Saving hot chicks by blasting zombies with the power of rock sounds like a most excellent way to spend an afternoon. Rock of the Dead shows us that even the most epic-sounding quests can end up being fairly bland.
- The concept is clever
- Neil Patrick Harris! Felicia Day!
- It gives you something else to do with those plastic instruments
- The graphics are downright awful
- Constant failed attempts at humor
- Uneven pacing frequently disrupts the action
Taking clear inspiration from Sega's camp classic The Typing of the Dead, Rock of the Dead places you in the role of "The Dude" (no, not Jeffrey Lebowski), a laid back trailer park resident who learns that his guitar playing skills are the only thing capable of stopping a zombie apocalypse brought upon by a shower of mysterious, crystal-encrusted meteors. The guitar concept is used to its fullest by allowing the player to control the game with a Rock Band or Guitar Hero guitar (or drum) peripheral. As the zombies, mutants, and other enemies shuffle towards the screen, you must play the chords that appear over their heads in order to destroy them.
Comedy Is Hard
The premise may sound pretty cheesy, but don't worry--the game is well aware of that fact. It even revels in its B-movie-esque presentation through bizarre set pieces, hokey plot twists, and The Dude's extensive dialogue that he constantly spouts during gameplay. The game's creators even went for a bit of geek cred by casting two-thirds of the main cast from Joss Whedon's popular web series, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, as the main characters. Former Doogie Howser, Neil Patrick Harris, voices The Dude, and Internet darling Felicia Day plays his in-need-of-rescuing girlfriend.
Although Harris and Day are normally both quite entertaining and naturally funny, a terrible script means that they're wasted here. As the main character, Harris is constantly quipping about the on-screen action. Other than a couple chuckle inducing moments, though, his dialogue ranges from slightly embarrassing to cringe-worthy. There are also several stock phrases that repeat ad nauseam. Seriously, hearing The Dude shout "Got rock?" as he dispatches a foe isn't funny the first time, much less the 25th. Never mind the fact that references to the "Got Milk?" ad campaign were played out 15 years ago.
By comparison, poor Felicia is barely even in the game, but when she is, it's fairly clear that she was not in the recording studio with Neil when they read their lines. The dialogue between the two of them sounds stilted and unnatural. A shame considering that previous collaborations have proven that the two play off each other so well.
Reasons to Fret
OK, so the jokes don't really work, but that can be easily forgiven if the gameplay is up to snuff. At first, it's not too bad. Since the game shamelessly cribs from The Typing of the Dead, it's essentially an on-rails shooter with a unique controller. Taking out zombies with a few well-played notes does have a goofy sort of charm to it, but after a couple levels, problems start to stand out.
Perhaps the most noticeable flaw with the game is that it looks pretty terrible. Both the backgrounds and the character models look as if they stepped out of a budget Wii title. The soundtrack fares a bit better, but the mixture of Rob Zombie tunes and rock versions of classical music is awkward.
During the game, enemies normally lunge out at you, giving you mere moments to play the proper notes to avoid taking damage. Occasionally, however, larger enemies will march up to you and trigger an extended guitar riff. During this brief sequence, the game plays much closer to the standard Guitar Hero formula with notes synched to music scrolling across the screen. It's kind of clever, but these bits quickly start to grate. Ignoring how ridiculous it is for an enemy to halt its attack so that you can play a tune, these segments disrupt the flow of the game--especially towards the end when you must complete a few of these sequences in a row. It feels like you're trying to watch an action movie and someone keeps pausing the film for ten seconds at a time every so often.
The game's pacing isn't helped by baffling level design that occasionally results in some stages ending very abruptly. At one point, a stage is finished halfway through a boss fight, for crying out loud. When the player's reaction to clearing a round is "Wait...what happened?" or "Was that it?" something is wrong.
It's also worth noting that the game can be completely broken by playing it with a standard controller. There's no penalty for hitting the incorrect notes in an attack other than breaking your current combo (which affects your score) and giving the enemies a moment to further advance towards you. As long as you're not concerned with your score, it's very easy to mash on the controller's face buttons to repeatedly hit all the notes simultaneously. Most enemies will be destroyed before they even have a chance to appear on the screen. Sure, your score won't be all that impressive, but you will be practically invincible.
Rock of the Dead is one of those games that you want to like based on its concept alone. Unfortunately, the end result is simply a lot of wasted potential. The gameplay is serviceable, but the dull pacing, ugly graphics, and failed humor drag the overall package down a lot. It's a shame, really. It would be great to bust out those guitar controllers for something that isn't a typical rhythm game. For now, however, it's probably just best that we wait for Rock Band 3.