EDITOR’S NOTE: I am old enough to have witnessed the birth of Pong and sorta lost the plot sometime around Defender, but I realize that lots and lots of young folk spend hours and hours playing games. Hours that could be spent reading Phawker. Now there’s a way you can do both. Introducing our brand spanking new game column, I GAMER, penned by intern-to-the-stars Adam Bonanni. Adam is 21 and attends Temple University.
BY ADAM BONANNI Light gun-style arcade games, named for their unique gun controllers that shoot beams of IR light, are pure fun mayhem. There’s nothing deep or complex about them; you don’t have to worry about controlling your movement onscreen, just shoot your gun, and leave a breadcrumb style trail of your enemies who stand between you and the end of the level. These games thrived in arcades, but a few things held them back from making a huge splash in the home market, not the least of which is the nature of the genre. The light-gun games that became the biggest hits in arcades were, unsurprisingly, overly straightforward to a fault, short, and provided little new to see on another playthrough once you saw the game through to the end. Generally, once you beat the game, your hard earned quarters were better spent on skee-ball. Even as a wild fan of the genre for some time, I admit these games mostly got by on the novelty of firing a little plastic gun at the screen.
The House of the Dead franchise has been around in the arcades for over a decade, but developer Headstrong Games, under the guidance of SEGA, is now bringing the latest game in the series, House of the Dead: Overkill, exclusively to the Nintendo Wii. Overkill pits Detective Washington and Agent “G” against a viral outbreak that has turned inhabitants of the city into zombies. In their pursuit of crime lord “Papa Caesar,” wanted for unleashing this virus, they traverse swamps, hospitals, and a circuses with their trusted .44’s in order to bring him down. It may not offer the depth of gameplay to compete with sixty-hour role playing games or the replay value of an online game, but Headstrong’s first crack at the House of the Dead series offers just the right amount of attention to detail in its characters and story that gives it a certain charm. Chronologically, the story serves as a prequel, so no previous experience is needed to understand what is happening. On the gameplay front, House of the Dead: Overkill remains just as fun and exciting as its previous installments, and is absolutely worth checking out.
Being the first House of the Dead developed exclusively for home use, the game is set to do things differently. First and foremost, the length of the game is something I am glad to see addressed. The genre of light gun games have their roots set in arcades, and are meant to be completed in one sitting — approximately a 2-3 hour ordeal. It doesn’t make financial sense to pay $50 for the home console version, much like buying a the DVD to a movie you kinda sorta liked the first time through at a friend’s house. In Overkill, upon completing the basic seven level story mode, or the equivalent of what an arcade version might offer, the Director’s Cut mode will open up. Director’s Cut plays like, well, a director’s cut of a film. Same story, but added scenes and ramped up difficulty. Seeing both the story mode and director’s cut through to the end is about an eight hour ordeal: much improved, but a bit short of the length of a comfortable 10-14 hour campaign. After completing the story, the ability to select an individual level to play goes a long way toward making Overkill easy to pop in over and over again for some quick and simple fun instead of having to replay the entire campaign to see your favorite level. Some other good diversions, such as a gallery of carnival-style target shooting mini-games, bonus art and videos, and the ability to listen to the game’s soundtrack add some extra entertainment.
Another drastic change made to Overkill is how it plays out like a satire of a grindhouse flick, spitting out gratuitous profanity, violence, and sexuality every chance it gets. The re-invigoration that grindhouse cinema was given with 2007’s Planet Terror was clear inspiration for the developers pertaining to how they should interpret this style; completely over-the-top, and emphasizing a fun experience over complexity or depth. Instead of trying to emulate a horror movie, like past entries in the series, Overkill plays out as more of a buddy-cop movie set against the backdrop of a horror film. The game treats its subject material with good humor, and never breaks its character, resulting in a consistently entertaining story. Previous House of the Dead installments were unintentionally hilarious due to their campy dialogue, so its much more refreshing to see one that doesn’t try to act more serious than it really is. Overkill still gives you that good arcade feel by not compromising its straightforwardness, but rather by building on it. Players earn in game cash for high scores, and this can be used to unlock shotguns or automatic weapons in addition to the basic pistol. The increased firepower doesn’t alter the gameplay in a huge way, but makes for a nice addition. It’s a blast to play through with a friend, and players are still shooting to top high scores, as well as gaining achievements for performing certain tasks in the game, such as maintaining a certain accuracy or unlocking all weapons.
