House of the Dead: Overkill Review
What the eff is it about mother-effing zombies? We effing can't get enough of them as the endless effing stream of mother-effing zombie books, movies and games being churned out every effing year will attest.
Hrm, I thought an entire review in Grindhouse-ese might put us all in the mood but it seems sprinkling the F-word not only isn't effective, it's kind of ridiculous. More on that later. Anyway, as I was saying...most of us love zombies because most of us love a good scare. And authors, movie directors and game developers love zombies because let's face it, there's big money in the undead. (Well not in the undead...) The House of the Dead series, based on the well-loved arcade game, has been giving zombies their due since back in the '90s. The latest offering in the series, House of the Dead: Overkill for the Wii—wait a minute—for the Wii? That can't be right. The Wii is the girlie console. It's for Tiger Woods and cartoon elves and dewey-eyed animals, not curse words and carnage! That's what I used to think.
Overkill, by London-based developer Headstrong Games, is a prequel to the other House of the Dead games. You play as Agent G, a rookie on his first assignment to take down the infamous criminal Papa Caesar. This slimy scumbag, who looks and sounds like a Cuban Burt Reynolds, is too much to take on alone so you're partnered up with smack-talking cop, Isaac Washington. (Why can't I stop picturing the bartender on the Love Boat?) The game is done in true exploitation style (if you don't know what that is, see Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse movies) and starts out brilliantly with a slick opening credits sequence that's like something right out of a 70's drive-in movie.
Each level of the game is cleverly presented as its own pulp-style episode. Agents G and Washington start out blasting their way through a creepy Louisiana plantation house teeming with zombie mutants in order to reach Papa Caesar's secret lab. You start with a standard issue AMS Magnum which has a limited clip but is perfectly adequate for mid-range death and dismemberment as long as you remember to hit A or B frequently to reload. The point of view is first person just like the arcade game and you're on a rail which means all movement is done for you. You can move the Wii-mote (or Wii Zapper if you want to get fancy) side to side to expand your viewpoint a little but there's really no point. The camera does a great job of pointing you right where the action is. You build up points for every kill, scoring more points depending on where you hit the target. Headshots are best, and save ammo but it's cool to hit your targets anywhere because the reactions are so real. Hit them in the chest, they recoil; in the arm, they lose an arm and keep coming; in the leg, they drop to the floor and crawl creepily toward you. No matter where you shoot them you'll want to keep the string of hits going because you get bonus points by building up your combo meter from Extreme Violence to Goregasm.
Each level has its own distinct enemies which present different types of threats. The Carny level (which I love) is chock-full of evil clowns and later levels have Gollum-like exploding mutants and scary Hellraiser-ish things that charge and grab onto you forcing you to knock them away by shaking the controller back and forth. As the game progresses, the mutants get faster and more aggressive which is the perfect time to use Slow Mo-Fo Mode. Throughout the game you'll see pickups you have to shoot: Golden Brains which give score bonuses, Health Packs, Grenades and green DNA-looking things that when shot, put the game into slow motion. It's tricky hitting these pickups because the camera is always moving and generally only turns you to face them for a second or so. Pickups add an interesting element to gameplay because unless you're good, taking the time to grab one could easily get you killed. If you do take a lethal hit, don't worry; if you're willing to give up half your points, you can continue exactly where you left off.
Once you've fought your way past every level's mutant welcoming committee, you'll be rewarded with an arena fight against one of many disturbing bosses. Well, maybe rewarded is too strong a word. The bosses in Overkill are fairly disappointing. While some of them have style (the Screamer, in her flickering ghoulishness reminds of the Japanese film The Grudge), they're all too easy and extremely predictable in their patterns. It seems the movie link being such an emphasis in the game, the developers thought of the post-boss battle cinematics as the real end level rewards. After defeating the lackluster bosses and watching the cinematics, you'll be taken to a stat screen where you can check out your Score, Accuracy, Kills and Headshots. You earn cash for your performance and you'll need it to upgrade your Magnum or buy something better in the gun shop. If you have the dough you can take on the next wave of mutants with a hand cannon worthy of Dirty Harry, a shotgun, an SMG or an assault rifle.
House of the Dead is uncomplicated, old school fun but it's as much about graphics as gameplay. From the B-movie look of the intro, loading screen and menus to the superbly done environments, it's loaded with a schlocky style Tarantino fans will surely appreciate. The enemies are all distinct; unfortunately, they're more distinct than the main characters. Agents G and Washington are fairly forgettable. Their faces are bland and they don't seem to fit into the over-the-top context of the game. That's not a problem for voluptuous heroine Varla Guns who the agents encounter during their first mission. Seemingly a pumped-up take on Rose McGowan's character in the movie Planet Terror, Varla is a hell raising, tough talking motorcycle chick who in spite of her ample charms, is more macho than the guys.
Poor Varla, though, falls victim to one of the handful of ugly graphics glitches noticeable in the cinematics. Aside from objects hovering near characters' hands and bad lip sync, Varla's eyes can be seen clipping through her face. Not that anyone but me was looking at her eyes. Ahem.
The graphics also occasionally take a hit due to performance and memory issues. Part of the fun is watching the mutants explode into showers of gore but when there are a lot of enemies on screen, the frame-rate gets pretty chuggy. Once in a while too, VFX are replaced by unsightly white placeholder squares, a problem I imagine could get even worse when playing co-op story mode.
Overkill is a short game at roughly four hours, but it has a Director's Cut mode that allows you to play through the story again at a higher difficulty and with limited lives. The only not so cool thing about that is that your weapons don't carry over from story mode so you'll have to buy them all again. If you're not up to that you can check out the three minigames: a survival game, a “protect the civilian” game and a sharp-shooting game. Playing through all the modes is worth it too if you're into unlocking extras like concept art, 3D models and music tracks.
The music in Overkill is all original and right on the money. It practically screams Tarantino. Now if only the dialog did. Remember earlier I mentioned how using the eff word over and over wasn't always such a great idea? Well the writers of Overkill didn't seem to get that, especially in the case of Isaac Washington. He's a purposeful cliché and it's obvious he and Agent G are supposed to be something like Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction. The sad thing is, in less-capable hands, the obscenity becomes the substance of the dialog, not the seasoning. Washington drops so many F-bombs, it crosses the line from amusing to embarrassing. The writing's just not clever or funny enough to support it which exposes just how difficult it is to write good dialog. In fact, I wasn't 100% sure the developers were doing a send up of the exploitation genre until the end when the heroes had an uncharacteristically deep, self-reflexive exchange regarding how extremely un-PC the game was.
House of the Dead: Overkill is a lot of fun and looks good but I'm not convinced it's worth the $50 price tag. It's quick to pick up, has considerable replayability and is a much-needed dose of mature content for the Wii. However, it's extremely short, the bosses are a cake-walk and the writing is obnoxious. I'd say rent it or wait for the mother-effing price to go down.