Imagine it’s the 1950’s and that you live in the City of Tomorrow. You’re the high school football star and it’s all a free ride, hover cars, rayguns and the head cheerleader on your arm for a night out on the town. But because this is the 50’s and the inspiration for a B-Movie you’re probably going to regret hiring once you’re sober, it’s a zombie apocalypse before you can even tell Sally Mae how great she looks tonight.
Now this is where most games would pop you into the role of said hero or heroine, but this isn’t most games. Like another 50’s set title starring a curmudgeonly alien, you’re the antagonist in this one, a right old shambling, decomposing, not good with vocabulary one. You’re the zombie and no amount of coiffed up, greased hair is going to stop you from getting your brain on.
That’s the premise for Stubbs The Zombie in Rebel Without A Pulse, a game originally developed by Wideload Games and released in 2005 for Microsofts original Xbox machine. Now thanks to publisher Aspyr, Stubbs is back to grace modern consoles and systems – after a series of appearances and disappearances on storefronts over the years – in a remaster geared more towards getting the game to run on modern devices rather than providing a flourishing overhaul.
Originally developed on the Halo engine, Stubbs used the then powerhouse technology to impress with its large levels and retro-futuristic visuals. Now while Stubbs looks as good as it’s gonna get without a hefty amount of behind the scenes art revisions, the large open levels are showing their game design age as they’re all rather empty. The visuals are nice and clean, if somewhat very low poly and there’s a nice sheen thanks to a film grain filter than you can switch off if you please. There’s a poor sense of where you have to go, as waypoints can pop in very late, but since the levels are so linear they may as well be straight corridors: you’ll never be lost as to where to go or what to do.
And what do you do?
Well eat as many brains and create as many other shambling monstrosities as you possibly can. What else is a zombie to do? There is an actual plot to the proceedings, but it all comes together rather late to really be of any consequence. No, you’re here to zombiefy the city of Punchbowl with a rather small arsenal at your disposal.
Stubbs has a very basic combo system, which may seem poor initially, but works towards creating a stagger moment in enemies so that you can munch on their brains. Once eaten, or killed with any of Stubbs other abilities, the former good citizens of Punchbowl rise again to convert their family and friends to your small undead army. Stubbs can detach his head and roll it like a bowling ball towards enemies before causing it to explode, his guts can be thrown and act as remote detonated grenades, his arm can be detached and used to possess human NPC’s, giving you brief access to their weapons and Stubbs has a megafart that stuns groups of enemies caught in the AoE explosion. Finally Stubbs can kind of control the other zombies by calling them and pushing them around to various locations.
With most of the games enemies consisting of gun wielding humans, the other zombies help to thin the herd while also acting as very necessary shields. Early on enemies are weak, but in the later levels it’s a ballistic nightmare to navigate towards someone. There’s a very light flow to the combat of attacking someone to eat their brains and restore some health while you’re getting shot and then flowing onto the next human.
And well, next to the scriptwriting, that’s all to the game really. It’s honestly as simple as can be with the most complexity coming in weakening boss shields, figuring out how to stay alive against bosses and pressing some buttons. Combat, initially, is simplistic fun but it falls prey to the same problem as many other games with a melee protagonist facing off against projectile enemies, i.e. getting shot to pieces while trying to get to them.
For the bulk of the playtime, Stubbs is some good old fashioned, though not terribly in-depth, switch-your-brain-off fun. But the last three levels of the game see an absurd rise in difficulty that, quite frankly, Stubbs isn’t equipped to deal with. A horde of bullet sponge enemies, flying enemies and explosive ordinance combine to make a frustrating, chore filled experience that felt like a showcase in bad design.
Where Stubbs really does shine is in the humour. The games script is actually quite funny, if juvenile and I couldn’t help but crack a smile at Stubbs riding a sheep or a cop screaming out: “My mother gave me that arm!”, when you rip his off. The dialogue quips are hilarious, as are the animations when people are panicking and trying to run away. The lines do become repetitious but still elicited a smile up until those last three levels.
Due to the limitations of the hardware back in 2005, you’re zombie horde never grows as large as it could be. There’s a fair amount of enemies, citizens and undead on screen, but it’s rather small by today’s standards when we’ve been spoilt by the likes of Dead Rising. I also could only manage to get a handful of zombies to actually follow me.
But is Stubbs any good though with its very aged and simplistic game design?
Like the horror and SF B-movies from the 1950’s that Stubbs The Zombie is so clearly inspired by, Stubbs walks that fine, fine line between been so bad it’s good to been just plain old bad. The games humour is a highlight and the bulk of it is brain-dead fun, but the latter half of the game heavily showcases it’s shortcoming with some atrocious design that even Stubbs humour can’t compensate for.
Designer: Alex Seropian
Developers: Wideload Games, Aspyr
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC and Xbox
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game which can be purchased here for $19.99
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