|Publisher: Aspyr Media Genre: Action
|Min OS X: 10.3 CPU: G4 @ 1200 MHz RAM: 256 MB Hard Disk: 4000 MB DVD-ROM Graphics: 64 MB VRAM
GraphicsAs previously mentioned, Stubbs the Zombie is powered by an enhanced version of the original Halo engine, which becomes apparent with a single glance at Stubbs' main menu. People who detest long loading times will be pleased to know that the Stubbs version of the engine feels even faster at loading levels than the Halo engine (I average about eight seconds going from the Finder to playing Stubbs). While this revived engine simply can't match the eye candy brought to the table by newer game engines, Wideload put a lot of work put into new features that are designed to make the player feel as if he or she was in the midst of a 1950's horror flick, and for the most part, they work.
First off, animation in Stubbs the Zombie is realistic, yet lacks spontaneity. Stubbs and his zombie minions shuffle about realistically, stumbling after fresh brains with charming alacrity. However, certain actions, like whistling to your zombie minions, causes every character to move at the same instant in precisely the same way—a feat that would bring tears to a choreographer's eyes (but isn't exactly accurate, considering zombies' brainless nature). Personally, I was disappointed that Wideload's developers never discussed motion capture in the commentary hidden throughout the game, since I can only assume that finding real zombie talent was an exceptionally difficult task. I would have loved to hear the game's creators trying to illustrate how to perform some of the game's nastier animations to some hapless actor—especially the one where Stubbs rips his head off his shoulders with a nasty crunch, or what I call the "stump-boy slither" that you'll see when a zombie gets every one of his or her appendages blown or sawed off.
Before you think that Wideload spent most of its time rendering the fouler aspects contained in this astonishing story, Punchbowl is an attractive environment that is filled with numerous innovations that many people from the 1950's thought would exist at the turn of the millennium. Hover cars, ray guns, and talkative robots are all carefully melded with ordinary 1950's-era objects to create a cool, authentic-looking environment. Characters, buildings, and vehicles are generally colorful, well rounded, and rarely show a sharp edge—but this isn't necessarily an improvement over Halo's environment: it's simply a different look. Instead of focusing on pumping the polygon count, most of the work under the Halo engine's proverbial hood seems to have been focused on creating a number of different effects that Stubbs' designers layer over the display. During cutscenes, we get to see Punchbowl as the outside world lens sees it—squeaky clean and cheerful. Through Stubbs eyes, the world looks like a gloomy old film—dim and unsaturated. When you're in control of your severed arm, head, or someone else, the world is distorted and loses much of its color, as if you were receiving a remote video feed straight to your brain. It's a very interesting set of effects, and in all, it does a great job of setting the mood. Punchbowl itself goes through a transition during the course of the game as well. As the story progresses, Stubbs and his undead army wreck havoc on the environment, and combined with the special effects generated by the Wideload team, the cheery city of Punchbowl gradually decays into a gloomy film noir shell of its former self (but don't feel sorry for Punchbowl until you play the game).
Unfortunately, these stylistic endeavors result in a severe performance hit. Whereas most games are fairly linear when it comes to resolution changes, the full-screen pixel shaders and normal mapping in Stubbs causes a disproportionate performance penalty for higher resolutions than is typical with most games. On my dual 2 GHz G5, equipped with 2 GB of RAM and a Radeon X800XT, the highest resolution I could comfortably run the game at was 1024x768. I had enough of a performance margin to be able to enable 4x anisotropic filtering and 4x MSAA overrides through the ATI Displays control panel while maintaining a nice 35-40 fps average, but even with those overrides disabled, my Mac could not handle the next step in resolution (1280x960) without dropping significantly beneath 25 fps. That's disappointing, because the textures in Stubbs look significantly better at that resolution than 1024x768. In a practical sense, that means that users without a high-end GPU will probably try playing Stubbs at a resolution of 800x600 or less and using a bit of FSAA to compensate for the jaggies inherent at that resolution. Unfortunately, the "grainy film" effect coupled with low levels of FSAA seems to blur the screen in Stubbs more than is usual, enough to rub out a lot of the finer details visible in the game's textures.
SoundRegardless of whether you use a Mac, PC, or a console, there seems to be a wide range of opinion about sound; some gamers are happy with whatever speakers their system came with as long as they get enough feedback to avoid getting surprised, and others buy high-end 5.1 systems and obsess about speaker placement and balance in order to pick out every detail they can. I'm solidly in the latter group, and I'm happy to report that overall, Stubbs is one of the better-sounding action games that I've played. First of all, Stubbs is blessed with one of the best soundtracks in existence and is actually worth buying in addition to the game itself. The soundtrack consists of covers of popular songs from the '50s and '60s, which are tastefully played (unlike most covers). Songs like "Earth Angel" by Death Cab for Cutie, "My Boyfriend's Back" by The Raveonettes, and especially "Lollipop" by Ben Kweller are all in heavy rotation on my iPod. Instrumental tracks are used to good effect and never become repetitive—a great example is the mischievous theme that plays when you rip off your arm and use it to possess someone.
From the small earthquake caused by Stubbs' "Unholy Flatulence," to the cries of terror and bursts of outrage from your victims, the sound effects and dialog in Stubbs are generally very good. While the various audible effects in the game are not particularly impressive by themselves, once you put a dozen humans and zombies in the same room, the results are spectacular. The ungodly nasty din of battle—the gurgling of hungry zombies feeding on brains, shouted insults, and gunfire, punctuated at odd intervals by juicy splats as a zombie (or part of a zombie) strikes the floor—is quite unlike anything I've heard before. Stubbs' own mutterings and attempts at conversation are amusing, if not downright hilarious, especially since the only word that zombies can say with any amount of clarity is "brains." As our very own Jean-Luc Dinsdale reported in November, Stubbs has about 12,000 lines of recorded dialog, and while the brain-munching lines become tired after the hundredth brain you eat, Stubbs' other dialog should put an amused smile on your face time after time.