Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without a Pulse has gained a cult-like following over the course of its development, not unlike a horde of the undead bent on acquiring sweet, sweet brains. Fortunately for developer Wideload Games, this ever-growing group of hardcore Stubbs fans is not going to be disappointed with the finished product. A somewhat cartoony vision of the zombie story, Rebel Without a Pulse puts players in the role of Stubbs the Zombie, who amasses an army of the undead on his staggering march towards love and revenge.
The story of Stubbs the Zombie takes place in 1959 in the city of Punchbowl, PA, a model town built to represent the futuristic vision of a single entrepreneur, Andrew Monday. Edward "Stubbs" Stubblefield, a traveling salesman who met his untimely death in Punchbowl back in 1933, is resurrected during the opening day ceremonies for the new town. Stubbs claws his way out of his shallow grave, and into an idyllic retro-future depiction of 1950s Americana. He's got a craving for brains as if he has a hole in his stomach, which, actually, he does, and everywhere he goes he leaves shambling zombies and rivers of gore in his wake.
Built on the Halo engine, Stubbs is an amazing example of how much can be achieved with a good tool. Stubbs is, in many ways nothing at all like Halo, and in other ways, very much like Halo. Obviously, the hordes of zombies who follow function very much like squadmates. And by the massive humans versus zombies battle at the climax, the game takes on a decidedly battle-like vibe. But this is not a first-person shooter, and in many respects Wideload has made almost every possible diversion from the content or feel of Halo. In general, the engine brings to the game a high level of technical quality and well-working gameplay that gives Stubbs the Zombie a very polished and expert feel. Although I still can't get the hang of that wonky Halo vehicle control.
In the beginning of the game, Stubbs is assisted in turning the citizens on the central green of Punchbowl into shuffling undead by a cheerful guide robot. In a seamless instructional sequence, the player puts Stubbs through his paces: bash up the defensive humans a bit, then eat their brains. This is Stubbs' main modus operandi: bash, dine, dash.
Stubbs has several special abilities that assist in his zombie-making mayhem, all of which are charged by eating brains. The first is a flatulence attack that causes humans in the immediate vicinity to become stunned and receptive to brain eating. The next special skill is the ability to remove an organ and use it like a remote-detonation timed mine. This is a staple technique and gets Stubbs over on some difficult enemies. The explosive organ also has a decidedly Halo-like "sticky" quality that makes it even more fun to use.
Stubbs' skill-set is rounded out by the ability to use his head like an explosive bowling ball, and, the most significant ability, to remove his forearm and use it to possess humans. When using the detachable forearm skill, the screen gets distorted. Control is much different because the hand can walk up walls and other objects. These abilities allow you to park Stubbs in a safe location and then use an unorthodox method to approach the humans and, eventually, attach to the humans' skull and take control of them.
When controlling a possessed human, you can use the human's weapon and drive vehicles. Sometimes the key to defeating a group of humans is to take control of one of their own and use his weapon. Of course, kills in this fashion do nothing to charge Stubbs' abilities for use, leaving the player to make a strategic decision: Is it better to clean out a room with a high-powered possessed human, or to use Stubbs and his army of zombies in order to get the largest horde possible?
Some of the humans can't be possessed because they are wearing head coverings. These humans cannot have their brains eaten, either, leaving Stubbs with no recourse but to rip off their arms and beat them to death with their own limbs. This is just one example of the over-the-top humor of Stubbs the Zombie. Stubbs is a bit cartoony for the zombie genre, but still has plenty of edge.
Just as in Halo, most of the characters speak situation-appropriate dialogue. And, just like in Halo, that ambiance really makes the game. Soldiers report to their commanding officers with chipper, "Sir, holy shit, sir!" Women plead for mercy as Stubbs eats their brains. At one point, Stubbs happens upon a pair of repair robots engaged in highly esoteric discussion about their role in the universe. Throughout the game, contemporary remakes of classic 1950s rock and roll tunes such as "Lollipop" remade by Ben Kweller and "My Boyfriend's Back" by The Raveonettes.
The overall ambiance of Stubbs the Zombie enhances the generally linear, but not really "mission-based" gameplay. Each level has a goal, but there are very few directions given to Stubbs. Rather, the player is allowed to amble on until hitting upon the correct location. Most levels require Stubbs to really just progress from point A to point B, and virtually all direction is given to the player through brief cutscenes and in-game interactions.
The fact that this mostly non-directed gameplay remains compelling and rarely leaves the gamer wondering what to do next is a testament to the quality of the game Wideload has built. There are occasions in the game when the story becomes lost, and it feels like Stubbs is just moving forwards to eat the next brain. Although the combative situations are generally well designed enough to carry through these moments, it would be nice if the overall goal of the game were kept a bit more at the forefront: We must wait to the very end of the game to really piece together how events even got started (unless, that is, you're the instruction manual reading kind of gamer).
But the biggest drawback of Stubbs the Zombie is also one of its greatest qualities: The game feels a bit short. This is a good sign; better to be too short than too long. A cooperative multiplayer mode offers some good replay value, and a raft of new strategic possibilities to the zombie army enthusiast. The multiplayer is great, but not enough to extend the game beyond a couple of replays. And the vehicle driving sequences are appropriately entertaining, and mercifully brief: The Halo engine's vehicle driving has not been improved much.
These are small gripes, and Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without a Pulse is undoubtedly a cult hit in the making. The clever premise, incredibly well-executed gameplay, and novel strategic elements make Stubbs livlier than the majority of zombie games we're seeing these days. If you're done with Destroy All Humans and love the humor-packed action gaming, Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without a Pulse should be on your Halloween gaming list.