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The story of Stubbs The Zombie In Rebel Without A Pulse - to give Aspyr's freshly exhumed remaster its full title - is a tale as old as time. Boy meets girl and falls in love. Girl's father isn't too fond of boy, and has him killed. Some 26 years later, girl's son goes on to found a retro-futuristic city built on top of boy's unmarked grave. Boy returns as a zombie to tear through said city, turning its citizens into brain-hungry monsters and embarking on a mission to win his sweetheart back.
Truly, a story we can all relate to. But what's more interesting than what happens during the events of Stubbs The Zombie, is the actual backstory of the game itself. First released in 2005 for the original Xbox console, Stubbs was the debut title from Wideload Games, a studio established by former-Bungie staffers riding high after the successes of Halo: Combat Evolved. Headed up by Bungie co-founder Alexander Seropian, Wideload even used the Halo engine to develop Stubbs the Zombie - and when the game came out, it used that Halo connection in a lot of its marketing ("Built with the Halo engine," is even written on the box).
Wideload would close in 2014 - but before then, Stubbs The Zombie was already something of a collector's item. The Xbox version of the game is backwards-compatible with the Xbox 360, so if you had Microsoft's second console and could find a disc copy, you could play the game fine. (That's what I did, but it's important to note the disc is not compatible with the Xbox One.) Digitally, things were different. It was released on Steam in 2007 but delisted in 2014; and two years earlier it was removed from Xbox Live Marketplace. All of which made those original Xbox copies of the game soar in price, with £60 to £80 about the norm on the second-hand market right now.
Aspyr's new remaster - which goes easy on the aesthetic overhaul, so you're always very aware that you're playing a game from 16 years ago - will enable anyone who wants to experience Stubbs for themselves to crack right on, for a fraction of that used-copy asking price. But, should you? That all depends on your tolerance for repetitive toilet humour and moment-to-moment play that just about offsets its repetition by being so unlike anything else around at the time, or since. (Yes, NeverDead, I see you, but no.)
Stubbs The Zombie sees you controlling the titular undead hero in a third-person perspective, and initially you're pretty harmless. Sure, you can munch a brain or two - and when you do, the NPC in question will also become a zombie for you to control with shoves and whistles - but at a distance, you're little for the population of Punchbowl to worry about. Their guns (and, later, lasers) can cut you down unless you're crafty, using stealth to your advantage to creep up behind them or building a small army of fellow shamblers to act as bullet sponges for you. It's only a little way into proceedings when Stubbs becomes a rebel with an arsenal to really reckon with.
Stubbs can drop his guts to stun enemies close to him - and while they're staggered, their skulls are there for the crunching. These powerful farts take time to recharge, so you can't just leap into a bunch of heavily armed farmers and let rip. Perhaps an alternative tactic is required, and Stubbs' explosive organs provide such a possibility. Pulling out your own pancreas makes it a grenade that you control the explosion of, so you can toss it, wait, and then bang: bodies hit the floor, the walls, the ceilings, just, a mess, everywhere. If you've no stomach for blood, this isn't a game for you.
Stubbs can tear off his own arm and use it to take possession of his foes - useful for when you want to turn the game into a more traditional, if rough, third-person shooter, as Punchbowl's police department is there to turn against itself. (Related: he can also pull the arms off cops, and batter them to death with their own limbs, as you do.) It's a little fiddly to control the arm, which can skitter up walls and along ceilings like an Alien face-hugger, but if you aim for a straight-shot it's easy enough to grab an NPC's head and make a weapon of them.
Finally, Stubbs can bowl his own bonce at groups of enemies, steering it around corners and obstacles, and detonating at just the right moment. This is the final ability you unlock, and it's great for scattering crowds. Don't worry: all limbs, innards and noggins grow back pretty rapidly; and Stubbs' health will regenerate if he stays out of trouble for a while. Be warned, however, that the zombie will take damage if attacked while possessing a human, so keep an eye on the two life bars, in the bottom left.
From deserted city streets to a water supply that needs peeing into, via deadly cornfields and a brief-but-memorable police headquarters dance-off, the environments of Stubbs The Zombie are visually inconsistent - but you do have to remember that this is a game from 2005. In more open areas, you can hop into vehicles to both make tracks faster and incapacitate enemies as you go (and these moments do feel a little Halo-like, ish). Don't be surprised if you feel lost sometimes, too, as the waypointing in this game is patchy, at best.
Stubbs himself is a lovingly detailed mess of nicotine addiction and ragged threads, but NPCs, predictably, repeat so much that you get the sense that only a dozen people actually live in Punchbowl, who're all handy with cloning technology. The soundtrack is a delight, featuring covers of 1950s and 1960s standards like 'Strangers In The Night', 'Earth Angel' and 'Lollipop' by acts including Cake, Death Cab For Cutie and Ben Kweller respectively. The OST also features The Walkmen, The Dandy Warhols, The Raveonettes, and The Flaming Lips - and it's on Spotify, if you're intrigued.
Original soundtrack aside, the audio of Stubbs The Zombie is a fairly predictable array of groans and grunts, screams and cries. The first time you hear a helpless victim cry out that they're having their grey matter slurped, you'll likely smile; but on the 80th hearing of it, it doesn't register anymore. The audio mix is also a little patchy, with elements in the environment suddenly popping in rather than coming up slowly, as you move towards them - but again, I'll put that down to the age of the game.
Playing this remaster on Switch, I experienced one crash to the console's dashboard - but it was immediately after I'd saved, and it never happened again. As someone who played Stubbs The Zombie years ago, on an original Xbox disc, it's definitely been fun to revisit his reign of just-following his-heart terror. But if you're coming to this anew, it's important to note that once you've seen two hours of the game, you've pretty much seen all it has to offer - and it's only likely to last you eight or so, total.
There are late-game set-pieces that just about make the journey worthwhile, which bring belated strength to the story of the game, and it's not so hard that the sometimes-ropey collision detection and weird inconsistencies (so, a human can survive a three-storey fall, but a zombie who regularly pulls his own head off, can't?) stop you coming back after you're, like, really dead. But Stubbs does feel dated. This isn't a retro classic that really holds up in the here and now, nor an unheralded gem of yesteryear that demands your attention.
It is wonderful to have Stubbs available again in 2021, and Xbox super-fans who never had the chance to check this Halo-built curiosity out before are recommended to, especially if they think farts are hilarious. Preservation of games is important, and Aspyr's light-touch remaster delivers, basically, the Xbox game as it was, 16 years ago. Just don't come to this one expecting anything of Halo quality, because what felt mid-tier then, absolutely does now. Stubbs The Zombie is a gas for a few hours, but outside of a local co-op mode starring another zombie called Grubbs, it's unlikely to be something you return to once its hero's rebellion is over.
Pros: It's great to have the game available again; there's genuine fun to be had chucking explosive pieces of yourself at riot officers; the soundtrack is great.
Cons: Environments are frequently ugly, even for an older title; the possession-enabling hand's a pain to control, so you mightn't really bother with it; the game's pretty short and offers very limited replay value.
For fans of: Destroy All Humans!, Plants Vs Zombies, Halo
Stubbs The Zombie In Rebel Without A Pulse is released for Nintendo Switch (version tested), PlayStation 4, PC and Xbox One on March 16th. The game is compatible with PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S. Review code provided by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
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