There's a priceless scene in Bert I. Gordon's classic film Earth vs. the Spider in which the titular giant spider, seemingly dead after a liberal dousing in DDT (hey, it was the Fifties), is revived from seeming death by the bopping beats of…rock ‘n' roll. It's the sort of atom-age absurdity that, as much as we love to scoff at its implausibility, bears an undeniable charm that can't be denied.
The point of my story is that anything that is evocative of that sort of silliness, which the Xbox Live Arcade title Dead Block certainly is, holds a certain special spot in my heart…even with the nagging flaws that the gameplay itself may have.
The premise of Dead Block is typical of the living dead genre: players must try and survive a series of environments being overrun with zombies using only their wits and the limited resources around them. Where Dead Block veers from this tried-and-true (and cliché) formula is in its gameplay and presentation. Levels, which range from high schools to diners to charmingly retro homes, are introduced in a series of TV-style bumpers that preface the zombie menace (borne from that damned rock ‘n' roll, no less) and our cast of heroes: a lantern-jawed construction worker, a portly Boy Scout, and a tough-as-nails Blaxploitation heroine named Foxy Jones. All three have one singular goal in every level: to try and keep the flow of zombies to a minimum and collect the parts to a bitchin' guitar and half-stack combo that will send the dead back to their graves with the sleazy, surfy sounds of rockabilly band Vampyre State Building.
This is accomplished through a wildly varied gameplay experience that mixes tower defense, action, resource management, and a handful of button-mashing minigames into an entertaining if not entirely effective mishmash of play styles. Virtually everything in the environment can be destroyed, yielding precious resources that help the players build barricades and set traps for the waves of zombies that pour through any open portal in the level. The traps are the real star of the show, helping stem the undead flow by freezing the zombies, covering them in raw sewage, or simply nuking them into oblivion with a handily-placed bomb. When you hit your rhythm and establish a solid defense plan, the game is satisfying and simple. When your defenses are crumbling and you're desperately pawing through every possible container on the hunt for that elusive amp, the warts of the game start to pop up in a big way. Trying to fend off the zombies when you're actually face to face is horribly clunky, and even the enhanced weapons that the characters wield are woefully underpowered. The other issue is the almost overwhelming sense of sameness, with the goals and progression remaining the same across every last level. There's no sense of build up or growth to be found, just a profound sense of déjà vu as you trek across the levels, smashing furniture and rifling through boxes for that elusive guitar.
Yet, in spite of that sense of sameness, there's still that undeniable charm that was mentioned earlier, making the game oddly enjoyable for the brief time that its levels last. Dead Block is like the Easy Mac of games: simple, fast, and cheesy. It's not a gourmet meal, but something about it still satisfies you.
Dead Block is available now on Xbox Live Arcade for 800 Microsoft Points.