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Zombies Come Back To (1950s) Life

GameCore is CBSNews.com's gaming column written by William Vitka.



Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream. Make her the cutest that I've ever seen. Give her two lips like roses and clover, then tell her that her lonely nights are over.

From the Oranger cover of "Mr. Sandman"

The '50s were an era of innocence. Fresh from victory in World War II, America was invincible. We were the good guys in our Garden of Eden.

Then someone took a bite out of Eve's apple.

Rock 'n' roll, a child of the Blues, gave hungry Baby Boomers what they really wanted: Sex 101.

Innocence was transformed, not only by biology but by the prospect of World War III. Kids couldn't talk to their parents so they turned to Elvis. After all, Mr. Sandman was about more than just sweet dreams.

The Cold War brought with it intangible menace and unending fright. People couldn't hold atoms in their hands. Teachers ushered school children through "Duck and Cover" exercises. "Getting under the desk will protect you from nuclear holocaust." So they were told.

The Sci-Fi flicks of the day grabbed hold of that terror and denial. We can't see it. We can't touch it. So let's make the enemy something we can visualize and hold: BEMs (Bug Eyed Monsters for the uninitiated). Don't forget short-skirted Sci-Fi babes. Exploited, yes, but it was Girls! Sex! Aliens!

Such is the chosen era for Wideload Games's Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without A Pulse. It is the latest video game title to go retro. I got to look at a preview build of it a while back and I was mighty impressed.

Stubbs takes America's "good ole days" and goes one step beyond. Punchbowl, Pa., a city built during the Eisenhower administration to show off the ultra-futuristic technology of the 21st century, is a new Eden.

The story behind Stubbs is simple enough. Edward "Stubbs" Stubblefield was a traveling salesman and a loser. He was murdered, then buried in a field that became the future site of Punchbowl.

He emerges from the ground as a walking skinsack of disease bent on painting the town red —

. He wants brains. He wants the power and success he never had in life. You're there to wipe that smirk off the ruling — living — class. Getting to munch on their brains and turn them into marching carcasses is nice, too.

Stubbs controls more or less like any third-person game. Its use of the Halo engine is no doubt in thanks to Alex Seropian, Wideload's founder, and his relationship with Bungie. Seropian was a father of Bungie, the company behind the uber-succesful Halo series.

The physics are the same as Halo's. Chuck a gut-grenade (one of many corpse-riffic weapons at your disposal), and your victims scramble and fly through the air like kung fu wire acrobats gone batty.

The enemy AI is responsive and at least somewhat intelligent. The pre-dead (see: living) will duck and dodge, seek cover, and try to direct reinforcements to your position. Sometimes, when there are a large number of enemies on the screen, they will get a little squirrely and run completely amok without any regard for strategy. Then again, panic might be a completely reasonable response to a zombie assault.

It's difficult to go over the many ways you're able to and turn them into the undead in Rebel Without A Pulse. That's because your weapons and their attacks are so ridiculous and fun. Grab any poor dope and watch the gore fly as you chew through his skull — it never gets old. My favorite method by far is the detachable hand attack. You can rip your own forearm off and send it on a mission to possess the living.

Each time you jump with the mobile limb, it flips the camera off (a la Ash's hand in "Evil Dead 2"). Grab onto an opponent's head and you control the enemy. I suggest going to one of the sniping Marines so you can get a hold of that sweet, sweet rifle and split some craniums. Your zombie brethren will thank you, albeit in the form of moaning cacophony.

The game's recipe for success is an undead homage. Take one part Romero (for the shambling dead and the spot-on social commentary that people don't want to listen to), two parts O'Bannon (creator of the funniest zombie movie known to man "Return Of The Living Dead," because the zombies in this game eat brains, not flesh, like Romero zombies), and just a smidgen of "Evil Dead," and you've got a general idea of what cinematic treats influenced the game. One should probably throw Stuart Gordon's "Re-Animator" in there too, if only for good measure.

Stubbs is the embodiment of '50s kitsch and it plays out like one of the afternoon creature features Baby Boomers used to pay pocket change to see. It's even got an amazing soundtrack with the likes of Ben Kweller covering "Lollipop," The Raveonettes' take on "My Boyfriend's Back" and Rose Hill Drive's absolutely fantastic cover of "Shakin' All Over."

By using a tongue-in-cheek view of our past "innocence" and a thorough knowledge of everything zombie, Stubbs is both entertaining as hell and a bizarre commentary on where we are now. Video games might be the new rock 'n' roll. The fact that they're besieged on a regular basis by know-nothing, vote-crazy politicos might be enough to raise them to rock's previous subversive standing.

What are games like this trying to convey? Are they saying that America is retrogressing? That we're turning back to a jingoistic, numb, dumb and naive period? Or is it just a laughing look at the supposed "better days" in our history?

The kinds of video games we play, like the movies we watch, can give more insight into our culture and climate than we might want to admit. Consider Stubbs our zombie zeitgeist. It should never be forgotten that games have the potential to actually say things to people, to tell us stories and to make us think.

If I were a betting man, my guess would be that games are trying to say the things that Stubbs's inspirations have been saying for a long time: The kids are alright but the rest of you are not.

Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without A Pulse rises from the grave Oct. 17, 2005, for the Xbox, PC and Mac.

For more info:
Stubbs The Zombie
Stubbs Soundtrack
Aspyr

By William Vitka

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