Mean, Green, Fighting.... Or Eating Machines

Despite being not just very different games but nearly different kinds of games, comparisons between Wideload's debut effort, Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without A Pulse, and Bungie's Halo franchise are inevitable.

Wideload has derived not only their core personnel but also the game's engine from Bungie.

At first glance, if it weren't for the "made with the Halo engine" sticker on the box, there might be little to suggest any connection at all. Some reviewers have gone so far as to suggest this was merely a marketing ploy, to attach the relatively unknown Wideload's first game to the blockbuster Halo series. However, the connections are far deeper than that.

The code that became the engine for Halo was originally envisioned as a replacement for the Myth engine, to be used in a science-fiction themed real-time strategy game. For awhile it retained its third-person perspective even after the game became a shooter; but long before release, the game was changed to the more traditional first-person perspective, and became the standard-bearer for the genre on consoles.

Is That An Angel Over Your Shoulder?

Stubbs, for many reasons, has kept the third-person perspective. For one thing, while the heroes of both Halo and Stubbs are green and don't say much, there's good reason for a player in Stubbs to spend more time looking at the title character than in Halo. Remarkable as he is, the Master Chief is basically a kick-ass soldier. He has a heavy armored suit and carries powerful guns. When playing Halo, you interact with the game world through a crosshair; there's no reason to be watching over the Chief's shoulder as he mows down Covenant resistance.

Not so with Stubbs. His arsenal is far more personal. While he has a "health" bar of sort that regenerates some time after taking damage, similar to the Chief's shield, the most important meters to watch while playing Stubbs are those that fuel his special abilities. To keep Stubbs running, he needs brains. To eat brains, Stubbs has to get up close and personal with his quarry-- preferably from behind. This kind of manuevering is much easier when done from looking down from above. Plus, of course, there's the added advantage that you get to watch Stubbs rip off his opponents' skullcaps like bottle tops and slake his intellectual appetite. Although by the time you finish the game, you may have seen that so many times yourself that you're no longer very hungry.

Stubbs has been accused of being too short. At less than ten hours play time on Normal difficulty, there's something to be said for this claim.

From earlier reviews, I knew about the dancing minigame before I actually played it; still, I was happy to see something out of the ordinary. As I am not a seasoned player of rhythm games, it's hard for me to say how this minigame compares to games in that genre, like Dance Dance Revolution. In practice, it functions like the old Simon Says electronic game. Your opponent, Punchbowl's police chief, executes four dance moves while one of each of the four colored lights, corresponding to the Xbox controller's four colored jewel buttons, flashes on the floor around him. After he does his sequence, you have to duplicate it. Do it successfully enough times and you advance to the next round, where the patterns get faster.

I couldn't quite get the hang of it once it entered the second round; the object didn't seem to be to press the buttons after the lights flashed or even at the same time; in fact, trying to memorize the sequence and repeat it as soon and as fast as possible seemed to work best, regardless of what the lights were doing (or what the beat of the song was) which struck me as a little odd. Someone at Wideload must have known this would frustrate some people, as after a few failed attempts the game offers to let you skip the minigame entirely, which I did.

Ironically, the second time around playing the game, at the Tough difficulty level (presumably equivalent to Halo's Heroic) the dancing game seemed a lot easier to beat.

Who Put The Bump In Bump Mapping?

Many elements in Stubbs lack the polish so evident in the Halo games, especially the first one. These are most noticeable in the cutscenes. The camera in most Halo cutscenes moves slowly and with purpose, taking time to set up its shots. The camera movement in Stubbs feels much more like that in RTS games like the Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance series on the Xbox; the camera moves and swings into position quickly, often coming to a very abrupt stop. Characters move in and out of frame without any reaction from the characters onscreen, often making you wonder what it is you're supposed to be looking at.

More disconcertingly, many times there were no visual connections whatsoever between a location you left at the end of the level, what you see in an interstitial cutscene, and where you find yourself at the start of the next level.

I suppose its only natural to wonder whether inconsistencies like this are a hallmark of a new developer's first outing, or are somehow a function of the way in which Wideload developed Stubbs, using a small group of permanent core people aided and abetted by a wide variety of out-of-house independent contractors. Stubbs at times feels very much like a patchwork quilt, as if several groups worked on individual levels and then someone tried to stitch them together using the short cutscenes.

Some cutscenes move so quickly over their subject matter that it's difficult to digest what you've just seen; and some story elements go out of view for such long periods of time that it's difficult to bring them back to mind when they become relevant again.

For instance-- we see very early on that Stubbs develops a crush on the mother of Andrew Monday, the billionaire playboy behind Punchbowl. However, once that is (rather quickly) established, we don't see her for quite awhile. When she finally speaks up against Monday, who is still trying to do damage control while Stubbs' zombie army is ripping his city of the future of of its foundations, one of Monday's henchmen-- a barbershop quartet member-- scoops her up and drags her off, and you give chase.

But then you don't see her mentioned again for several levels, and meanwhile there's a long interlude outside Punchbowl itself that involves Monday's grandfather. It's almost as if the game was designed with the expectation that most people wouldn't pay much attention to the story, and so the length of cutscenes was intentionally minimized so they wouldn't get in the way of gameplay. Based on a customized version of the Halo 1, rather than the Halo 2 engine, Stubbs does need time to load the next level, and shows a simple cartoon to represent the next level, with a growing patina of green slime that slowly spreads across the screen and a murmuring of zombie voices muttering "brains". When the screen is completely covered, the level is loaded. Having had time to play a new game with Halo 1-style level loads (and no texture pop!) I'd like to reiterate my earlier conclusion about Halo 2 that this tradeoff was extremely ill-advised. There is nothing wrong with a brief break in gameplay between levels, and removing it at the cost of creating texture pop is in no way worth it. Stubbs in no way suffers because of these loading screens. They give you a chance to crack your thumbs and refresh a drink before you dive back into the game. There's nothing wrong with it at all.

