It is not often that a game that involves zombies would actually be about a zombie's travails, instead of the struggle of those that are being hunted by zombies or more commonly, those that are killing them by the droves. Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse – which would be referred to as "Stubbs the Zombie" in this text for the sake of brevity – would be one such game.
To players that have had one too many experiences with games that involve killing plenty of zombies, Stubbs the Zombie would have been quite refreshing. Instead of taking the role of yet another zombie slayer, the player takes on the role of a zombie itself – or himself, because this zombie certainly has a personality that is beyond just being terribly hungry for brains.
He has some humorously grisly powers as one would expect from a zombie and having him killing person after person before turning them into zombies under his command is quite a sadistic pleasure. However, the game has more than a few problems that would remind an experienced game consumer that the execution of game designs is not always as splendid as the concepts behind them.
The game is set in an alternate version of the late 1950s. One particular city in this game's version of the USA happens to be a lot more technologically advanced than the rest, thanks to the entrepreneurial skills of its mayor and the brilliance of a supposedly reformed Nazi scientist. It is into this utopia that the protagonist, who is a zombie that has arisen somewhere in the city, enters and subsequently wreaks havoc in.
At first, it would appear that the game is all about bringing undead mayhem to an opulent and complacent city, which would have offered a fun but very short appeal. Fortunately, there are plot twists to uncover, which serve to make the game a bit zanier but more importantly, give character to the protagonist.
(It should be noted here that the zombie protagonist is hardly referred to by name throughout most of the game.)
As mentioned many times already, the protagonist is a zombie. So as to be expected, he shuffles about, which can seem slow. However, if the player has him moving in one direction for a while, he shifts into a running gait, suggesting that his shuffle is just a force of habit and that his ankle is not really twisted. The running gait makes him seem less like a traditional fictional zombie. Yet, this sprinting mechanism would have been more useful if there was a dedicated control input for it.
Stubbs is also the only zombie that can jump. His jump is enough to get him over most short obstacles, but more importantly, it is also used for lunging attacks, which will be described later.
He is not absolutely immortal, so there is a health meter that is shaped like his silhouette to indicate how much more damage that he can take. How much it is filled shows how much health he has remaining before he dies.
Before elaborating on how he can heal, it has to be said here first that the game designers were people who once worked on games in the Halo franchise. Therefore, for people who know this, they would not be surprised that the protagonist can regenerate his health given enough time away from the hostile attention of enemies.
He can also heal some health by eating the brains of humans, but this is a process with animations that are too long for eating brains to be a viable method of healing during combat. Therefore, the player will have to get Stubbs behind cover for a while for him to heal – which is an act that veterans of Halo titles would be all too familiar with.
However, eating brains is still an important activity, for reasons that will be explained later.
Any human that is killed by zombies, e.g. either had their brains eaten by a zombie or mauled to death by one, will return as a zombie too. Indeed, if the player can have the zombies, or more likely, Stubbs himself, kill many humans in one go, there will be an amusingly massive mob of undead that can be ordered around.
Stubbs is not much of a commander, however. The most he could do is whistle to have other, lesser zombies come over to him and then point in one direction to have them shuffling over there. They have very short attention spans however, and will eventually stray off.
In addition, the lesser zombies do not have Stubbs' ability to regenerate. Moreover, if they still have heads and eat the brains of humans, they deny the nutrition to Stubbs.
The durability of a zombie greatly depends on what gear it has when it was human and its conditions before it died the first time around. For example, zombies that are spawned from civilians are quite weak, whereas those that are created from riot policemen are a lot more durable. If the human that a zombie once was died from blood loss from having lost an arm or a leg, it will return without that limb, thus severely hampering its offensive capabilities.
All these designs would have been inconsequential and comical if not for the need to create zombies to distract still-living humans with. There are many scenarios in the game where the player character would not have been able to get past obstacles otherwise, at least not without tremendous luck. Therefore, the player has to keep in mind that he/she should have the bodies of victims as intact as possible so that they return as "healthy" zombies.
