When you think about it, zombies have a pretty limited skill set. But the things they choose to get themselves into they're usually really, really good at. Take eating brains, for example. Zombies eat brains like no one else can. It's like they were born to eat brains. Eating brains is the primary activity in Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pause, a third-person-perspective brain-eating-zombie simulator. And the thing you'll quickly learn upon firing up Stubbs is that eating the brains of the living to form a massive army of the undead is extremely satisfying, often hilarious, and, unfortunately, almost painfully brief.
The game's manual will give you a slight bit of backstory into how Stubbs came to exist in his undead form, but it's far more interesting to learn these bits of info from the game itself. The game metes out its story in tiny, measured doses that don't truly take shape until the game's final confrontation. This works well, because the game starts with little to no point or direction beyond eating the brains of cops, scientists, and civilians. The game takes place in a retro-futuristic take on the 1950s, mixing social Puritanism with a city of the future, complete with hovering cars, robot assistants, and laser blasters.
Also, Stubbs is an absolutely hilarious game. This is a particularly important achievement because, really, most games aren't funny. The games that attempt humor are usually the ones that fail the hardest. But Stubbs manages to work its concepts into a variety of fantastic situations. Watching a zombie give a military-style pep talk to a group of zombies in the style of Patton is especially hysterical, considering the only word zombies can say with any clarity is "brains."
The gameplay in Stubbs the Zombie is extremely satisfying but ultimately comes off as a little shallow. You start the game with no zombie powers, so you're pretty much limited to eating the brains of humans and slapping them silly until they're dead. Any method of death-by-zombie will turn your target into a zombie, eventually giving you quite a little posse of troublemakers. But your control over the other undead is quite limited. You can shove them around, which comes in handy, since you can just use other zombies as bullet shields while you attempt to get close enough to do some serious mind sucking. You can also whistle to your zombies to get them to head in your direction...at least most of the time. Who said zombies were supposed to be reliable? Besides, your undead crew is expendable, since you're always making more. So you'll rarely need a heavy set of them in any situation, and it's no big deal when your brain-feasting boppers get wasted. Though in the higher difficulty settings, having a lot of zombies between you and the armed humans on the other side really helps.
As you progress through the game, you'll earn four special moves. The first is a gaseous blast that stuns everyone around you, making them easy targets. Then you'll get the ability to throw (and regrow) your pancreas. This is done with the L trigger, and a second press causes it to explode, which is handy. It's really a hand grenade that you can use to zombify humans from a distance. You'll also learn how to remove your arm, which plops to the floor and gives you control. You can scoot your arm along on the ground, climb up walls, and hop onto the heads of humans, which possesses them and puts you in control. This lets you use humans to flip switches or use their firearms to eliminate a bunch of other humans by remote. The final power lets you take off your head and bowl it on the ground, which takes out anything it hits and explodes, similar to the pancreas move. Each attack is governed by a meter, and eating brains partially refills all four of them.
The game doesn't change much from start to finish, though you'll encounter a few breaks in the action with some vehicle sequences, a couple of boss fights, and a dance contest, which is where you get the obligatory "Thriller" reference. Also, the game isn't very difficult. Like any good zombie or space marine, Stubbs regenerates his health if you can go for a few seconds without getting hit. Considering you'll usually have a bunch of other zombies running around and causing havoc, you can usually afford to hang back and heal back up to full health, even in the middle of a confrontation with well-armed soldiers. There are four difficulty settings, and the higher settings add more enemies to the game's levels, which adds some challenge, but not enough to warrant multiple play-throughs. All told, Stubbs the Zombie is a game that you could very easily finish in one sitting. Part of this is because the gameplay is so much fun that you won't want to stop. But also, its 12 levels may take you only five hours to complete.
The split-screen cooperative gameplay found in the Xbox version of the game is missing here, which isn't a terribly huge loss. On the PC, the game has the potential to look better than its Xbox counterpart, but the system requirements listed on the box are misleading. We ran the game on machines that far outpaced the recommended requirements, but we still encountered plenty of unsightly frame-rate issues. Also, the game has a video filter that makes it look like an old film, and it makes most of the game look like poorly compressed video. That effect looked a lot better on the Xbox. As far as control goes, Stubbs really requires a gamepad. While it has mouse and keyboard support, a controller that mimics the basic design of the Xbox controller (like, say, one of Microsoft's new Xbox 360 controllers, which plugs right into a PC) is easy to configure and works much better with this game.
The use of the Halo engine might not seem obvious if you weren't looking for it. But with the Halo tie-in mentioned both on the front and the back of the box, it's hard to miss. Little things that you probably wouldn't think of as Halo-related include the game's setup for player profiles and level section, though the game's handful of vehicle sequences are the portions that actually manage to feel a bit like Halo. Also, the chief of police is named Chief Masters, which is clever.
Stubbs' visuals are great artistically, but the frame-rate troubles drag it down a bit. The game's environments are nicely varied, and places like Punchbowl, the city of the future, are extremely well designed and appropriately cool looking. The game also has some awesome animation in it, particularly the way Stubbs sort of shambles up the street. We imagine that motion-capturing a zombie must have been hard work, but the in-game results are incredibly realistic. A few minor things stick out, though; for instance, in some of the brain-eating animations it doesn't look like Stubbs' mouth is connecting with the head of the human he's viciously attacking. But both technically and from a design standpoint, this is a great-looking game.
Never before have the sounds of zombie moaning been done so well in a game. Considering there are roughly 9,000 new zombie games released every year, that's saying a lot. The environmental sounds and weapon effects are pretty standard, but it's the moans, screams, and speech that set the game apart. The humans get a little repetitive when you eat their brains, but their lines are still very funny. The sounds of your zombie crew being shot apart or feeding on brains are really what sell it. From the gurgling of a hungry zombie to the funny, too-long scream that some of them let out when they're blown apart, you'll have a great time listening to Stubbs. The game also has a really cool licensed soundtrack that goes underused. It's a cover album, featuring current bands doing old '50s songs. You'll hear Ben Kweller doing "Lollipop" and Death Cab for Cutie doing a great version of "Earth Angel," and Oranger's take on "Mr. Sandman" is particularly great. But outside of the dance contest and a few limited sequences later on, you rarely get to hear this great music. That's unfortunate, as this is one of the few licensed soundtracks released recently that seems worth listening to on its own.
If only the game were longer. The ability to finish Stubbs quickly really cuts into its appeal, though its high production values and addictive gameplay make it a game that's worth playing. It's unique and exciting enough that you should think about adding it to your collection, especially if you decide to wait for a price reduction.