explain not only to gamers but to all manner of executives and investors that Wideload must have talked to about the idea. They may not all have liked it, or have been comfortable with the game's content and themes, but we imagine at least that not too much time was spent trying to explain what the idea was.

It's also an idea that doesn't suffer from as much duplication in the marketplace as most others. It's not a sequel to anything, it doesn't use anyone else's intellectual property (except the soundtrack and some of the targets of the game's parody) nor is it yet another take on overfamiliar themes (like cyborg supersoldiers defending humanity against alien hordes).

Yes, the game is funny-- a great deal of the fun of playing it is some of the off-color jokes in cutscenes, some of the "OMG I don't believe they did that" portions of gameplay (you'll know them when you see them) as well as the selection of dialogue snippets that play when you eat the brains of civilians, police, soldiers and others. The range of snippets isn't nearly as broad as that in Halo 2, and there are quite a few that I heard many times over while playing through the game, but by and large the repetition did not detract from playing.

It is important to recognize this one key thing. Playing Stubbs is fun. I don't know when it was that videogames became more about competition, about gee-whiz graphics, about teraflops and bump maps and ping times, but Stubbs is clearly a throwback to gaming before that era. It's fun as well as funny-- it's a genuine pleasure to play in an easily recognizable way-- a different way then, say, playing through Hangar Bay 2 on Cairo Station with the Thunderstorm skull on is fun. Which is to say, you realize Stubbs is fun while you're playing it, as opposed to only after you've finished.

Coming Up Short?

The two most common criticisms of the game were that the campaign was too short and that the central gameplay mechanic-- brain-eating-- got old even in that short space of time.

Admittedly, Stubbs is not a long game. Even players who are terrible at Halo can easily finish the entire campaign at the Normal difficulty in far less than ten hours. While increasing the difficulty level does impact this somewhat, it's impossible to deny that Stubbs is not as long a game as, say, Halo or even Halo 2. Nor do I think it was intended to be.

I think there's a reason why comedies on television are usually about half the length of a drama. Stubbs' story is fun and entertaining, but it doesn't take itself too seriously and doesn't expect to be taken too seriously. The game has its basic gameplay, a few puzzles, a few short cutscenes, and then gets out of your way. It doesn't try to give you the same tricks over and over again in different environments or with more enemies just for the sake of making a longer game, and in my book, that's a good thing. Stubbs is a nice little story. It's not a sprawling epic and it doesn't try to be. Very likely if it had tried to stretch itself longer, then the critics claiming the gameplay was too repetitive would have complained even more loudly.

That claim itself I think is the most unfair of all. Because when it comes down to how Stubbs goes about his business, there are many times more options than in a typical shooter. Vehicles don't play quite as large a part in Stubbs as they do in Halo, for instance, but they are there to provide some variety. The central brain-eating mechanic also has subtle nuances; such attacks not only take out your enemies, but add zombie minions to your horde, and fuel your special abilities. Sometimes it might be easier to use your hand to possess a human enemy and use their weapons to take out opponents-- but doing so does not replenish your store of brains, so you have to be careful. At least at the easier difficulties, it seems the game helpfully spawns helpless civilians for you to eat, just in case you're feeling a bit peckish-- but even so, there are some spots where you can deprive yourself of needed brainfood with injudicious use of human weapons. There are hidden levels of tactical depth in Stubbs that have so far gone unremarked.

The same ability to possess humans can also be used for reconnaissance, as the hand can traverse vertical as well as horizontal surfaces, and often goes unseen by humans. You can use it to climb buildings and look out over the terrain to identify where enemies are hiding and what they're armed with. However, you can only use that ability once before you need to recharge-- so you have to consider carefully when and where to use it! The hand is thrown just like a grenade, allowing you to use it against airborne enemies or to quickly possess distant targets.

Stubbs has several other special abilities, but most are variations on a theme. The so-called "gut grenade" allows Stubbs to throw part of his body at enemies, like a frag grenade in Halo, with the added twist that it doesn't explode until you pull the trigger a second time. The resulting explosion can take out humans and vehicles. Stubbs can also bowl his head at groups of enemies with similar methods and effects-- the wrinkle here is that you can steer it like a guided missile. Another explosive effect, zombie flatulence, allows you to temporarily stun nearby enemies, making it easier to eat their brains (or just kill them if they're wearing head protection).

In the next installment, we'll see how Stubbs measures up against his big brother, the Master Chief.

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Comments

Even players who are terrible at Halo can easily finish the entire campaign at the Normal difficulty in far less than ten hours.

I don't know how you would know, did you ask them?
Good review so far, and thank goodness the game was that short. I would have missed a class for almost every hour past 10 that it took me.
On second thought, that still might be better then when I went to class and tried to pull multiple stubbs moves (Ill leave which ones up to your imagination ;))

[quote=N1NJ4]

I don't know how you would know, did you ask them?[/quote]

Oh, I'm pretty terrible at Halo. Just ask Blackstar.

And if that isn't enough for you, I was at this LAN back in 2003, and Louis Wu killed me.

[quote=narcogen]
And if that isn't enough for you, I was at this LAN back in 2003, and Louis Wu killed me.
[/quote]

Random luck. Like getting hit by lightning.

[quote=Claude Errera]

Random luck. Like getting hit by lightning.[/quote]

Probably true. At least we know lightning never strikes twice.

... and that's not nice! :)

- M