"Kicking ass and taking brains!"
That's the slogan that appears on the Black T I was given after I visited with the developer of Stubbs the Zombie in a Los Angeles hotel room just prior to E3 this past May. I remember walking out of that meeting telling my fellow editor Lawrence Wong, "That's a cool concept," to which he replied something to the effect of, "Yeah, but how are they going to keep it from getting repetitive?" The concept is that of role reversal. Instead of playing a character out to kill hordes of zombies, you are a zombie, one with an insatiable appetite for brains no less. And now that I've had the chance to spend some quality time with Stubbs, I think I can answer that question...a little later in this review.
So who is Stubbs? That would be Edward Stubblefield. During the Great Depression, he was a traveling salesman who ended up on the wrong end of a prospective buyer's shotgun and was subsequetly buried in an unmarked grave in the remote Pennsylvania countryside. Now it's 1959 and that same countryside has become Punchbowl, a high-tech City of the Future built by Andrew Monday, the world's richest man. Punchbowl is a wonderland of hovercars and robot labor, and today its gates are being thrown open for the world to see Monday's vision of the future. At the same time, something stirs beneath its surface. Our ex-traveling salesman is about to embark on a new career as a brain-eating zombie as he crawls out of his grave during Punchbowl's opening day celebration.
Stubbs the Zombie is a humorous, third-person action game built with the Halo engine. Xbox gamers familiar with the FPS will have no trouble picking up the control scheme here. The left stick moves Stubbs, the right stick adjusts the camera and the right trigger, or the B button, is the melee attack. It takes three of four melee attacks to kill a human, but that's only the beginning. After a few seconds, the corpse will rise from the dead and become a zombie, joining your cause. Kill enough humans and you'll create your own zombie nation. But rather then beating your foes to death, you're better off eating their brains, achieved by pressing the Y button. Humans just won't let you eat their brains though, so you'll either have to sneak up behind them or slap them around until they're stunned. The reason you should eat their brains is because it fills your health meter (though the meter will refill itself, Halo style, if you stand around long enough), fuels your special zombie attacks, and still results in them becoming a zombie.
That's right, Stubbs has a few tricks up his sleeve in the form of special attacks, each one assigned to a button on the controller. Special attacks include an unholy flatulence that stuns surrounding humans, an explosive gut grenade that can be remotely detonated by pulling the left trigger a second time after throwing it, and the ability for Stubbs to pull his head off his body and roll it like a bowling ball (again, the head can be detonated remotely before the end of its run). Then there's "The Hand". Stubbs can detach one of his hands, throw it, and move it as a wholly independent character. If you can sneak the hand up on another human and clamp it onto their skull, you can then possess them and turn their weapon on their friends.
And what would a Halo-powered game be without vehicles? Stubbs can jump into a number of them, from hovercars like the Sod-O-Mobile to more grounded vehicles like an army jeep, a tank or an impala, a modified tractor with a set of mounted pitchforks on the front end. Again, if you've ever played Halo, you'll feel right at home with the controls of the vehicles.
The AI in the game is very sound. The zombies you create will attack other humans and generally attempt to follow Stubbs, but you can always call a group of zombies over to you by whistling. If a zombie gets in your way, you can give them a little shove in the right direction (this also works if you need to use a zombie as a shield). On the flipside of the coin, humans react in a number of ways to Stubbs' presence. There are those who run and cower in the corner, though they're in the minority, and then there's the rest of the population, armed to the hilt with firepower in the form of pistols, shotguns, laser guns, machine guns and rocket launchers. I tell you, for a city with no crime, everybody in Punchbowl carries a gun. There's also a few boss battles in the game, including a Dance Dance Revolution style dance-off with the chief of police.
In spite of the blood, guts, and of course, the undead, Stubbs the Zombie is a humorous game at heart. The story and dialogue is laugh out loud funny. Chow down on an innocent victim and you might hear them plead "Please, I have a wife and kids," while scientists often comment "This wasn't in the training video." Pull a cop's arm out of its socket and you're bound to hear them scream "Not my second favorite arm," while a military soldier might be heard quipping "I've never been disarmed." Each type of character has a few one-liners and to me, they never get old. The game also features an appropriate soundtrack that includes all-new versions of 1950's-era songs, like Lollipop, My Boyfriend's Back and Mr. Sandman.
Visually, the Halo engine is starting to look its age. As a result, Stubbs the Zombie looks very grainy. To distract from that, the brain-eating animations are bloody to say the least, and it never gets old watching a zombie with no legs crawl its way to its next meal. And if you're familiar with Halo, you'll know what to expect when it comes to physics.
Back to the opening question. How does the developer of Stubbs the Zombie keep the experience from getting stale? The answer is by keeping it short. The story mode can be completed in roughly six hours, which in a way is a good thing. The combat starts to get repetitive in the later stages, but with no unlockables or side missions, it also means there's little reason to revisit Punchbowl. Stubbs does feature two-player co-op play, but offline only. There is no Xbox Live support which is a shame. If you can imagine the possibilities of zombies vs. zombies or humans vs. zombies, the potential is certainly there.
Stubbs the Zombie is built with the Halo engine. It says that right on the front of the package. Is that why you should try Stubbs the Zombie? Maybe, but I'll give you two better reasons: imaginative gameplay and a brilliant sense of humor. The main downside is how short the game is. With a price tag of $49.99 USD, brevity is a tough pill to swallow. So what do I recommend? Rent it or wait for the price to come down a little. Do that and you're sure to have a blast kicking ass and taking brains.