Unfortunately, this can take away a lot of the fun of just running amok and turning humans into zombies. This fun can be retained if the player plays the game at easier difficulties, where the humans have lesser damage output, but at the cost of the player's pride of course.
STUBBS' REGULAR ABILITIES:
Stubbs can maul and bite like lesser zombies (but with greater strength to his strikes). However, he also can perform other actions that lesser and weaker zombies cannot.
He is the only one that can use things as improvised clubs, which strike more strongly than default attacks. These clubs tend to be arms torn from humans; in fact, he is the only zombie that can perform such a feat of strength. However, biting a human while having a club causes Stubbs to drop the club, and he won't be able to pick it up again, oddly enough. The club also has limited durability and will eventually be rendered useless.
Stubbs can also pounce on a victim with a jumping attack of sorts and proceed to eat his/her brains out. However, the player has little control over the direction of the jump when he is mid-air, so this is not always a good way to eliminate the humans, who rarely stand still.
Stubbs can also push lesser zombies around. The lesser zombie that has been pushed in one direction will shuffle in that direction for a while, which can be useful if the player wants to get them into harm's way if only to distract the humans.
STUBBS' SPECIAL ABILITIES:
Eventually, Stubbs' other, more comical abilities are revealed. However, before describing these, it has to be said first that he cannot use these abilities repeatedly without limits.
Whenever a special ability becomes unlocked for use, an icon that is associated with its use appears on-screen. When it glows, it indicates that Stubbs can use the associated special ability. However, the icon must be "filled up" with colour by having Stubbs eat the brains of still-living humans.
This is not always easy to do, especially if the humans are dying from being attacked by other zombies or are dying from mishaps. Humans can only have their brains eaten if they have been sufficiently weakened or are subjected to a sneak attack or a successful pounce.
Different humans also fill the icons at different rates when their brains are eaten. Generally, the smarter or stronger the victim is, the more nutritious their brains are, though this is not easy to gauge, at least not the first time around when the player encounters them.
Eating brains affects all icons for all available special abilities, which is a convenient and interesting design. Special abilities that are introduced later in the game generally require more brains to be replenished. Meticulous players may want to manage the replenishment and expenditure of special abilities so as to maximize their usage and get the most out of the brains that Stubbs eats.
Anyway, the first special ability is a tremendous fart that temporarily stuns or slows down humans in a wide radius around Stubbs. This renders them vulnerable to attacks, including bites, so the player can have Stubbs eating the brains of several humans in the row. However, other zombies can do the same, so the player may want to reconsider using the fart if the player needs brains for Stubbs but there are other zombies competing for them.
The second ability has Stubbs ripping out one of his abdominal organs, usually his stomach, and tossing it like a grenade. However, the grenade does not detonate immediately after; with another tap of the same button that threw the grenade, it blows up. This is handy for setting up traps for enemies, but there is a lot opportunity to make this special ability more useful by making it possible to throw and detonate more than just one organ grenade at once. Moreover, the humans can notice these organic hazards coming and will dodge them.
At one point in the game where Stubbs is caught in a bind, his ability to detach his hand and control it remotely is revealed. The hand can latch onto any surface, even ceilings. The camera will reorient itself according to the hand's position, so this can seem disorienting at first, especially to players who are used to having player characters move along a single plane.
The hand can obviously move through small spaces too, which are often around when the hand can be used for a tactical advantage, or more often than not, has to be used just to progress in the game. The latter occurs when there are buttons and levers that Stubbs cannot interact with.
Anyway, the hand's main purpose is to latch onto the unprotected head of an unsuspecting human and practically possess said person. The hand can only possess one person and cannot possess another if the victim is killed or the possession is lifted, so it is in the player's interest to find a durable victim to possess. Any possessed human cannot regenerate health, however, and he/she will not return as a zombie after death, which is odd.
There are designs about the possession system that the game does not inform the player about. For one, the possessed victim can holster away his weapon, if any and if it has not been used to kill other humans, and walk around without being suspected of being possessed (despite the presence of the hand on their heads). However, the game does not even inform the player of which button to use to holster weapons in the tutorial segment for this special ability.
