This action-oriented take on campy "B" horror films puts players in the role of the title character, once a miserable, Great Depression-era traveling salesman who was murdered, unceremoniously buried in a field, and forgotten -- until he was accidentally unearthed some 30 years later, and awoke to find himself with a nagging hunger for human brains. Now, the man once known as Edward Stubblefield walks the earth in undead form, causing mischief and terrorizing the living as Stubbs the Zombie.
The game is set in Punchbowl, Pennsylvania, a fictional, '50s-styled "City of the Future," where citizens have grown complacent with their flying cars, zero crime rates, robot servants, and other modern conveniences. Despite the efforts of local militia and riot cops, these citizens offer tempting meals to the hungry zombie. More than just the wrapping on a quick snack, however, people whose brains are eaten by Stubbs become his minions, and will mindlessly follow him and attack the living who cross his path.
Even with a hoard of zombie minions, however, the challenges of conquering Punchbowl sometimes require more than brute force, and Stubbs may need to make use of various special abilities to reach his goals. Among these is the power to detach his own hand, which can skitter about much faster than Stubbs can lurch, squeeze into spaces too small for a full-grown zombie, and even possess living characters and force them to do Stubbs' bidding. Other powers -- such as Stubbs' super Zombie Strength, Gut Grenades, explosive Bowling Heads, and Unholy Flatulence -- may also prove indispensable along the way.
Even with an ambulatory hand, disgusting super powers, and a horde of brain-eaten minions at his command, there's still plenty of tough human opposition in Punchbowl, so a co-op multiplayer mode allows a friend to join the undead crusade as Grubbs the Zombie (Stubbs' lesser-known companion, who coincidentally shares the hero's undead fate and repugnant abilities). Stubbs the Zombie is the first release from Wideload Games, a Chicago-based studio lead by Alexander Seropian and other former Bungie designers. Available for home computers and Xbox, it's among the first cross-platform releases from Mac-friendly publisher Asypr.
When you pick up the controller in Stubbs, you'll be the one initiating the undead infection. You'll eat brains and turn your victims into your followers who you can control to, well, eat more brains.
The hand, for instance, is the best weapon since it lets you control enemies with guns. This is essentially the only way in the game to access firearms. When you launch your hand, you'll get a fish eye black and white camera view as you move it across the floor, ceiling, or wall. Capable of grabbing onto enemy skulls while in midair, the hand soon becomes the most effective method of taking out airborne or otherwise out of reach enemies. It's also a great tool for flanking enemies provided you can successfully maneuver it behind enemy lines. Of all the selections, this was definitely the most entertaining to use, and an interesting alternative to simply killing your foes. Of all the weapons, the bowling ball head seemed the most useless since gut bombs were usually just as effective. The fart nova was also a great tool for when you're surrounded by multiple humans.
Another frustrating aspect of the melee combat is the fact that enemies will back away from you faster than you can catch up to them. This may seem logical since zombies typically move at a slow pace. However, and this is something many people seem to forget, zombies are not real. Given that excruciatingly true statement, why can't Stubbs walk faster? There is a fast walking ability built in, but it only activates after you've moved forward for a certain time period. When chasing a nearby soldier, there isn't enough time for this fast walking to activate, so you wind up chasing after him while taking tons of fire from their guns. This was especially frustrating with the enemies that carry some of the bigger guns. Adding a function to activate sprint at the press of a button could have alleviated this issue. At points you'll be able to control vehicles including a sod launcher, hover truck, and military jeep.
While the special attacks work well by themselves and in combination with each other, the melee attacks are slightly more erratic. This is mainly because each enemy type takes a specific number of swipes before you can eat their brains. For instance, army soldiers generally take four, shotgun wielding militia men take three, musket shooters take two, and the list goes on. While this is fine, the game also presents you with random opportunities to eat brains that do not follow the above patterns, making combat imprecise. Oftentimes you'll find you accidentally killed an enemy or haven't injured him enough when you go to eat their faces, resulting in either a missed opportunity to charge your special moves or unnecessary damage and death. Luckily, Stubbs features an excellent auto-saving system, so you'll never have to retread too much ground.
The intelligence of Stubbs' enemies ramps up as you progress though the game and is based on what level of difficulty you've set before you begin. Your zombie horde can be controlled through some rudimentary commands like whistling and shoving, but generally they'll do their own thing, and they prove to be pretty effective. However, your undead pals will start getting wiped out faster and faster as the enemy weapons improve, putting more of the onus of progress on yourself. Given your speed limitations and dependence on brain eating for special move charges, this can become frustrating. Thankfully, one meal of brain results in a fully charged hand icon.
The game isn't without its weak points. Most notable is the plot, which you're often not aware of until after it's already happened. Also, even though the game is an eight hour single player experience at most, the gameplay does grow stale by the end. While the action set-pieces the game sets up as you progress are never boring, the degree of enjoyment you'll get out of them scales down as you make you way farther through. It's a mystery why more genuinely fun and unique gameplay styles like the dance-off weren't included later on in the game, where it's mostly combat mixed with a few vehicle sequences. Also, the game is incredibly linear since you'll pretty much be following one path the entire time.
Make no mistake, Stubbs is a fun game. It's well built, has a satisfying though limited gameplay style, and cooperative support allows players to really get the most out of this title. The art and sound of the game is very well done, incorporating the style of the 1950s with retro-futuristic laser pistols, flying saucers, and robots. Stubbs is not an epic. It's a game that is great to pick up at any time of the day, eat a few brains, and then move on to something else.
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