Game Review: Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green

I picked up a used copy of this one in a game store. I’d never heard of it. This is always a bad sign, since you usually hear something about a game if it’s any good. As a perfect example of the power of marketing, the back of the box won me over. I was intrigued by a picture of a zombie army on the march, and by pictures of said zombies about to be blasted by an assault rifle or whacked with a shovel. There have been horror-themed shooters with zombies, like the Ravenholm segment of Half-Life 2, or arcade games like House of the Dead. But there haven’t been any first-person shooters that really capture the feel of a zombie flick in the same way games like Resident Evil do. So I decided to give this one a try. Imagine my delight when I got home and looked it up online only to find that reviewers had awarded it scores on the order of 1.5 out of 10. Let’s cut to the chase: Is this game a shitfest? Well, yeahâÂ?¦ pretty much. But it’s not entirely without redeeming qualities.

Land of the Dead is, of course, tied in with the 2005 George Romero film of the same name. This film, with its oddly blatant socio-political commentary, is set in and around a fortified human city amid a wasteland infested with zombies. And these zombies are apparently getting smarter. The game starts at the beginning of the infestation. The main character is a gun-toting farmer who is simply trying to reach safety and hook up with other human survivors. This quest takes him through such diverse locales as a cornfield, a warehouse, a bunch of office buildings, a police station, a hospital, and of course, a sewer. The plot is rather minimalist, and is told through short, narrated cut scenes.

Visually, Land of the Dead is unimpressive. Despite the variety of locations in the game, the levels all basically boil down to a series of bland rooms and corridors littered with generic, crappy-looking furnishings. These areas are all very plain and have an unpolished look to them. The zombies themselves don’t look bad. They’re pretty damn creepy, and they actually resemble the zombies from the film. Some are very pale, some are nearly skeletal, and some have ripped-off faces, and other grotesque, gaping wounds. They all lurch and stumble eerily, and react convincingly when shot. And the zombies come in a variety of “flavors.” There are male and female zombies. There are black zombies, and white zombies. There are punk zombies, old zombies, and fat zombies. There are cop zombies, bag lady zombies with weird bonnets on their heads, and zombies with cornrows that look like Coolio. In such trying times as these, it’s nice to see all the major demographics covered. Variety is the spice of life, or so I’m told.

The sound in Land of the Dead is uninspiring. What passes for music in this game is awful. Short, annoying little snippets of music that sound something like midi renditions of the theme from the Halloween movies are played continuously on a loop. Gunfire is adequate, though muffled. And the hungry growls of the zombie hordes sound very much like people throwing up.

The gameplay here is pretty straightforward. Level objectives are usually “Get to (insert location),” or “Secure (insert location).” In other words, you just keep moving from room to room, killing zombies while sometimes looking for keys or switches to flip in order to progress. And it’s to your benefit to search every single one of the legions of file cabinets and desk drawers in search of health and ammo. This gets pretty repetitive after a while. There are a couple of “variety” levels thrown in. One has you covering a human survivor from a rooftop with a sniper rifle, while another involves manning a chaingun turret to mow down zombies trying to enter the City of the Living.

The undead in this game don’t share the newfound intelligence of their movie counterparts. They just blindly stumble into your line of fire while trying to swipe at you with their arms. Some zombies literally just stand there and do nothing, or will stop chasing you and start convulsing as if they are having seizures. Yet you’ll still get hit because the damn things keep popping up behind you. And while the game promises that you’ll “fight through hordes of zombies,” it’s interesting to note that you’ll rarely ever face more than four at a time. This is probably for the best; cramped levels don’t leave you much room for maneuvering and backpedaling while you’re shooting. And the sometimes-slow reload times and firing rates further complicate matters.

Killing zombies is the “meat” of the game, and the combat is actually kind of fun. There are three “tiers” of weapons. There is a nice selection of guns, of varying power and firing speed. There are also explosive devices, namely grenades and Molotov cocktails. These are good for clearing out groups of enemies at a distance. But they take a while to throw, so the timing can be tricky. And finally, there are melee weapons. Hammers, shovels, baseball bats and axes can be picked up and used as weapons. This helps to conserve ammo, which is key, especially early in the game. And more importantly, using the melee weapons is satisfying in its own little way. One can scarcely deny that there is something intrinsically pleasing about repeatedly bashing someone in the face with a shovel, or going to town on someone’s skull with a hammer, like Woody Woodpecker in heat. Or maybe I’m just psychotic. In any case, the violence in this game may well be the most fun part. Limbs can be lopped off with the axe. Heads will explode with well-aimed shots. Enemies can be set ablaze. Settle down, parents’ watchdog groups, it’s just a game. I can think of worse ways to blow off a little steam after an irritating day at work.

In the end, though, this just feels like an unfinished bargain-bin game. The music is terrible, the gameplay is repetitive, the environments look bland, and the enemies, though fun to whack, suffer from some glitchy A.I. Additionally, the game has a slow, plodding feel to it. And switching between weapons can be very cumbersome when zombies are chasing you. I wanted to try the multiplayer mode, but I don’t have Xbox Live, and I don’t know anyone else fool enough to buy this game to system link with. On the other hand, the zombies are pretty scary, and the game does have its tense, frightening moments, especially when ammunition is running low. I was compelled enough to finish the game, but not enough to play it again. Land of the Dead is one of those games you probably want to rent, not buy. If the developers had had the speed and graphics capabilities of a game like Doom 3 to work with, then they may have had a winner on their hands.

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