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SummaryThis Road Needs Some Work.
The GoodMy wife doesn’t understand why I watch low budget horror movies on SciFi, but she accepts that it’s a part of me. She’s even amused that I own movies popularized by MST3K, minus the MST3K trappings that typically make them palatable. Frankly I don’t understand this either, but at least I don’t have to explain myself. In this review, however, I do have to explain why I like Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green, the video game equivalent of a bad movie. And it doesn’t help that professional reviewers have deemed this a terrible game, even nominating it for Coaster of the Year.
Road to Fiddler’s Green loosely works as a prequel to George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead (2004), but aside from the very last stage, it is its own beast. In his farmhouse, Jack hears a sinister radio broadcast and notices a stranger on his property. Of course the stranger is a zombie—actually the first in a wave of zombies which have Jack scrambling around his property collecting weaponry, keys, and health packs.
This first level is a tutorial level and has to be the clumsiest tutorial level in the annals of gaming. Jack is sent on a wild goose chase up to the attic, out to the shed, back to the house, and then back to the shed—through a growing number of zombies. What this level gets right is the feel of being stuck in the middle of a zombie attack.
The zombies are slow moving, but numerous and can quickly surround Jack if he doesn’t keep moving. Doors are minor obstacles to the zombies—when Jack searches for his rifle in the attic he hears the downstairs doors splintering and then moans alerting him that zombies are in the house. A later level finds Jack stumbling through a corn field with no visibility and moaning zombies on all sides.
Road to Fiddler’s Green is a first-person shooter, but Jack is a farmer not a combat-ready operative. He moves well, but gets winded if he tries to run everywhere. He can use weapons, but isn’t the most accurate with them. Moving away from conventional zombie-killing wisdom, it often takes more than a single headshot to bring them down (until Jack finds better weapons). Melee weapons are often as effective as guns (if Jack is willing to get that close) and a hidden power-up gives Jack kung fu skills trumping melee weapons and most guns. A few grenade-type weapons are to be found, but I found that setting zombies on fire meant dealing with angry, flaming zombies.
While headshots are questionable, zombies are susceptible to localized damage. Zombie arms and legs can be blown off, which slows them down, and trick shooters can shoot off zombie jaws (more interesting/creepy than effective). The zombies themselves pack quite a wallop. A blow from a zombie sends Jack staggering, a bite does great damage, and noxious vomiting/exploding zombies bring a world of hurt. Once again moving away from conventional zombie wisdom (and a hallmark of Romero’s Zombie Universe), Jack doesn’t stand any risk of infection. Wounds are easily cured by the ubiquitous health packs found scattered liberally around levels (along with weapons and ammo).
Road to Fiddler’s Green 20+ levels put Jack in a hospital, a police station, the sewers and other zombie-laden environs. Level design is linear, with some solid scares scripted in. One standout level has Jack sniping zombies while an NPC hotwires a truck. Another fun level, has Jack and Otis, the NPC, searching the docks for a viable boat to borrow. Most levels involve securing the area (killing all the zombies) while others are more survival based, forcing Jack to keep moving. The graphics are bolstered by strong audio effects. Radios provide updates about the zombie crisis, fires crackle convincingly, zombie moans echo eerily, and Jack’s narration furthers the story. In a touch a tad too player-friendly, anything Jack needs to interact with glows and Jack’s objectives are spoon-fed to the player, speeding up an already short game.
The BadThere’s nothing like a great first-person shooter, and Road to Fiddler’s Green is nothing like a great first-person shooter, but with an August 2005 announcement of an October 2005 release date and a $19.99 bargain price, Groove Games wasn’t preparing the world for a Doom-killer. Still, it’s odd to have a licensed title stray so far from its source material.
The pleasures of Romero’s universe, aside from his social criticism, are the rules he’s established and his visceral handling of the material. Road to Fiddler’s Green misses this. Road to Fiddler’s Green also takes a misstep by acting as a prequel to the movie rather than dealing the movie itself—bypassing the Road Warrior setting and omitting the controversial Big Daddy. MobyGames user nccs notes that an early incarnation of this game was in development prior to Land of the Dead, so I have to wonder how much of the licensed material was an afterthought.
For what it’s worth Fiddler’s Green uses the Unreal Engine, the same build of the engine used by Star Wars: Republic Commando and SWAT 4, but this release feels dated. Environments are static and character (zombie) models are recycled. I lost track of how many times I killed the Mohawk guy or the fat lady. Not that it’s always that easy to kill them—guns take on a mind of their own, forcing you to reload them when you really want to switch to the next weapon.
Okay, everything else aside. I really enjoyed playing Road to Fiddler’s Green. It’s a by-the-book FPS, but it was fun, scary, and stable. It’s also short. I completed the game in less than five hours. It’s not that the game is too easy, it’s just too short, well outside the 10-20 hours of play promised by developers in prerelease interviews.
Not extending gameplay, is the silly multiplayer offered by Fiddler’s Green. I picked one of the two available skins and then spent five minutes fighting rednecks with shotguns in a very small auditorium. It’s possible there’s more depth here than I recognized or something more satisfying than the deathmatch, but coming off of F.E.A.R.’s multiplayer this was laughable.