Though videogames are a decades-old medium, there's still more than a little fumbling around in the dark when it comes to value propositions - especially with digital downloads changing how games are published.
Invariably, as developers and publishers seek to find the sweet spot of not only content but how it's delivered, there are bound to be a few missteps, and tragically, Rock of the Dead is one of them. Simultaneously demonstrating why a great concept should be given a chance to shine while saddling it with a price point and delivery mechanism that almost instantly makes it feel like a rip off, there can be no better example of how not to release a game on modern consoles.
Don't get us wrong; we completely understand the various pitfalls and blockades that make up the landscape of releasing a game as a download versus burning it to disc, but there's simply no escaping one very obvious reality: Rock of the Dead should not have been a retail release. It simply doesn't take advantage of the medium and when coupled with a seriously lackluster presentation, the whole package smacks of something that was priced too high for what's offered.
It doesn't help that this is obviously a Wii game first and foremost and an HD consideration way, way down the list. Built on developer/middleware provider Vicious Cycle's Vicious Engine, the apparent ease of porting the game to multiple consoles meant the HD consoles could enjoy the game as well, but make no mistake, this is a Wii game - and not a particularly pretty one at that.
Yes, we're harping on the presentation, but it's simply unavoidable. The lighting, textures and animations reek of something ripped from the PS2 era, and while the tongue-in-cheek tone of everything does a little to scrub the low-budget feel, there's a sense that this is a B-game by necessity rather than design. Having a music game that dips heavily into public license music tracks and barfs them out with extremely low fidelity means everything feels cheap. Again, were this a $20 download, it would go a long, long way toward justifying things, but at twice that price, the feeling of getting ripped off is unavoidable.
That's not to say there wasn't a clear effort to deliver something substantial here. Unlockable concept art, extra modes and levels, multiple difficulty levels and endings; Epicenter's blend of genres is a clear labor of love, and it's likely those that find the combination of a guitar-powered rail shooter too irresistible to avoid will be absolutely stunned by just how lengthy a "shooting" experience this is.
That length, which chronicles a backwater wannabe rocker's rise from trailer trash to savior of the planet when aliens invade his quiet town and begin mutating/re-animating everything that crawls, flies and enjoys long dirt naps, is... significant. Too significant, in fact, leading to an endgame that drags on so painfully and with literal instances of copying and pasting the exact same sequences so often that it destroys all the fun in the hours of clicky plastic action that preceded it.
Clearly enamored with the gumption of Sherman Oaks-based developer, Neal Patrick Harris and Felicia Day rekindle their Dr. Horrible relationship with the aid of one Rob Zombie, who provides his voice and a generous smattering of classic music tracks - the only actual licensed music in the game. And honestly, it works. The sheer number of "duuuuuude!" comments that were dropped quickly made it obvious this game wasn't taking itself seriously, and aside from the few quips that are recycled ad nauseum by NPH after gunning (rocking?) down a wave of enemies, there's actually a ton of dialogue here - most of it internal monologue.
But it's funny. Funny in that fourth-wall-breaking, self-deprecating way that lets you know Epicenter knew it was making something light and low-budget. It's just a shame that the simple concept of playing increasingly complex strings of notes to take out enemies ended up being driven into the ground. When it starts out, things seem so simple - and they are; taking out enemies before they can reach you releases health and special attack meter ammo, so simply being quick is often enough to stay alive (at least until the game decides to throw an impossible number of targets at you). By tilting the neck up, Star Power-style, a shield is thrown up, and by holding the top four colored buttons and strumming, a screen-clearing attack can be unleashed.
Except all that simplicity ends up becoming the game's Achilles' heel. Once the basic skills are banked, there's little to keep things interesting. Each level has its own challenges for killing big waves of enemies or saving survivors, and the longer you can go without taking a hit, the higher your combo will climb, which adds to the medals you can get at the end of the level to upgrade those shields/screen-clearing blasts. Ditto for things like getting a high score or keeping accuracy up, but it's that last one that's the source of so much frustration.
Simply put, there's a feeling that Rock of the Dead isn't quite paying attention to what you're pressing, or rather it tends to simply "miss" inputs. Pair that up with the fact that the game has its own finicky handling of quick button presses and things can become increasingly cumbersome - especially when there are dozen or more targets on screen. Playing with two players helps ease some of this frustration, but it can be all but impossible to see who has latched onto a far-off target even in HD, leading to confused "is that you or me?" moments while playing with a friend.
Again, though, these sorts of things feel somehow acceptable when a game is truly budget priced (sorry, even in this era of $60 games, $40 is still a little steep) and delivered sans disc. Instead, Rock of the Dead seems almost burdened by the fact that it's been pressed and boxed, and the end result is all the little niggles we had at the start (lame public domain tracks, repetition of the Rob Zombie ones, cut and pasted segments, the complete lack of challenge in miniboss battles) compounded into abject rage.
This is a fun game, but that fun is siphoned out slowly as the game increasingly falls back on old tricks. By the time it's all over, you likely won't want to go back through it to earn more unlocks or bump up the challenge because so much of that initial peanut butter/chocolate "why didn't someone think of this sooner?" appeal has been sapped. With more variety to the actual gameplay instead of the environments, Rock of the Dead could have been something as genuinely special as the devs wanted it to be.
We hate ripping on something that's such an earnest effort, but the stark reality is that Rock of the Dead was released in the wrong way at the wrong price with nowhere near enough complexity to justify its length. Should a downloadable version priced dirt cheap and with just a few more licensed tracks (and the fidelity to make them pop - this is a music-driven game after all) happen to come together, we wouldn't hesitate to suggest this. As it stands now, though, the game simply asks too much of its audience.
Nov 5, 2010