Rock of the Dead is one of those titles that sound like it's too good to be true. Imagine Typing of the Dead (House of the Dead meets Mavis Beacon, for the uninitiated) with a Guitar Hero twist, where you slay zombies with Rob Zombie riffs, all voiced over by nerd royalty like Neil Patrick Harris and Felicia Day. It's an idea that's simply too awesome to work perfectly…but does it work at all?
Those familiar with Typing of the Dead and Guitar Hero will settle in with Rock of the Dead with little difficulty. Tiny fretboards appear over your enemies, and you must strum out the appropriate notes to kill them. In fact, once you accustom yourself to the fact that the notes read left-to-right, instead of the vertically scrolling board that the genre normally uses, the system feels natural and clean, almost elegant. You thrash out quick 1 to 3 chord blasts, with the occasional scrolling solo to destroy larger enemies, filling up energy gauges to charge up your additional abilities, shield and blast, to get you out of sticky situations. It all works beautifully, until you get a decent sized mob of enemies on the screen, and the entire system all but falls apart.
As video game guitar gods know, there's only 5 different fret buttons available to you at any time. When you get a particularly large crowd of monsters, each asking for three chords to kill them, and half of them are asking for the same button, the game becomes almost unplayable. Simply put, Rock of the Dead makes it very difficult to manage which of the enemies you're trying to target, so you'll often wind up blasting a zombie at the rear, even as one in the front tries its hardest to separate your face from your skull. True, in these cases, you can fall back on the shield to protect you, or the blast to wipe all of the enemies off of the screen, but when I'm trying to build up a solid streak of notes, why should I have to resort to a "smart bomb" to survive? While it's not a constant problem, it certainly comes up enough to warrant mention.
Also worth mentioning is the star-power of the game, which includes Neil Patrick Harris and Felicia Day (both from Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog), and the music and likeness of Rob Zombie. To be perfectly blunt, neither Harris nor Day seem to have any stake in their work whatsoever, with NPH's delivery bordering on agonizing at times. However, all of this is more than made up for in the soundtrack, a strange mix of White Zombie and Rob Zombie songs, along with a few classical pieces reworked as thrashy metal tracks. The experience of obliterating zombies and mutants to the strains of Super Charger Heaven is strange, but also incredibly fun. The B-movie schlockiness that both the game and Zombie share that makes Rock of the Dead oddly satisfying in spite of its flaws.
In fact, if you can treat Rock of the Dead as sort of a "B-Game," a title that lacks the polish of A-list titles, there's certainly some enjoyment to be had. In spite of its ugly graphics, uninspired voicework, and slightly broken gameplay mechanics, I don't think I ever once wanted to stop playing Rock of the Dead. I was enjoying myself, and that's a good enough reason to keep playing in my book. Well that and the fact that I still have to collect all of the pieces of Rob Zombie for the bonus boss battle. I got a score to settle with him for that Halloween remake.