Anyway, when moving about as a possessed victim that has not tipped off other humans, the victim can be directed to sneak up onto the latter and strangle them to death. However, doing so will tip off other nearby humans, making this stealth-kill method of limited usefulness at best.
The victim can also be recognized by lesser zombies, which can be pushed around but not directed, which is a disappointing limitation.
If the player has to use the victim's gun, he/she would notice that the gun can be reloaded as many times as the player wants; the victim will never run out of ammo. For certain humans, their guns have no actual ammo but have heat meters to manage instead.
Stubbs' last and most devastating ability is also the most hilarious, as it involves Stubbs' own head. After ripping off his head, he can have it rolling on the ground like a very fast bowling ball. During transit, the head can knock over any weak enough enemy and instantly kill them. When the player can move it to where it can do the most damage, it can be manually detonated to release a powerful explosion that can kill many humans and then bring them back later as zombies.
However, there is an issue with the camera perspective for this power. When the head rolls about , the camera follows it around. This was intended to help the player change the direction of the head during transit, but the camera zooms in a bit too close to the head and the ground. This limits the player's vision, which is not acceptable especially when the head moves so fast.
This is a shame, as it prevents some players from realizing a particular nuance with this power. As the head rolls around, it actually spits at humans that are near enough, converting them into zombies very quickly. This is difficult to take advantage of due to the limited vision.
Old habits die hard for Stubbs, which is an observation that could have been made right from the start considering his knack for smoking a lot. One of his other habits is driving, which he does with gusto and which differentiates him even more from a typical zombie.
Unfortunately, as most of the game designers happened to have worked on the earliest Halo titles, the vehicles in this game are very difficult to drive. They either easily tumble into useless orientations, or get stuck in some obstacle.
There are very few vehicles to drive in the game anyway. One of them is a near-useless glue-firing gun platform that would only be comically fun for a minute or less. The other vehicle is a tank, which is a lot more fun to use but comes so late into the game.
The enemies in the game appear to be categorized according to the chapters in this game. Enemies that appear in one chapter rarely appear in the others. This makes every chapter a different challenge from the rest. However, the changes in difficulty from chapter to chapter and even during a chapter can seem uneven and hardly progressive.
As mentioned earlier, the first few humans that the player would face are civilians, who are best used for nutritional purposes. Eventually, the police would respond, sending cops on the beat over first. They are more worthwhile opponents than pathetic civilians.
Next, there are riot policemen, which are some of the most troublesome enemies in the game. They have helmets that prevent them from being bitten or possessed, armor that makes them very durable and also gas masks that render them immune to the infectious secondary effects of Stubbs' special abilities. In fact, the rise in the difficulty of the game due to the presence of riot policemen so early in the game can be too much for some players.
Fortunately, this would end quickly after a hilarious encounter that would be described later. The chapter that comes next throws armed farmers and their dim-witted kin at the player, as well as scenarios that only the country farmland setting can offer, such as fields of crops that can obscure Stubbs from view. They offer opposition that is different from that of the cops, such as using slow-firing but powerful guns and static machine-gun emplacements.
This chapter is also when the player would encounter what can be considered as mini-bosses, though they will not be described here for fear of spoilers. It should suffice to say however that their method of dealing with zombies would bring a smile to those who are experienced with zombie-killing tropes.
Not one to waste the sci-fi elements in the settings of the game, the developer has included enemies that use lasers. Unlike other firearms, laser guns do not need to be reloaded, but can overheat; this is a factor to consider when the player is possessing one of them via the hand. When fighting them using Stubbs and other zombies, it is worth keeping in mind that laser pulses do not stagger them. However, there is also a type of enemy with a gun that emits powerful waves of force, which can be a handful to deal with.
The humans will eventually call in the military as the fictional city of Punchbowl becomes overrun by zombies. The soldiers are courageous, difficult and well-armed opponents. There may also be a chuckle to be had from their perennial assumption that anyone they fight is a communist.
The next chapter has enemies that do not make use of chokepoints like the soldiers would, but they have a lot of sci-fi gear that can be troublesome to deal with. However, they appear to behave like recycled versions of enemies that have been seen earlier in the game.
