The moment we got wind of the premise behind Stubbs The Zombie, we were sporting a grin to rival the Joker's. As premises go, this one's simple, straightforward and, well, just damn enticing: be a zombie, eat brains, make more zombies. Of course, there's a bit more flavour here and there, a few extra ingredients to this particular stew, but at the root of it, it's really all about being a shambling ghoul with his guts hanging out. Kudos to developer Wideload for coming up with it.
After an agonisingly long wait and a Stateside release, we've finally managed to get our mitts on some code - and we're happy to report that being one of the undead is pretty much everything it's cracked up to be. From the moment you step into Stubbs' tattered suit and hit the pristine streets of the space age (or rather a 1950s idea of space age) utopian town of Punchbowl, the action comes thick and fast.
Stubbs has a reasonable variety of abilities at his disposal, with the game supplying new ones as you progress through its 12 levels. He begins with a basic melee move that can be used to kill the likes of civilians, cops, scientists and redneck hillbillies, who will then be resurrected as non-controllable but useful zombified followers.
However, his most valuable asset from the outset is the aforementioned brain-munching trick. Sneak up behind a foe, or stun them with a couple of punches, and Stubbs can grab hold of his or her noggin and feast on the warm matter within. Again, the victim will shortly become a zombie, and Stubbs will also receive a health boost, plus regain other limited-use zombie skills that he may have depleted.
Ah yes, those other skills. In a pinch, Stubbs can bowl his head at a group of enemies, fart in their general direction or throw his own explosive insides around like bizarre hand grenades. The most interesting tool in his arsenal is the ability to rip off a hand and use it to possess adversaries (see 'Give Yourself A Hand', right).
The upshot of all this is that you wander around the large levels - which, despite the acres of space, are very linear - killing gun-toting humans while simultaneously raising your own disposable army of shambolic green-tinged fiends. Now, this is enjoyable (how could it not be?), but it does get a bit samey, with most levels appearing to simply add a new background setting and tougher baddies rather than an actual fresh challenge. You'll be glad to know that proceedings are enlivened periodically by a spot of vehicular action, boss fights and, at one memorable point, a disco dance-off mini-game, but basically it's pure zombie combat 90 per cent of the time. It's oldschool and yes, it works, but don't expect a gaming revolution to hit your PC come this February.
That's not to say we found the preview code boring at all - in fact, the myriad humorous touches made even this burntout, sour-faced hack chuckle once or twice. Maybe even three times. We counted visual references to such cinematic classics as Patton and Saturday Night Fever, and the smutty shop names and radio ads, which take their cues from Grand Theft Auto, will appeal to the puerile little fool in everyone.
We also adore the visual style Wideload has crafted out of the creaking shell of the now ancient Halo engine. What looked encouraging in earlier screenshots and movies is even better when you actually play the game with its graphical settings turned up to the maximum. Everything is covered in a soft layer that gives it an appropriately grainy, vintage look (the closest thing we've seen recently is Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory's night vision mode), while the levels themselves, although not the most detailed around, exude a lovely Happy Days-cum-Flash Gordon feel.