Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse

May 19th, 2008 by

Vital Stats

Genre: Action
Players: 1-2
Online: None

Developer: Wideload Games
Publisher: Aspyr
ESRB Rating: M
Release Date: 10/18/05


  • Mac
  • PC
  • X Box

Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse might as well be an FPS despite the absence of any FP and an annoying dearth of S. The erratically funny writing and occasionally compelling gameplay prevent the game from coming together into a cohesive and compelling experience.

Something Rotten in Pleasantville
So you’ve played Dead Rising, but it failed to satisfy your insatiable hunger for the flesh of the living. If you step away from the theremin long enough to dig through some old games, you might come across a copy of Rebel Without a Pulse.

The game follows the exploits of traveling salesman, brain aficionado, and zombie everyman Stubbs as he chews his way through the 50′s town of Punchbowl. Along the way, he makes friends (the hard way) and undergoes a journey of personal discovery where he learns that most of his body parts explode when thrown.

Death Benefits
Rebel Without a Pulse was built on the Halo engine, and despite the third-person perspective the controls and gameplay don’t stray terribly far. There’s a thin veneer of zombie painted over everything; Stubbs hurls his internal organs instead of grenades, for instance, but they both explode the same. The regenerating health bar even makes a return appearance, justified by zombie stamina instead of futuristic energy shields. There are, however, three major places where this game parts ways with Halo: melee, possession, and brain juice.

The game’s emphasis on melee is perhaps the biggest departure. Despite the fact that you’ll spend the whole game pitted against Punchbowl residents and their extremely lax gun control laws, Stubbs is remarkably lacking in the ranged violence department. Sure he has a handful of explosive organs and his head doubles as both bowling ball and improvised explosive device, but when those run short, Stubbs must resort to lurching up and flailing.

This isn’t as hopeless as it might sound, though. Stubbs is pretty resilient as cadavers go, and his victims rise from the dead to provide extra targets and damage. Stubbs can also instantly kill even durable enemies by sneaking behind them and doing a little impromptu intracranial surgery. However, working against him is the fact that zombies are pretty slow and Stubbs turns like a truck, and Punchbowl citizens are remarkably proficient at running backwards and shooting at the same time. Put it all together, and much of the gameplay feels like a gruesome game of tag played in a hail of gunfire.

Being undead confers some unfair advantages in this great game of tag, however. After ripping his own arm off, Stubbs can latch his severed hand onto the heads of citizens, possessing them. The unlucky pawn can then be made to murder his companions, or infiltrate enemy ranks for more surgical strikes.

The hand is lobbed like a grenade, but it doesn’t have to meet its mark in one toss. The camera abandons Stubbs during the throw, following the hand and allowing you to direct it along the ground, up walls, and across ceilings. It controls more or less like Stubbs himself, though the third person camera always swings to treat the current surface as though it were the ground. This little quirk means that, as the hand makes hairpin turns along irregular surfaces, the camera swings wildly in every direction and you’ll be lucky to have any idea where you are, let alone where your intended victim is. Camera wonkiness aside, however, the possession gameplay breathes some life into what would otherwise be homogenous melee gameplay.

There’s a strict limit on explosive organs and hypnotic hands, though. All zombie powers are evidently fuelled by brain juice. While Stubbs can slay most enemies with his bare zombie hands, beating them within an inch of death and then feasting on their delicious think-meats provides a small bump to the supply of all his special abilities and a gory spray like a liquid Fourth of July.

Unfortunately, it’s with this brain juice mechanic that Rebel Without a Pulse falters. Stubbs isn’t particularly effective in melee, especially in later stages where it can take up to six consecutive blows to overcome a foe. In these situations, you’ll have to rely on your aimless zombies and special abilities to overcome the well-armed opposition. The astute may already have spotted the catch; there’s only one source of fresh corpses and brain juice: the well-armed opposition.

To the game’s credit, there are a few minimally armed victims wandering around every level to fuel your zombie rampage. However, between your horde’s proclivity for eating unarmed chumps and the fact that neutralized zombies and humans stay dead, it’s all too easy to run out of zombies and brain juice just in time to confront the entire fourth battalion. So instead of an action-packed romp, Rebel Without a Pulse often feels like a war of attrition. Worse still, it’s the humans who have seemingly limitless numbers.

Outside the raw gameplay mechanics, the game fares mostly well. The controls are no more complex than typical FPS fare, and while Stubbs is a little slow to move, most players won’t approach the game expecting a zombie track star. There’s a checkpoint system and a waypoint, so the game doesn’t needlessly punish lost gamers, though not all the cinematics are skippable, making boredom the price of failure.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid
Stubbs mightn’t be much of a looker by modern standards, save for one crucial artistic decision. The entire game is displayed through a filter that makes it look like grainy 35 mm film. In addition to giving the whole game a campy b-grade horror feel, it obscures the aging technology by blurring the textures and adding an organic quality that most of the models would otherwise lack. That’s not to say it is unmarred by age, however. Vehicles in particular look artificially blocky, and Stubbs himself is rigid in ways that his decaying biology should preclude. Environments lack visual diversity as well. Nevertheless, despite its considerable age, the game manages to look good enough that it doesn’t detract overmuch from the experience.

The music helps bolster the game’s atmosphere as well. Punchbowl may be a late 50′s town where all the guys wear letter jackets and all the girls wear poodle skirts, but it’d all be for naught without a few choruses from “Mr. Sandman,” or, “My Boyfriend’s Back.” The music is used sparingly during the action itself, but there’s enough to provide a sense of setting.

The writing doesn’t really meet the game’s aesthetic standards, though. Any game where the protagonist is named Stubbs has obviously been written with an eye to comedy, but Rebel Without a Pulse never consistently transcends lame puns and toilet humor (behold, the only game on the Xbox with a context-independent fart button). Actually, the whole thing feels rather like a zombie obsessed version of Conker’s Bad Fur Day, right down to the abrupt cinematics and the intermittently nonsense story. However, Rebel Without a Pulse lacks that game’s diverse parody and deft comedic pacing, so the story drags lifelessly on.

Rest In Peace
Rebel Without a Pulse is ultimately a derivative action game with a zombie finish. Sadly, neither the gameplay nor the writing is ever quite strong enough to elevate the game beyond mediocrity. Hardcore gamers will initially be tickled by the role-reversal, but will eventually agree with genre fans who will rapidly notice the flat gameplay. Casual gamers might enjoy eating brains for a few minutes, but there are more compelling games elsewhere.

What It Costs: $20

What It’s Worth:

  • To The Hardcore: $10 (rent)
  • To The Genre Fan: $10 (rent)
  • To The Casual: $0 (skip)

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