You've just created a first-person shooter lauded as one of the greatest ever, selling not only millions of copies of the game itself but also millions of consoles to play it on; what do you do next? If you're Bungie, you knuckle down and start working on a sequel. On the other hand, if you're Bungie co-founder Alex Seropian, here's what you do: you bail out, move to Chicago, start a brand new developer, license the Halo engine and start building something almost - but not quite - completely different.
That company is Wideload Games, and the something-almost-completely-different is Stubbs the Zombie, a unique, gory and hilarious game which gets a public airing for the first time on the E3 show floor this week.
Although it's based on the Halo engine - and the Halo influence is very, very clear, which I'll discuss more in a moment - the concept behind Stubbs couldn't be much further from the Master Chief's galaxy spanning, alien-blasting exploits. You play as the eponymous Stubbs, a desperately unsuccessful 1930s salesman who unsurprisingly begins the game dead, and stays that way, albeit rather more animated than we're used to the dead being. He's upset, you see, because twenty years after his burial, an entrepreneur has built a sci-fi style City of the Future above the site of his grave, complete with retro-SF robots, flying cars and so on. Cue bursting forth from the ground and the wreaking of havoc, in third-person, shambling, undead fashion.
One of the key hooks of the game is that, since you're playing as a zombie, you really can do everything you'd expect a zombie to be able to. You can kill enemies by slashing at them with your bony hands or eating their brains, complete with massively overblown - but entirely cartoonish - sprays of blood and gore. Walk up to a door or window with a human standing behind it, and you can smash through and grab the hapless victim before gnawing on their skulls. Find yourself surrounded by hostile natives who like their brains where they are, thank you very much, and you can let rip with some deeply unpleasant putrefaction-tinged flatulence to stun them all momentarily and give yourself the upper hand.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the game, though, is the most basic part of zombie lore: get bitten by a zombie, and you become a zombie yourself. Give the corpses of your enemies a few seconds, and they'll pick themselves up as new zombies, hungry for the taste of human flesh. But not, it has to be said, particularly bright ones. They'll amble around happily, hunting down those delicious brains, but your own level of control over them is fairly minimal; you can whistle to attract all nearby zombies to you, or roughly shove one to send him shuffling off in your chosen direction.
This simple idea introduces a whole wealth of variety to Stubbs. Each level can be played quite differently. You could run in flailing your arms and defeat the enemies with your own finely honed combat skills, you could create cannon fodder zombies and let them do all the hard work, advance on a gun turret position behind an inhuman shield of your decaying brothers in arms (or without arms, as the case may be, since zombies can lose body parts quite easily, which restricts their abilities in combat, often in rather amusing ways) or even cause real chaos by turning some truck drivers into zombies, and watching them follow their driving instincts. Albeit not very well.
Other twists include homages to a number of other recent games - most notably Halo, of course. The game leaves many things from Halo quite unchanged, such as the vehicle handling (yes, Stubbs can drive vehicles) and the presence of Covenant-style sticky grenades, which Stubbs can make by ripping out gaseous pieces of his own small intestine. Helpfully, my guide from Wideload pointed out that they're sticky "because they're covered in zombie puss and all that stuff". Thanks, mate. Just after breakfast, too.
Another cool feature is the ability to detach your own arm (actually, you can detach other people's arms too, and beat them to death with them - it's the little touches, eh?) and send it running around into areas you haven't explored yet, like The Thing in The Addams Family. It's controlled a bit like the Alien in Alien Vs Predator, and is capable of running up walls and across ceilings. Best of all, you can drop it onto the heads of your enemies and possess them ("It's in mah BRAIN!"), allowing you to control them directly and use whatever weapon they may be carrying - the only way, as far as we know, to actually use firearms in the game, and yet another way of approaching any given section of a level.
What's perhaps most notable about the whole experience is the sense of fun and humour that Wideload has injected into the game. The graphics are far more cartoony than Halo's, although they still retain a similar level of quality, and each character has plenty of things to shout or exclaim, just as you'd expect from a game created by former Bungie team-members. The hugely varied selection of levels draws on many of the zombie movie clichés of the past, and we're promised that the plot will feature plenty of twists - although Wideload isn't prepared to talk about that element in any detail just yet.
The Quick and the Undead
Also worth a mention is the great soundtrack, which is made up entirely of brand new recordings from bands including the Dandy Warhols and the Flaming Lips - all bar one of them being a re-recording of a famous 1950's track, which give the game a real feel of the era as well as offering the slightly surreal experience of chewing on a man's brains, sending blood spurting six feet across the ground, while been serenaded by the sweet tones of Mr Sandman (or better yet, the Flaming Lips' cover of If Only I Had A Brain..). It's a great touch which is really just the icing on the cake of the slick presentation of the game.
In the middle of last year sometime, an industry type - and I honestly can't remember who - opined to me that the Xbox might well "begin and end with Halo", referring to the widely held belief at the time that Halo 2 would be the swansong for the console. He was wrong, of course; Jade Empire and Forza Motorsport both upset that particular prediction. But with Stubbs the Zombie due out this autumn, just a matter of months before Xbox 360 hits the shelves, his comments spring to mind again. Xbox began with Halo; will its last great exclusive be undead Halo?