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Rock of the Dead review: Frampton comes undead

Justin McElroy

I'm not unsympathetic to the plight of the small developer. You've got to battle time, personnel and cash crunches all while competing on the same console as studios that seem to have nigh-bottomless pockets. Even if you've got something original to say, how do you make your voice heard over the MegaCorp loudspeakers?

So from the opening bars of Epicenter Studios' new zombie rhythm game Rock of the Dead, I was willing to look past the sub-par presentation. The bargain price tag certainly doesn't hurt, but the key thing is this: Behind that haggard face hides a single great idea.

Gallery: Rock of the Dead (PS3/Xbox 360) | 23 Photos

As an unassuming everyman voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, you'll take a campy voyage from the trailer park to the outer reaches of the galaxy, all the while re-deadening hordes of the undead with the most insidious weapon ever to leap from the unfeeling womb of humanity: Rob Zombie music.

That's right, you'll need your trusty (dusty?) guitar controller (or drum, if you/your co-op partner prefers) to put down this zombie uprising. And while it's great in theory, the promising concept is simply not executed as well as you're likely fantasizing it to be right now.

The title isn't the only similarity this new release has to oddball favorite Typing of the Dead. In much the same way that game had your keyboard functioning as a metaphorical gun, your guitar is basically just an overly-complex rifle. Waves of enemies approach and you eliminate attackers by playing the particular riff that appears in front of them.

The biggest surprise about Rock of the Dead is that, once I let go of my preconceptions about what it should have been, I was weirdly absorbed by what it was.

After literally the first 20 seconds with Rock of the Dead, you'll realize its nigh fatal flaw: You're not playing music. Yes, I know, you're never really playing music in a rhythm game, but RotD does away with even the pretense of creating music. You're simply pushing pre-determined buttons on a plastic controller. Heck, there's not even a sound effect tied to it.

There are a handful of sections where you'll actually play along with music, typically when you're up against tougher enemies. But these bits are so poorly tracked and weirdly implemented (the soundtrack fades out, you play the solo, the soundtrack fades back up) that I was relieved Epicenter hadn't tried to make it the core of RotD's gameplay.

The problems are compounded by the absolutely baffling decision to orient riffs and solos horizontally rather than vertically, as your brain has gotten used to processing for the better part of a decade.

Good luck teaching your brain to make sense of that.

The soundtrack (comprised of Rob Zombie songs and heavy metal classical covers) is also pretty sketchy. I won't deny that Mr. Zombie's music is the perfect compliment to killing zombies, but realizing you've been listening to the same Rob Zombie song for the better part of 10 minutes? Deal-breaker.

The biggest surprise about Rock of the Dead is that, once I let go of my preconceptions about what it should have been, I was weirdly absorbed by what it was. Teaching my brain and fingers to play sideways note patterns, and then learning to manage crowds by identifying and eliminating the biggest threats brought me an odd, addictive sense of satisfaction.

There's a good game hidden somewhere in here, it's just completely at odds with the game Epicenter seems to be trying to make. There was a single great idea on the whiteboard when the premise was created, the studio just didn't have all the other ideas it would have required to make it work.

RotD has a great premise, but maddening execution. We all sort of know instinctively why the idea should work, but I'm not going to sit here and say I could have told Epicenter how to do it better without making "Guitar Hero with pictures of zombies getting killed." Unfortunately, this is where indies are supposed to thrive. They're supposed to subvert the need for top-flight presentation with plenty of ingenuity and creative gameplay problem solving.

Sadly, though its reanimated heart is in the right place, Rock of the Dead ends up a little too much like its undead antagonists: starving for brains.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of Rock of the Dead provided by UFO Interactive.

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