Style Over Substance In Stubbs Reviews

In the first part of my review of Stubbs, I lamented that most gaming media outlets were giving the game less attention than it deserved. That is still so. It was fortuitously released around Halloween, which gave many mainstream outlets an excuse to mention the game, but for the most part the hardcore gaming press dismissed it as a game with a cute premise and a nice soundtrack but just not much to write home about.

Without meaning any disrespect to Robert 'Apache' Howarth at Voodoo Extreme (a site I generally find to be a cut above most gaming sites, even if it is part of IGN) I found his mini-review of Stubbs a good example of what's wrong with game reviews in general and reviews of Stubbs in particular. So I thought I'd annotate a version of it here.

January 30, 2006 - Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel without a Pulse is the first title from Wideload Games. Comprised of mostly ex-Halo developers, Stubbs was released on both the Xbox and PC with little fanfare.

Translation: I wasn't told in advance by any other gaming sites that I ought to be taking this game seriously, nor has a lot of money been spent promoting it, which naturally means it's not worth my attention.

Just finding a copy of the game in stores is a challenge in itself. Stubbs is a classic example of style over substance; the game oozes 1950 era sci-fi goodness, but lacks cohesive gameplay elements to make it worth playing.

The only thing that is emphasizing style over substance is this review. The "lacks cohesive gameplay" criticism is the very definition of vague, but since I know there's a more specific item coming up and I have a specific response for it, I'll save it until then.

The levels are laid out nicely, but the general flow of the game leaves much to be desired. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy eating brains as much as the next guy, but after we hit around 5,000 craniums served, my appetite for grey matter soon went away. Man cannot live on brain cells alone.

That last throwaway line is cute, but the entire line of thinking is deeply flawed. One might as well complain that Halo was a good game, but that after awhile you got tired of shooting things.

In point of fact, Stubbs the Zombie has a great deal more variety in its gameplay mechanics than most first-person shooters. Let's think about this for a moment. Halo is a first-person shooter, and as in most first-person shooters, the player primarily interacts with the game environment through the crosshairs of a gun or through a vehicle. In Halo, the player can:

  • Shoot a gun.
  • Shoot a gun in a different way (alternate fire).
  • Melee an opponent to death with a gun.
  • Throw a grenade.
  • Drive a vehicle.

There are, of course, variations on a theme-- some vehicles have guns the driver can fire while driving, like the Banshee and the Ghost, while others don't, like the Warthog and Scarab.

Halo has NPCs, but at most you can trade guns and quips with them.

In Stubbs the Zombie, you can:

  • Eat an opponent's brain.
  • Kill an opponent with a melee attack.
  • Throw part of your body as an explosive (head or gut grenades).
  • Use "unholy flatulance" to stun nearby enemies before delivering another attack.
  • Possess other enemies using your severed hand, thus gaining access to their weapons (pistols, rifles, shotguns, laser pistols of various kinds).
  • Drive a vehicle.
  • Direct zombie minions toward enemies.

Just counting on your fingers shows that Stubbs has at least as many, if not more, core game mechanics, than your average first person shooter. Don't want to eat brains? Fine! Don't! Possess enemies and use their weapons, or drive over them in vehicles, or just slash them to death.

Don't want to do your own dirty work? A lot of the time you don't have to. Kill a few humans to make them into zombies, and then push them around to do your bidding, or whistle them over to follow you, or just use them as shields to hide behind. Halo's marines pretty much do what they're scripted to with no input from the player. While the level of control Stubbs has over his zombie followers isn't detailed, it is something, and opens up the game to many different approaches to handling different areas. The best way to handle a situation is usually pretty obvious, but there's nothing to prevent a player from trying something different, just as players have been doing with Halo-- walking the entire length of Assault on the Control Room, for instance, avoiding the Warthog, the Scorpion and the Banshee. Or doing the same on the Metropolis bridge.

The visuals aren't bad, but if you have a video card released sooner than the past couple of years, the graphics leave much to be desired. Wideload uses a lot of camera filters; some of them work, others don't. The Halo engine might've been the biz a few years ago, but today it's just old.

And that's how the review ends, not with a bang but with a whimper-- a specious appeal to the idea that in order for a game to be good, it has to have the latest whiz-bang technology, whatever that is, forcing gamers to continually upgrade their hardware, including video cards that cost more than an Xbox, which Stubbs the Zombie runs just fine on, thank you very much. Halo and Halo 2, as well.

As for the camera filters-- I'm not really sure what he means. Stubbs has camera filters on during gameplay and cutscenes to make the game look like old film. They're on all the time. What it means to suggest that some work and some don't I can't really tell. Does it mean that the faked film scratches were nice, but the dust wasn't? Or that the black and white newsreel footage works, but that the sepia-toned cutscenes don't?

The only thing that emphasizes style over substance is the reviews of Stubbs-- not the game itself, which has surprising tactical depth for a game that's been marketed on the strength of its sense of humor and its soundtrack-- both of which are excellent. And while I enjoy serious shooters as much as the next guy, I don't see that all games have to be greyscale depress-fests like Half-Life 2 (also a good game with a very, very different tone than Stubbs) in order to be taken seriously as good entertainment value, which Stubbs definitely is.