(Xbox 360 Review) Dead Block

Developer: Candygun Games
Publisher: Digital Reality
Genre: Strategy
Players: 1-4
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 3 = Poor

Although their track record should dictate otherwise, there’s just something inherently appealing about games that feature zombies. These endless waves of flesh-eating hordes not only appeal strongly to the giddy, B-movie-lovin’ five-year-old in each of us, but they also represent a pretty good opportunity for developers to make for some pretty solid gameplay.  While Plants vs. Zombies has given the market the opportunity to see how zombies can fit extremely well in the ever-growing action-defense genre, developer Candygun Games has taken its own spin on that same segment with its inventive XBLA title Dead Block. The problem, unfortunately, is that for all its creativity, it’s just not all that fun to play.

The concept for Dead Block is a promising one: set in the cheeseball horror imaginings of 1950s and 60s, the game offers you three protagonists who are simply trying to survive as the living dead wash over their small town. Each level is some sort of enclosed building—diner, family home, so on—that you must protect, and is introduced by a bombastic announcer who sets the scene for each “episode,” complete with the characters who’ll be featured in that particular level. The gist of the game involves fending off the undead as long as possible by building barricades and traps made of materials scavenged by demolishing furniture, until you’re able to find three guitar pieces that you can then use to play a solo— the power of rock and roll will then destroy all nearby zombies and therefore win the level. Yes, it’s as goofy as it sounds, and in the opening levels, gives you great hope for the kind of fun that this tongue-in-cheek silliness promises—a promise on which it sadly never makes good.

In keeping with the stereotypical feel, your protagonists are blatant caricatures: burly construction worker, porky Boy Scout, and Pam Grier-style afro-toting traffic warden. Each has their own strengths in one specific aspect of the game: the construction worker is especially speedy when building barricades, for instance, while the Boy Scout can search through containers like nobody’s business.  They also tend to play to these strengths when you leave your NPC buddies alone in other parts of the level, which is a nice touch. It’s handy to know that if you choose not to take control of the other character, you can generally trust that they’ll do what you’d expect, such as fortifying barricades and searching through containers for those invaluable guitar pieces. The flip side to that setup, however, is that in so doing, they tend to use up your shared pool of resources; it’s rather irritating (and often quite fatal) to be inches away from setting up a badly needed barricade when you suddenly find yourself out of wood because your NPC partner just used it on the other side of the level.

There are also a number of strategic elements that mix up the flow of gameplay somewhat, and the traps in particular are front and center in this department. Whether it’s a trap that freezes any zombie passing through the window or door, or one that covers them in human waste and gradually destroys other nearby zombies, this aspect forces you to be very careful in how you make use of your time and resources.  There are also items like jukeboxes, meat-covered radiators, and televisions that all allow for different ways to distract or destroy small groups of nearby zombies.

And as great an idea as this is—as all of it is, really—the flow of the gameplay ruins any genuine enjoyment that you may have been able to pull from it. Each level will play out roughly in the same way: start by boarding up windows and doors, and then destroy some couches, tables, and counters until you have enough materials to build more barricades, and somewhere in there find time to search through jars, boxes, and pillows to hopefully find the guitar pieces you’ll need to beat the level. But there are many significant problems with this, the most prominent of which is that your barricades degrade extremely rapidly, and there are far too many doors and windows in which zombies can enter. This means that by the time you’ve set up a barricade on a handful of doors and windows and you’re ready to start your search, the first couple barricades you’ve set up will need repairing or rebuilding altogether. This is meant to create tense, frantic gameplay, but with too many points of entry and too short a time between construction and destruction of your barricades, you’re left with nearly no time to actually bop about and find your guitar pieces. It’s extremely easy to be overwhelmed by zombies in fairly short order, and whether you win or lose any given level—even the early ones—seems to be determined by whether you’re lucky enough to have the guitar pieces randomly findable in the part of the level that you haven’t boarded up. The game is strategic, to a degree, but the pace isn’t so much frantic as it is utterly frustrating.

Making things worse is the fact that destroying furniture, your single most frequently used tactic, requires you to rapidly and repeatedly mash the B button. In very little time, this is something that will utterly demolish your right thumb. The other aspects of the interface are considerably less aggravating, asking you to use a Gears of War–style quick-reload type of system to build barricades, or alternating between left and right triggers to search through containers. These are considerably more tense to pull off when zombies are right around the corner, and that’s a good thing. However, the B-button mashing frenzy will occupy roughly 90 percent of your time, and will quickly make you forget about anything you may have enjoyed about the other creative input systems.

On paper, Dead Block has some interesting ideas in the tower defense genre and a promisingly cheesy survive-against-zombies-in-the-50s aesthetic; in practice, it’s a tiresome bore. Its central conceit of destroying furniture for barricade and trap materials will exhaust you physically, while the aggravating pace of gameplay and seemingly random odds of success will exhaust you mentally. It’s a shame, frankly, as Dead Block is one of those games that you want to be able to enjoy; unfortunately, it does almost everything in its power to prevent you from doing so.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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