Okay, so I have all these freakin’ guitars hanging around, from the likes of Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock , Power Gig: Rise of the SixString and Rock Band 3 . They’re all over the place. And beyond using them for review purposes, I’m really not a fan of the genre and so, these plastic instruments are just going to keep gathering dust at a rapid clip. But then, along comes Rock of the Dead from Epicenter Studios, a game that has you battling various denizens of the dark with those very same instruments, and I go, “oh, cool !” Remember that old Dreamcast game that took advantage of the keyboard for the console, The Typing of the Dead ? This is basically the same idea, only we’re using different peripherals – either a guitar or drum set – to “fight.” It really is a good idea…it’s just too bad that it looks bland, feels bland, and leaves you with a general “meh” feeling.
It’d be unfair to say the visuals are terrible because there are a few pleasant highlights. Unfortunately, such good moments are few and far between and the overall visual presentation is painfully unrefined, almost to the point of being annoying. I never used to have a problem with a bit of “blockiness” in games – hey, I loved the PS1 era – but I think we’ve moved beyond that now, and Rock of the Dead doesn’t pass muster. Some of the special effects are nice and I liked a lot of the design concepts but in the end, the graphics suffer from a serious lack of detail and polish; it reminds one of a fancy PS2 title and sadly, that’s not much of an exaggeration. And we didn’t need anything too spectacular, either. I kept thinking, “you know, if they had just used the graphics we have in Rock Band 3 , this would've been just fine.” But clearly, this is a lower-budget production and yes, that cheapness is obvious.
By all rights, the sound should be the best part of the game, right? Well, it is. Neil Patrick Harris is always great (he just keeps choosing mediocre games; remember The Return of Matt Hazard ?) and I did enjoy a lot of the music. But once again, we come to a quality issue- the soundtrack just doesn’t hit you hard enough; it’s not sharp enough and after a while, you start to think the blandness of the visuals is somehow contagious. There was also a significant balance problem between the voices, music and effects and after playing for only an hour, you won’t be surprised to learn the game holds a cheaper $40 price tag. I don’t mind good games that are entertaining despite a lack of funding but when that lack of money is staring you right in the face from the get-go…well, it sort of drags down the entire experience. Still, I did like Harris’ contribution and Rob Zombie is always a bad-ass, so there are more than a few saving graces in this category.
The back story really isn’t necessary, but I’ll mention it, anyway. These meteors keep slamming into earth (guess the atmosphere is a whole lot thinner) and somehow, the ensuing radiation reanimates the dead, which are running amok. So, you wander about with your trusty guitar and when you see a nasty enemy, you simply play the correct notes – denoted by the colors over the foe’s head – and bye-bye baddie. Okay, so there isn’t much of a story but we don’t really need one. What we did need, however, is something more in the gameplay department. As was the case with the technical aspects, the player simply feels underwhelmed, even when facing what is supposed to be an intense, engaging event. Also, don’t think there’s much in the way of actual rhythm just because you’re holding an instrument; you really just hit the requisite buttons as fast as you can.
Essentially, it’s a first-person on-rails adventure, so it feels a bit like the old arcade shooters and I was reminded of House of the Dead . The landscape does change every now and then and there are different enemies, including mini-bosses, so in this way, it desperately tries to avoid being too repetitive. But if there’s one thing that would’ve avoided repetition, it would’ve been the inclusion of actual beats or rhythm; i.e., maybe one-on-one duels with foes that actually involve full songs, or something. Some mini-bosses will force you to do this but it doesn’t happen often enough. As it stands, the enemies come stumbling at you, and all you do is rip off the right button combination as fast as humanly possible. Not only did my fingers start to cramp up after a while but I also started to get bored. The combination of the lackluster visuals, music that isn’t as clear as it should’ve been, and constant rarely-altering “tappity-tap” all just blended together into this hum-drum drone.
Really, those parts where you play a full song – or a partial song – when trying to take down a particularly large enemy are the most appealing elements. It’s also semi-entertaining to earn special power and unleash that power on anything in the vicinity, and there’s also the benefit of shields if things are getting dicey. But there always seems to be a major downfall: the environments do change, but none of them look very good, Harris is a solid voice actor but I’m not the biggest fan of the “stoner dialogue,” and while the idea of nailing baddies with notes from a guitar (or drum set) holds a lot of promise, it doesn’t live up to that promise. The repetition, the “blah” technicals, the music that never sounds as clear and sharp as you would expect, and the aimless, mostly rhythm-less gameplay is just uninteresting. Still, I will mention that I played longer than I expected and I did have some fun; if the game was half the price, it almost might be worth it for big plastic instrument aficionados.
The multiplayer mode also feels sort of tacked on; you and a friend can head out and take on the shuffling hordes, but it’s basically the same experience. Only when going co-op, there’s the added difficulty of figuring out who’s playing what, so after a while, the two of you have to communicate constantly. Again, it can be fun for a little while but regardless of whether you play solo or with a buddy, Rock of the Dead is a forgettable experience. It’s not a horrible experience, per se, in that there isn’t anything catastrophically wrong with the game, but it’s the very epitome of “meh.” I just used that made-up word twice in an official review…that should tell you something. Plus, I really think the soundtrack could’ve been better. All in all, this is one of those “good idea, boring result” scenarios that probably won’t entice many gamers.
The Good: Fun idea. Some decent music. Neil Patrick Harris is a plus. An excuse to use your plastic instruments for something else.
The Bad: Mediocre visuals throughout. Lack of sharpness and clarity in the music. Repetitive gameplay that results in a lack of longevity. Boring, bland adventure, from the look to the feel. Some minor control/responsiveness issues.
The Ugly: Nothing ugly…but nothing pretty.