Punchbowl Will Never Be The Same

Stubbs appears to borrow several elements from Halo 2 as well. They're graphically so different from their forebears that the similarity is hard to see, but once pointed out they are unmistakable.

Stubbs follows a pretty natural pattern in the progression of enemies it throws you. At the beginning, you're given some ordinary citizens that put up little or no resistance and pose almost no threat at all. Then you're countered by police armed with pistols in increasingly large groups. In a bizarre twist, you're given a few levels fighting against redneck militia armed with shotguns and rifles, before finally facing off against scientists armed with rayguns and then the military, armed with machineguns, jeeps, and bazookas.

Of course, all those units share one thing in common: that regardless of how they are aimed, they are all humanoid figures on foot. Stubbs does have a few robot enemies, but for the most part there are fewer of them (at least in the first half of the game) and they are less worthy of concern at the Normal difficulty level.

Between the raygun-toting scientists and the national guard, however, is where Stubbs throws a curveball that is right out of Halo 2: flying units also armed with rayguns. It's easy enough to see Wideload using some of the same variations that Bungie did when going from Halo to Halo 2-- in this case, the addition of the flying Elite Ranger unit. Except in this case, they're barbershop quartet members. Why? Wideload only knows.

Then there's the mad scientist boss that pops up a bit later. It's a bit like a combination of the Heretic and Tartarus boss fights in Halo 2. Like the Heretic, he flies and is shielded. As in the Tartarus battle, he cannot normally be damaged except under special conditions; in the case of Tartarus, having his shield dropped by three consecutive shots from Sgt. Johnson's beam rifle. In Stubbs, the mechanism for defeating the mad scientist is slightly different. In the interests of not spoiling the game for those who haven't played it, I won't mention what it is, but it's fairly obvious once you get there.

Next time we'll dissect a typical Stubbs the Zombie review and wonder which game the writer was really playing.

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Comments

Except in this case, they're barbershop quartet members. Why? Wideload only knows.
You can know as well, when you get the right director commentary! If I remember correctly it is in the tunnels that you chase Mrs. Monday through early in the game.

The simon bit was different than anything you would normally see in a music game, mostly because it was much simpler. You just go watch him go for 4 beats, then do your own 4 beats in time to the music once stubbs is out on the floor.

I guess I didn't have an issue with the cutscenes, because I wasn't comparing them with halo. They were just funny. Not cinematic or beautiful. Once again, a chance to sit back and take a break from the action. It was almost a thowback to old games, for some reason vectorman and master blaster come to mind. There was a plot, but it involved frogs jumping down wells, and frankly was more of an excuse than a story.

Bottom line is that I won't argue that the game isn't a cinematic masterpiece. I will, however, argue that it is a comic masterpiece, and that either way, the gameplay is dead on.

Actually, I did come across that commentary later, when I began my second run through the game (still ongoing).

I won't spoil it, but apparently the idea was that Monday wanted his bodyguards to have a less-threatening appearance. I think it fits in with the whole theme-park appearance of punchbowl.

I do agree about the gameplay, which is going to come up in the third part of the review.


Rampant for over six years.

... and you knew there'd be a "but", didn't you? :)

I didn't really find the gameplay too choppy between levels, and found the cutscenes were adequate to keep me up on the story... they were a bit sparse, yes, and perhaps could have used a bit more polish, but they did the job reasonably well.

I did find the loading screens a bit intrusive, though... maybe it's all that Halo 2 spoiling me, but having a near-seamless transition from stage to stage really did help keep me "in" the game and was worth the cost of "pop-in". This is, of course, a matter of taste.

I'll also say that I managed to "chug" the game in the horticultural park by going through on foot and building a truly colossal zombie horde. (Because I wanted to, dammit!) A notable drop in framerate, enough to make it annoying but not enough to make it unplayable.

I hated the mad scientist boss... it was like a distilation of all that I disliked from the Heretic and Tartarus boss scenes. (I'm still not really certain that I "beat" Herr Doktor Wye, as I died just as he did but the next cutscene rolled anyway. I haven't done it again yet.) And the final boss (trying to spoil no spoilers) had me thinking of TRON, but oddly enough was danged fun.

-- Steve did a nickel review over on his LJ blog that might make for an interesting contrast with the usual run of reviews.

The scientist also did annoy me a lot, too. Part of it, though, was just that I tend to consistently underthrow the gut grenades, and so they were always falling short. It also wasn't clear to me if I was damaging him once his shields were down-- is there an audio clue, as in the Tartarus fight? If there was I couldn't hear it, since it was late at night and I had the volume down.

Cutscenes in Stubbs were certainly more than adequate-- but there are high standards here to uphold. :)


Rampant for over six years.

Don't bother. You damage him by knocking the shields down. Just stay in the middle, keep your cover, and remeber: keep pushing dem buttons.

I am yet to verify, the gut grenades might speed the process up, but getting in throwing range puts you in a fair amount of danger. Probably best to wait it out and make it through in a single go.

Darn. Wished I had known that. I assumed that like many other boss battles, he wasn't vulnerable unless the shield is down, so when he drops out of the air I was going after him with grenades (and, of course, getting killed a lot).

Of course, if he's NOT more vulnerable with the shields down, it sort of strains believability.


Rampant for over six years.