Review: Rock of the Dead (Microsoft Xbox 360)
by D.J. Tatsujin on October 19, 2010

Rock of the Dead
Developer: Epicenter Studios
Publisher: UFO Interactive
Genre: Guitar Controller Rail Shooter
Release Date: 10/18/2010

You can tell I was really into video games circa 2000 when I reveal how not surprised I am to have a game like Rock of the Dead fall into my lap. When I actually had a college dorm room, Typing of the Dead was all the rage and small, Japanese-style arcades even introduced me to Lupin the Typing, based on a similar vein of borrowing Lupin the Third’s shooting game and injecting keyboard controls.

Even looking beyond video games, I was never sure how the premise of the movie Wild Zero, starring Japanese rockers Guitar Wolf, was never made into a video game. Ten years later, though, we finally have it in Rock of the Dead – goofy aspiring rocker destroys legions of zombies. While Wild Zero featured laser guitar picks, at least gamers get yet another use out of those plastic guitars lying around their living rooms in a fashion not attempted on home systems before.

Stepping into the game, players assume the role of… some guy voiced by Neil Patrick Harris. What unfolds is campy B-movie quality horror game that works quite well if you are into that sort of thing. The character is quick-witted in commenting about everything around him, as all sorts of cheesy aberrations assault your character. Akin to subjects of similar nature, nothing is really ever explained in Rock of the Dead; things just kind of happen and your character makes a quip about it. It’s charming and humorous, but gamers who demand a serious and drawn out story will want to stay as far away from Rock of the Dead as possible. What’s here works because of the theme and players will get a bit of an explanation as to what happened when they reach the end of the game, but “functional” is about as far as Rock of the Dead’s narrative goes.

The only real choice of modes players receive is in whether or not they team up with another player, along with a supplement of four different difficulty modes. Instead of throwing a ton of features at the player, the game surprisingly does quite a bit to pull players back into the fold. Each stage has five medals to rack up, challenging players to meet specific score, combo, survival and various other targets. Players can rack up 15 medals per stage, with five medals per difficulty (sans easy), encouraging players to work their way up the ladder and giving them a clear indication of when it’s time for them to move on to a trickier difficulty. Various challenges and items that pop up for a split second reward players with bonuses and out-of-game concept art unlockables and seeing as there are two endings and a hidden boss to tackle, the game’s depth is initially deceptive.

Epicenter Studios isn’t shy about letting people know about how small its studio really is, and even though the team has put together a unique and quirky idea, its lower budget really shows through in the presentation. The character models aren’t the most impressive on the Xbox 360 and the environments are fairly basic at times, but I will say some interesting use of color really carries some of the graphical elements. The creepy neon-green glows really reflect toxic areas and the crystals shot from space to create the outbreak of zombies shine with a vivid purple. The animation isn’t exactly fluid as well. While a lot of monsters have excusably exaggerated animations, the human characters look quite stiff and lifeless. What players get in Rock of the Dead will remind them very much of late “Ëœ90s rail shooters, which pulls up some memories in a gamer such as myself, but technical buffs will get more out of their system elsewhere.

Even though all of the sound comes through in great quality, there are certainly going to be some subjective issues stemming from the contents of the soundtrack. Rob Zombie has allowed the liberal use of a handful of his tracks to be used throughout the game, and there are a number of fill-in tracks performed by local bands of the Pittsburg area. Most of these fill-ins are rocked-up versions of classic tunes, which do make them notable, and I honestly thought the guitar work, such as in solos, was actually quite catchy. Even though your enjoyment/hatred of the soundtrack will mostly thrive on whether or not you enjoy Rob Zombie, there are a few technical snafus I found with the game’s audio.

