We have an abundance of zombies and tower defense games nowadays. No matter which gaming platform you prefer, you're likely to stumble upon a few tower defense games and/or titles that have zombies as their antagonists. Naturally, putting the two together would be considered a great idea, and while PopCap Games' Plants vs. Zombies is the most recognizable game, a few others have done the same. Despite the people's love for these two things, not everything it touches turns to gaming gold. Such is the case with Dead Block, a title that tries to add a nice spin to the proceedings but fails in the process.
The plot is simple and straightforward, as it is presented in a format similar to a late night TV horror movie. In 1950s America, zombies have sprung up and begun terrorizing the living. The zombie infestation reaches epidemic proportions, and scientists claim that if it's left unchecked, zombies could take over the world in a year's time. As one of the last remaining humans, it's up to you to fortify your surroundings and stave off the zombies with the one thing that made them rise in the first place: rock 'n' roll music.
In each level, your basic objective is the same: Stall the zombie horde while you locate the three components to your guitar/amp combo and use the power of rock 'n' roll to defeat the undead. Since the zombies normally come through windows or doors, a simple wooden barricade usually does a good job of holding them off. The pieces of wood are fragile, though, so don't expect them to hold out for too long. To counteract that, you can build traps in lieu of barricades. The traps range wildly from freeze sprays to pestilence dumps, but all have the express purpose of killing any zombies in their path. If you're lucky, you can also find jukeboxes that will temporarily immobilize and destroy zombies that happen to shamble into the room.
Of course, all of these barricades and traps require parts, and those parts are in limited supply in each level. Wood is pretty easy to obtain since you can break down furniture to get it. Trap parts, represented by mechanical nuts, have to be found by searching through various objects, such as cans and boxes. Searching is represented via various minigames, such as matching circles to provide a straight opening or simply mashing buttons to sift through the visible junk to find what you need. All of this destruction and searching via minigames will eventually lead you to the amp and electric guitar pieces that you need to finish the level. Playing the guitar is as simple as hitting the given buttons at the right time, just like any other rhythm game.
To add more strategy to the proceedings, you're given three characters to work with, each with different traits and abilities. Jack Foster is a typical construction worker who's excellent at building barricades and traps but not so good at finding items. He also happens to have a nail gun that can pin zombies to walls in case things go bad. Mike Bacon, the prototypical Boy Scout, is the exact opposite of Jack, where his poor building skills are offset by excellent item searching abilities. His special weapon happens to be a moldy hamburger that can lure zombies. Finally, there's Foxy Jones, a traffic cop who's average at building and searching but packs a Taser and gun for immediate zombie death.
There are several things that the game does poorly, considering the material. Despite the supposed emphasis on trying to use all three of your characters to efficiently complete a level, you'll find yourself only using two of them most of the time: Jack and Mike. Having Jack break everything down while Mike searches like mad for the guitar and amp items usually lets you complete levels rather quickly.
Since there are only about 10 episodes, there isn't much depth to Dead Block. Beyond the two levels that require a certain number of zombie kills to complete, you don't get a chance to deviate from the basic strategy of boarding up things and searching like mad. It makes for a fairly unimaginative experience when you notice how often you end up doing the same things over and over again.
The short game length and repetitive tactics are only amplified when you notice the game's instability. Whether it's switching out characters, bringing up the pause menu, or looking at the Xbox Guide, the game often experiences crashes or very long stalls, forcing you to restart your system to return to the game. While there's no rhyme or reason for it happening, it occurs often enough to act as an artificial game lengthener — one that's completely unwelcome in this day and age.
Multiplayer feels more like a missed opportunity than a bonus. You can play with up to three other people in any available level against the zombie horde. Each player can take on a different character, though with only three characters to choose from, you'll most likely have two versions of one character if you want to play a diverse four-player game. Split-screen play is nice, but what hurts is the lack of online play. For a game that places an emphasis on teamwork, omitting online gameplay feels like the game is only halfway complete.
The controls are slightly baffling in their execution. Analog stick movement is fine and follows the traditional controls for a first-person shooter. The B button lets you swing at objects to break them into wood or uncover new objects. The A button becomes your build barrier button, and the X button lets you use your character's special ability. The Y button breaks down barriers and sets up traps. While this is fine, the RB button becomes your attack button, and that's very non-traditional in a 360 game. Triggers are only used for minigames, so players who suddenly get into fights with zombies will end up pulling triggers and wondering why nothing is happening. Since the B button is essentially a melee attack, you might mash on it to attack zombies, but it does nothing against them. This is especially true for Jack, who uses his hammer for attacking zombies and breaking down furniture. The controls are responsive, but a few changes here and there would've helped it make more sense.
The graphics, while not amazing, are quite decent. The game has the charm of some early CG movies, where a stylized cartoon look was prevalent for humans. The zombies benefit from this look since they appear more realistic than the ones in PopCap's game, but they're still not grotesque. There's a certain charm in their appearance, and you don't mind seeing them in various costumes as you progress through the game. The environments, however, don't benefit much from this, and even though they have a nice retro look, they just don't "pop" like the characters do.
With the premise being a tad goofy, it's expected that the game's sound would be a strong point. The voice acting is pretty hammed up but expected when you consider what they're spoofing. You don't hear too much of it outside of the episode intros, but it works well enough. The music is fine but doesn't fit the motif too well. Despite the setting being in the '50s, you get more of a grindhouse feel to the tunes, making it feel like a modern homage to the '50s music style as opposed to something that could be mistaken for the real deal. It also tends to repeat often with little to no variation, so you'll tire of it rather quickly. This is made even worse when you play the level-ending song, which never seems to go in time with your button presses, let alone character actions.
There's not much that can save Dead Block from the depths of mediocrity. The graphics aren't too bad, but the droning soundtrack and sounds don't win any favors, and the controls are perplexing. The short campaign mode can't really be backed up with any other modes of play, and the multiplayer suffers from not being online. The biggest error that this game delivers is that the core gameplay is more tedious than fun. With all of these strikes against it, there's no logical reason to have Dead Block in your library unless you are hopelessly addicted to the undead.
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