An issue with the variety of human enemies is that they highlight how limited Stubbs' own abilities are, as well as the limitations of the other zombies. Considering the wildly varying gear that enemies have, the zombies' combat capabilities are severely lacking in comparison. Perhaps this was intentional in order to preserve the traditional presentation of zombies, but this is more appropriate in a game about fictional humans killing zombies instead of zombies killing fictional humans.
Throughout the game, there are dysfunctional and perhaps malfunctioning robots that give instructions on what Stubbs can do with his abilities. These instructions sound very much like they are addressing Stubbs as a regular human instead of a zombie, which can be amusing.
Without the humor, these tutorials would actually have been quite rote. Unfortunately, the game designers could not apply the same kind of humor for every occasion in the game when the player is introduced to another gameplay mechanism.
There would be not a mention about bosses if they do not happen to have issues with their designs. These issues can be rather disappointing, as the boss fights would otherwise have been quite fun.
One of them would have been one of the greatest highlights in the game if not for the special gameplay designs of this boss fight. Instead of the usual shuffling around, mauling people and eating brains, this boss fight is a rhythm game.
The buttons for directional movement become the buttons for the purpose of rhythm-matching. Unfortunately, this is where the game falters; the time periods for when the game accepts the button inputs are uncertain. They should occur when certain things flash on-screen, but this is not always the case. This can lead to quite a lot of frustration.
In fact, the developer appears to be aware of this issue, but instead of revisiting the designs, they included a shortcut for the player to skip the boss fight, together with a snide remark about the player's perceived competence.
Other boss fights are a lot more traditional, e.g. hitting things to make the boss vulnerable to attacks or getting to its weak points and hitting them. There are also respawning goons to worry about, as well as respawning zombies. These boss fights would not impress players that have had much experience with boss fights, but on the other hand, they reward the player with satisfying cutscenes of their demise.
Most of the levels in the game consist of linearly connected areas, if they are not outright corridors. Moreover, the game uses checkpoints to record the player's progress, which can seem inadequate for the computer version of the game.
The latter places highlight the issues of trying to have zombies shuffle up towards armed humans. These tend to be some of the most frustrating scenarios in the game, in which the player has to have Stubbs dart from cover to cover and directing other zombies to be meatshields to cover his runs; a slip can easily kill Stubbs, sending the player back to the last checkpoint.
Some other levels are much better, offering many flanking opportunities and plenty of pieces of cover to outwit the often self-assured humans. One particular level has tall fields of crops that Stubbs can skulk through and stalk the unwise farmers.
There are levels with elements of verticality, but these are more useful for the humans than for the player because other than leaping off from a floor onto a human, there are few other ways to exploit the verticality as a zombie.
After finishing the game the first time around, floating objects that resemble the company logo of the developer appear in the levels in the second and later playthroughs of the game. These can be activated to listen to the game designers' own remarks about the game. Some of them can be funny to listen to, though most of them are the usual justification and explanation of game designs that the developer considered particularly notable.
The graphics of the game could not be considered as cutting-edge at the time. After all, the game uses the same engine that was used for the first Halo game, which debuted four years before this game.
This can be seen from the plain textures that are used for many surfaces and models, as well as blurs whenever the game attempts to generate anything that is more detailed, such as the medals on the uniform of a certain character.
However, the game does attempt to compensate for this shortfall by using many colours and attempting to give as many polygons as possible to the character models. This helps a lot in differentiating characters.
The most recognizable character model is of course Stubbs'. His signature hat, cigarette stub and torn suit make him stand out from all of the other zombies. However, the barely decent effects for the puffs of smoke that he makes only highlight the limitations of the graphics.
The animations are also another great aspect of the graphics. Being the titular star of the game, Stubbs is the most well-animated character in the game. There is the typical zombie shuffle for Stubbs, but as he is a peculiar zombie with many (bad) habits and inhuman powers, he has plenty of other animations. He smokes with exaggerated motions, pries open skulls with his jaws in excruciating ways and plucks out body parts from himself and regard them with fondness.