First, eventually, the songs repeat themselves and players are lost with a lot of repetitive tunes. More importantly, though, the tunes are sort of haphazardly implemented into the gameplay. While fighting a majority of the enemies, the player isn’t really creating music or even strumming along to any rhythms – they just hammer out predetermined strings of button/strum commands. On its own, this mechanic wouldn’t be too annoying, but what totally disrupts the flow of the audio are the rhythm sections that come into play with stronger enemies. These sections pan out just like any rhythm game in order to whittle away the enemy’s life meter, and the most annoying facet of these bits is the fact they are not worked into the level’s music. What this results in is repetitive sections of songs that break into music currently being played with awkward fades.

Outside of those major annoyances, Rock of the Dead scores with its audio: The choice of music is fitting for a guitar motif, Neil Patrick Harris, Felica Day and Rob Zombie deliver campy dialog that matches the B-movie approach and typical zombie game sound effects accompany the action.

Since so many presentation mechanics fit into Rock of the Dead‘s gameplay, I’ve already briefly detailed how the gameplay works. Going deeper into the mechanics, the guitar controller actually feels quite nice once you adjust into the horizontal orientation of the commands, so, in essence, Rock of the Dead controls great because there are a number of quality instrument controllers on the market. The only control snafus one will likely encounter is in feuding over enemies in multiplayer – it’s quite hard to stay accurate when your partner has obliterated the enemy you were targeting. The same held true in Typing of the Dead, so you could say it is part of the game in splitting up the enemies and communicating, but it will no doubt lead to frustrations.

Looking at the eclectic mix of gaming genres, Rock of the Dead brings its “A-game” on a couple of different levels – it has the fast-paced action and difficult nature of a coin-op rail shooter and it has the accuracy demands of a rhythm game. The title tasks players with staying alive by feverishly hammering out commands, but many of the game’s rewards and high-scoring bonuses lie in being able to do so accurately, making Rock of the Dead an ultimate game of efficiency. This shows Epicenter Studios truly understands the roots of each genre and this knowledge is reflected very well in the title.

At this simplest level of “guitars killing zombies,” Rock of the Dead no doubt has a lot of appeal going for it and jumping into the game is quite enjoyable. The major kicker to the game, however, is in its massive repetition. The levels go on longer than they really should, with each presenting the same three or four enemy types throughout. While there are a few distractions, such as saving survivors, challenges and boss battles, nothing really breaks up the gameplay to make it feel different, and the aforementioned rhythm sections are just too awkwardly implemented. As such, Rock of the Dead is best recommended in bursts – I finished the game in one sitting and by the time I was at about the fourth environment, I really had to force myself to keep going.

That being said, the game’s balance was very satisfying, as even on normal, the later levels are not shy about throwing a lot at you, while the early levels ease players into the game. Furthermore, while it gets repetitive, the long story segments give players a full game that eclipses nearly every single rail shooter title. Among the unlocks are bonus stages that take players through even more environments, so when you consider the title is launching as a $40 budget title, you actually get a lot of content, especially for a game of this nature.

The Scores
Story/Modes: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: VERY GOOD
Replayability: ENJOYABLE
Balance: ENJOYABLE
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal Factor: GOOD
Miscellaneous: ENJOYABLE
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
While Rock of the Dead provides a novel concept to pull players in, its execution really holds it back. Most of the game’s aspects are merely serviceable, but it is still very obvious Epicenter Studios put a lot of effort and love into it. If the initial concept were to evolve, the studio could have something grand on its hands, but as Rock of the Dead stands, it serves as an acceptable diversion to the glut of other games releasing in October. The title’s biggest problem is how fast the key concept wears thin and its technical shortcomings do little to divert gamers away from these negatives. That being said, though, Rock of the Dead is a very competent mashing of two staple arcade genres as the elements of action and accuracy are effectively represented in the title. At $40, it gives players a multi-hour story mode, which is pretty much unheard of in rail shooters, and a multitude of hidden goodies and challenges to seek out. If you accept the presentation and gameplay for what it is trying to be, you’ll certainly pull at least a bit of fun out of the title. If you’re expecting Rock of the Dead to revolutionize gaming and turn the guitar controller world upside down, though, you’ll be gravely disappointed.



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