House of the Dead: Overkill

House of the Dead Overkill #6

Who doesn’t love House of the Dead?

Please try not to call me out on this rhetorical question. I’m well aware the answer might include people with RSI, those who abhor violence, quadriplegics, anyone with a phobia of zombies or green/red gore, those clinically terrified of houses, and the dead.

My point is that the notoriously tacky lightgun game series has been a steadfast presence in arcades since the late 90s. Even I, a gamer who cut his teeth in front of a PC rather than in an arcade, has fond memories of hammering invisible bullets into low-polygon zombies in arcades – striking earnest and tragic poses with the guns during cutscenes, of course. House of the Dead 2 is my favourite Dreamcast game thanks to the two lightguns I own. I’m considering buying an old CRT television purely so I can play it again. This is akin to buying a VCR to play the one film you still own on VHS… but it’s okay because it’s a really great film and it’s not on any of the torrent sites Netflix.

This is not to mention some of the more ridiculous yet inspired spin-offs such as 2000’s Typing of the Dead, a typing skill improvement spin on House of the Dead 2 that made the series’ tongue-in-cheek and absurdist qualities even more evident.

So yeah, the House of the Dead series – particularly the core games, enduring staples of those arcades still clinging to existence today – is fondly thought of by a lot of people. It’s daft. It’s fun. And you get to shoot stuff in a non-problematic context.

House of the Dead Overkill #2

Even if this guy did have a family, he probably ate them. So really you’re doing everyone a favour by laughing when you shoot bits off him and ludicrous quantities of blood erupt everywhere. Also, he’s not foreign. If you’re from the USA. Er.

House of the Dead Overkill is a prequel to the first game, so those capable of deciphering the entirely stupid and irrelevant plot of the older games may be excited by that. What’s rather cooler is that Overkill is inspired by old grindhouse films; not a genre I’ve dabbled in much but thanks to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez even film ignoramuses like me are in on the joke. So too is Overkill, from the film reel artefact effects that pop and flicker over the screen to the bombastic and absurd introductory narration for each level (with titles such as Scream Train, Jailhouse Judgement and Naked Terror) by way of the turned-up-to-eleven stereotypical characters and their unfailingly amusing dialogue.

I’m not kidding with that last one. When I first fired up House of the Dead: Overkill the last thing I expected to be impressed by was the quality of its writing. I didn’t expect the quality of its writing to even make the list. And yet Overkill is a game with clever, self-aware and genuinely funny dialogue. Take a particularly good exchange from near the end of the game between the two male protagonists (Agent G, a smarmy yet sharp white guy in a suit, and Isaac Washington, a blaxploitation-inspired cop with a funk tshirt and a deep-rooted love of the word ‘motherfucker’):

G: “I think if we’ve learned anything today, it’s that love ain’t always right.”

Washington: “Hey, I loved my old man. You saying that ain’t right?”

G: “Well…”

Washington: “And your fiancée in that jar over there loved her brother.”

G: “I was just making an observation.”

Washington: “Frankly, Casanova, I’d be more worried about reading the last twelve hours as a damning fucking indictment of contemporary feminism.”

G: “Beg pardon?”

Washington: “I just think two dick-wielding cop clichés taking down a 100-foot birthing mother is a statement fairly limited in its interpretations.”

G: “I’m not sure you can read too far into that.”

Washington: “Not to mention, the strongest female role model in this whole affair ain’t much more than a gherkin in a pickle jar.”

House of the Dead Overkill #3

G and Washington are about as modern and tasteful as this gratuitous zombie cleavage shot.

The relationship between Washington and G is pretty much mapped on one of those ‘unwilling partner’ buddy cop movies which is a solid template for their verbal needling throughout the film. The game’s female characters – cynical gun-wielding stripper Varla Guns and, er, naive gun-wielding stripper Candi Stryper – aren’t as developed, though in the game’s original Wii release Varla was a supporting character and Candi wasn’t present at all. In the PS3 version there are two playable levels featuring these two, with Varla’s story padded out and Candi introduced as the second playable character and slightly simple-minded foil to Varla’s cynicism. They’re not as funny or as sharply-written as G and Washington, and they’re not subversive through sheer absurdity, but there are still some witty lines scattered about.

The PS3 version, incidentally, also has higher-res textures, more detailed character models, supports 3D televisions and anaglyphic 3D with red/green 3D shades included in the box, and that’s all the time I’m devoting to any of that.

How about the shooting? Well, I can’t speak for the Wii version, but the PS Move version is pretty fucking sharp. Laying precise shots on screen is solely a question of your own skill and comparable in accuracy to a chunky plastic lightgun. The game rewards accurate shooting, particularly headshots, of course, and score multipliers come into play for not missing targets, for blowing off limbs and for generally filling the screen with gore. More relaxed play is equally possible; just fill the screen with bullets and blast everything you see. Your score will suck but you can still progress; the only limitation will be less cash between levels to buy new guns and upgrade them. I beat the game on my first playthrough without understanding how the combo system worked, which tells you a lot about how good a shot I am. You really don’t need to excel at the game to enjoy it – though I’m happy to now have various targets to work toward as I replay the game’s nine levels.

…yeah, nine levels. At about fifteen to twenty minutes a pop this means the core game is pretty short. Fortunately Overkill, like most of the better lightgun games, is less about novelty than it is about skill and experience. Re-running levels and trying to better your score, playing through the game with a friend who’s not played before or trying out new weapon upgrades are all options for replayability. A Director’s Cut mode is unlocked on game completion, featuring extended versions of those nine levels featuring extra areas and zombies – ah, sorry, Overkill calls them mutants, not zombies – for those after more of a challenge. There are other modes, too, which I’ve yet to dip my toe into, and of course there are the now-obligatory collectibles. Concept art and comic book pages, anyone? It’s a menu option you might accidentally select, I suppose.

There are areas where it’s easy to wish that Overkill had offered a little more. Branching routes through levels to open up a bit of choice and variety would’ve been nice as well as a callback to the game’s predecessors. And more levels would’ve been fun. But, frankly, I was expecting to find House of the Dead: Overkill a mildly entertaining diversion at best and so to discover instead that it’s a great on-rails shooter as well as a well-written and funny game was more than enough. I had a blast and I hope Sega revisit the series in this way again.

House of the Dead Overkill #5

Oh sweet zombie Jesus that thing is crawling out of the frame and I think it’s going to swallow me nonono