Unfortunately, this makes other zombies look dull in comparison. All of them of them have the same shuffling, biting and attacking animations, regardless of the kind of human that they were created from. The developer does deserve some kudos for creating the zombie versions of most human models, but had not created unique animations for them.
As for the humans, every type of human is animated appropriately, from the clumsy gaits of civilians that try to fight off the zombies and the exaggerated postures of country folk to the professional aiming postures of soldiers. These animations make recognizing different enemies easier in the rare occasions where they happen to be together. In fact, this is especially useful, considering an issue with the camera that will be described shortly.
There is not much to facial animations beyond some lip-synching. Instead, most of the characters' expressions will be performed via hand gestures and body language. During the in-game cutscenes, the camera is wisely set far away enough and at angles that emphasize the latter animations.
The designers have applied sepia tints and film reel effects to the camera views, likely in an attempt to give an old movie vibe to the game. Although these are appropriate for the cutscenes, they are not so for actual gameplay, as they affect the contrast of the visuals in the game.
There is not much pizzazz to be seen from the lighting and shadowing, but the game has enough illumination to ensure that the player can see what is going on and shadows are not too dark as to obscure enemies. There are, however, some lighting effects for laser weaponry, which helps the player spot incoming fire from raygun-toting enemies.
Most of the particle effects in the game are reserved for bloodshed and the icky splashes of goo which accentuates Stubbs' special abilities. There are little to be had for gunfire from ballistic weapons, which can be a problem during fights as being able to see shots coming from these weapons would have been useful.
Being a game about zombies, squelching and splashing noises for gore and bloodshed are fittingly present. The player will be listening to them a lot though, so it will not be long before they lose their sadistic appeal. There are believable sounds for gunfire, as well as some satisfactorily cheesy noises for laser weaponry. However, they may seem insignificant when compared to other aspects of the sound designs of the game, which are significant enough to overshadow the shadow effects (pun not intended).
The best aural entertainment that the game can offer is through its voice-overs.
Being a zombie, Stubbs does not have many spoken lines. Like other zombies, he typically moans, groans, howls and growls. However, these illegible utterances do have inflections that express his current emotions and thoughts about his current situation.
The other zombies have similar voice-overs, but theirs are not as varied as Stubbs', which further emphasize their blandness compared to Stubbs.
The voice-overs for human characters are obviously a lot more interesting than those for the zombies. Early in the story, civilians utter hilarious lines that reveal their complacency and lack of familiarity with the undead. The lines that they have when running away in terror can also elicit a chuckle or two.
The farmers have exaggerated southern American accents, the soldiers always utter slogans against communism, and scientists remain all-logical until their precious brains are eaten. The most absurd voice-overs are those for the bodyguards of a certain important character, who apparently prefer friendlier-looking employees than dour and professional ones.
The voice-overs for the humans would eventually repeat, but usually, when this happens, the game would be moving onto the next chapter and thus replacing the current set of humans with another.
As for the actual quality of the lines that the humans have, most of them are campy, with the campiest being those for pivotal characters and any other characters that participate in the in-game cutscenes. Their lines are delivered with enough empathy, however, so they are not too much of a waste of time to listen to.
Most of the music in the game is composed of remixes of classic songs with catchy tunes and lyrics, which may please older generations of players.
It is worth noting here that although there has been an OST album for the game, the music in that album does not exactly include all the ones that are heard in the game. For example, the tracks in the aforementioned rhythm-matching boss fight have background music that is far more upbeat.
It is unfortunate that these dance versions are not heard anywhere else in the game, as they may seem a lot more exciting to listen to than their milder counterparts.
If Stubbs the Zombie was intended to turn the trope in stories about zombies around on its head, then it certainly succeeded. Killing humans, eating their brains and then converting them into more zombies as a zombie than as a human that watches a zombie doing the same is a refreshing change. However, Stubbs the Zombie has issues about its difficulty, namely how it forces the player to figure out how to defeat heavily armed humans with a limited repertoire of abilities. There are also some poorly executed moments in the game that suggest inadequate monitoring of design work.