It’s important for us to remember that zombies were people, too. Some are fast, some are slow and some look and dance like Michael Jackson while getting pelted by anthropomorphized flowers. Dead Block by Candygun Games brings its own style to the genre, creating something completely different from Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Call of Duty’s Zombie modes and the countless other titles to feature the undead.
When we first saw the teaser trailer for Dead Block, I knew it was something special. We recently posted an interview with Roger Joswig, Managing Director of Candygun Games in which he shared some of the things that separate Dead Block from the herd. The game takes place in the 1950s with rock music waking the dead and turning them into zombies. Each level is introduced with a humorously melodramatic voiceover in the style of an old television show. The tutorial level, taking place in an auto repair shop, does a good job of introducing the core concepts and controls.
Movement and camera are handled with the thumbsticks; destroying furniture is B; A is a multi-function, context-sensitive button that is responsible for laying traps, searching and using jukeboxes and soft drink machines; Smart Bombs are triggered with X; and destroying traps and barricades is Y. My only gripe with the controls is that melee combat is handled with the right bumper. It’s cumbersome and a bit uncomfortable. I would have appreciated a way to map that to something else or to see it combined onto the B button. It’s important to note that you can’t damage furniture with an RB melee attack and you can hurt a zombie with a B button furniture smash.
Throughout each level, you’ll be breaking furniture to gather wood and searching through objects for a variety of other consumable items including parts for door and window traps, coins to buy life-restoring soft drinks, upgrades for weapons and, most importantly, the three parts needed to rock the zombies back into the ground. As you make your way around the environment, you’ll need to board up windows and doors or set traps to eliminate the zombie threat. My personal favorite is the toilet trap that drops a load on any zombie unlucky enough to stumble by. The result is a swarm of flies that quickly eat away at the health of the victim and all other zombies in the area. The sound effect of this trap being triggered is worth the price of admission.
The traps come in two general varieties: damage dealing and bottlenecking. If the trap does damage, it likely allows the victim to keep on moving. If it holds the zombie in place, though, it won’t do damage, but it will prevent others from moving through the door or window. There are exceptions to the rule, like the Bomb Trap, which detonates after the regular wood barricade it’s attached to, is destroyed and the Helmet Trap, which turns zombies into deconstruction workers, aiding in your furniture “reclamation” efforts.
Each of the three characters; Jack, Mike and Foxy; have different stats for melee combat, search speed, and furniture destruction. They have unique traps to set and a different “smart bomb” attack that recharges over time. Jack has a nail gun that pins zombies to the wall, Mike’s smart bomb is a smelly hamburger that attracts all the zombies in the area and Foxy uses tazers and guns for instant kills.
As you are defending and searching through items, you’ll encounter very brief minigames to complete your current task or simply speed it up. Searching for a trap part can be sped by tapping the trigger buttons. Find a new trap design and you’ll have to line up gaps in circles to get to the item. Consumable items appear as one item in a list. While you are engaging in these activities, zombies still close in. Fumbling with the buttons only leaves you defenseless for longer. Thankfully, many of the single-player levels feature multiple survivors. You’ll control one at a time with capable AI partners taking the reins of whomever you aren’t taking a personal interest in at the time. You can switch between them to take advantage of their various strengths.
For better or worse, your AI partner will function much like another human. They’ll combat zombies, search, destroy furniture, and even locate critical objects like keys or one of the guitar, amp or speaker. They will also grab a soft drink when low on health. The downside is that if they get into a jam, you could suddenly find yourself without a coin you were expecting to use on a jukebox or your own vitality. I did, occasionally, run into situations where the AI would remain in a room that had been completely cleared out. While I would have preferred that they move on independently, you can hold the left bumper to summon them to your current location.
Unlike so many other games that focus on killing as many zombies as possible, Dead Block prioritizes evasion, speed and defense over brute strength. Keeping the undead out or catching them in traps is the best way to survive long enough to find the three items you need to end each level. Once you do find the guitar, amp and speaker, you’ll need to make your way to where they are setup to engage in one last minigame. Fail, and you’ll need to play the song again from the beginning. There are occasional missions (two out of the ten single player missions) that require you to kill a set number of zombies to power the Zomb-o-Matic machine. I appreciate that Candygun was trying to switch things up a bit, but the zombie murder isn’t Dead Block’s strongest area and those missions were less enjoyable.
For completionists, there are four medals that can be earned in each level for destroying furniture, searching, killing zombies, and finishing without casualties. Earning these medals is challenging, as they will require you to drag the level on for longer than would otherwise be advised. There is an achievement for earning a gold medal in each stage, and it will require dedication to earn as bronze, silver and gold are tied to each of the three difficulties. This game is not easy, even on the default “Normal” difficulty.
As you play, it’s likely that one of your companions will die and become a ghost (rather than another zombie). Thankfully, as long as one other survivor remains, you’ll be able to revive the fallen. You’ll lose a lot of points should that happen, but you’ll still be able to finish the level.
While Dead Block would be a perfect game for online co-operative play, it is sadly limited to split-screen. 8 levels are available for team play, which is identical to the single-player offering. The game is most definitely more enjoyable when strategizing with friends, figuring out the best place to lay traps and assigning responsibilities based on character strengths.
Dead Block is an attractive game with a Pixar aesthetic (Mike Bacon reminds me of Russell from Up). The zombies strike a balance between gritty and humorous without being “cute” like the villains in Plants vs Zombies. The standard zombies shamble aimlessly while looking goofy, but the special undead, which are resistant to some traps, are never a welcome sight.
The sound effects are solid and the music is provided by Vampyre State Building. It has a dark, driving rock sound that, although not at all from the 1950s, works anyway. The whole audio and visual package meshes very well, serving as yet another way that Dead Block sets itself apart from others in the genre.
At 800 msp ($10), Dead Block is something that zombie and tower defense fans alike will want to check out. I hope that we’ll see a sequel in the future that continues to diversify the offerings while adding an online multiplayer component.
Review copy provided by publisher.