Buying a good light gun controller for these kinds of games was always a headache in the past, so it’s nice to have the hardware built right into theWii controller. A gun shaped shell to house the remote is recommended, but absolutely not required to get the full experience. I used the Nyko perfect shot for my playthrough. It did its job, making me look like a dork firing a plastic gun at a TV screen, but it got a bit uncomfortable after extended use. The control is simple enough, I had no need to calibrate the aimer; the Wii remote was precise enough to start plugging zombies straight out of the box.
The graphics in Overkill are a mixed bag. Points are definitely awarded for immersing the player in the grindhouse feel. The game actually looks like it’s presented on low quality film, with dust and grit superimposed over already dark and decrepit environments. Also, a nice bit of motion blur when your character turns looks fantastically cinematic. The creatures look great and animate decently, but the same can’t be said for the humans. Scenes that bring you out of the gameplay to tell the story go on for some time, and you’ll be looking at the characters interact enough to notice that their design is extremely basic, and they animate stiff as concrete-encased boards. It’s sad that for all the game does to make the player feel like they’re in a grindhouse movie, some terrible lip syncing animation will break the illusion right out. The technical side of the game could have also used some work. The game frequently “hitches,” whether it’s to load a new area or more zombies. It becomes easier to overlook the longer you play, but you can bet you’ll notice (and curse) it when it messes up your shot. Unfortunately, the lack of polish on the visual front keeps the game from achieving an acceptable balance between graphics and performance.
Not much criticism can be weighed against the game’s sound, which kicks all kinds of ass. I always wondered why the volume was turned so low on arcade cabinets, later realizing that the weak, forgettable sound is exactly why. The cheesy guitar-synth rock in the previous House of the Dead games was particularly awful, but re-worked a bit, it’s now the swanky, psychedelic stuff of ’60s cop movies that really sounds awesome in this context. The voice acting is pretty convincing and appropriately over-the-top. No wooden dialogue or terrible translation from Japan-land to be found.
Your character is given unlimited ammunition to dispatch hundreds of zombies, and are given eight lives before they kick the bucket (some enemies may take two or three lives per hit, so be careful). Options are given which allow players to tailor the difficulty to their suiting. More experienced players would do well to leave the “extra mutants” option enabled, and the aiming assist crosshair can be disabled for a bit of an extra challenge. Getting through the game isn’t much of a challenge; in story mode, you are given unlimited continues once you die, so the only thing preventing you from seeing the game to the end is your patience.
One thing that puzzles me is the game’s insistence on giving you a letter grade after each level. Why the grading is so harsh, I don’t have a clue, and being awarded a “C” after a level instead of an “A” or “B” makes me feel like I’m being berated for playing. At best, this adds artificial challenge to the game. The criteria for attaining a higher grade is too focused on making you complete the level a certain way (if unloading truckloads of bullets on zombies instead of practicing ammo conservation is fun, why should the game tell you it’s not?) I didn’t find a higher grade added much of a reward toward completing a level, but shooting for an “A” adds quite a challenge.
At the end of each of the seven levels, a boss appears, and I have a bit of a problem with the way they are handled. At the beginning of each boss fight, a picture appears, letting you know where the weak point of the boss is for you to attack. However, during the actual fight, a giant red circle will appear when the weak point is exposed letting you know where and when to attack. It becomes too simple to wait for this circle and fire blindly into it, which will most likely kill the boss without much of a challenge. Uncool.
House of the Dead: Overkill is rated M for Mature (ages 17+) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, and Strong Language. This game makes me wonder what it really takes to get the Adults Only rating, as this must be stretching the rating far and wide. Not a single opportunity is spared to drop an F-bomb or other vulgarity, and after a while it’s shocking nor edgy; it’s just grating. A live actress doing a poledance striptease kicks the game off, and it doesn’t get any tamer from there. Nip slips and blatant sexual exploitation are prevalent throughout the game. Every category theESRB flagged this game for is stuffed to the brim with its respective “objectionable material.” Not for the kids.
House of the Dead: Overkill retails for $49.99, and is available exclusively for the Nintendo Wii