House of the Dead was always the game at the arcade that most intrigued the mind of the young gamer. The black curtain often surrounding the machine was a mystical shroud, a veil of secrecy. It was the protective layer between impressionable, inquisitive young minds and the untold zombie-slaughtering, gore-soaked terrors that lay within. It's more than a little ironic, then, to see a console version appear on Nintendo's kid-friendly Wii. It's obvious that the Wii's motion detection capabilities render it perfect for a light-gun styled game. We've already seen it in the form of Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles. But on a console seemingly oriented purely towards the younger end of the gamer market, could there be room for another bloody, violent zombie romp behind the crosshairs of the Wii remote?
House of the Dead: Overkill poses as a prequel to the popular arcade series, following the ever-suffering series protagonist Agent G (he won't tell you what it stands for) and the distinctly Samuel L. Jackson-esque Detective Isaac Washington. They've tasked themselves with the investigation of psychotic criminal Papa Caesar, who appears to be responsible for unleashing the swathes of undead upon Bayou City.
Had Overkill followed the tone and aesthetic of its predecessors, this would be a competent but ultimately average game. Fortunately, every element is vastly improved by the game's incredibly funny entrenchment in the sleazy realm of 70's grindhouse theatre. The game more or less pilfers the 'reverence-disguised-as-mockery' approach taken by the Rodriguez/Tarantino double feature Grindhouse, more specifically Rodriguez' zombie tale Planet Terror. Although Planet Terror never received a licensed tie-in game, Overkill is very much its spiritual equivalent. It's all there; missing reels, scratchy, flickering film peppered with flaws and generally dodgy presentation. In one scene a character is slapped, his glasses hitting the ground. The camera cuts back to the character wearing the glasses again. Subtle, but funny all the same. The game even has a plot, in equal parts silly and disgusting. Agent G and Detective Washington get up to all sorts of shenanigans. Throw in a buxom sidekick in the form of Varla Guns, a disturbing amount of incest and a tremendously funny voiceover, and you have yourself a story that's as entertaining as it is sick (and it is quite sick).
The gameplay is both simplistic and satisfying. If you've ever played a light gun game before you'll have a decent idea what to expect. The game is on rails, so you have little to think about other than whether you'll blast the zombie on the left or the zombie on the right. Reloading is performed with a shake of the Wii Remote and switching between your two weapons involves a simple press of the 1 or 2 button. There's a focus on scoring points which lends the game a healthy sort of arcade purity. Scoring points and point bonuses at the end of each stage nets you cash that can be used to buy and upgrade weapons.
You can also use money earned to upgrade already owned weapons in areas like reload time, damage and clip size. The assortment of weaponry is fairly typical, ranging from your default handgun to shotguns, rifles and a mini-gun. Each can be upgraded in areas like damage, reload time and clip size. It would have been nice to see a little more imagination at play in the variety of weapons though, given the extreme nature of the rest of the game. A rocket launcher, flamethrower, or at least something other than a conventional gun would have suited quite nicely.
Shooting zombies is immense fun. You can blow off limbs and heads in meaty chunks, and slow down your undead assailants by shooting them in the legs. By not missing any shots you can build up combos to gain more points at the end of the level, which converts to more cash to be spent on guns. Speaking of guns, it's worth noting that if you decide to get this game, it's worth seeking out the Bang Bang Box version: the gun peripherals that come with it are excellent and add a lot to the experience (not to mention they're much better than the Wii Zapper).
The game looks pretty good, too. The presentation throughout is smart and the graphics themselves are fairly solid by Wii standards. The zombies look sufficiently gruesome, and although you'll be encountering only a few different zombie models per level, this doesn't really hinder the natural joy one feels separating a zombie's head from its shoulders.
There are health packs, grenades and collectibles (golden brains, naturally) that can be obtained by shooting them, an activity sometimes made a challenge by tricky placement combined with quick camera pans. There's also a great slow-mo trigger that not only slows down the gameplay, but warps the music, making it sound like the soundtrack was playing on a vinyl record. When the slow-mo timer runs out the music contorts back to regular speed. Subtle touches like this that add depth to the aesthetic.
There are occasional 'Save the Civilian' segments to add a little focus to the gameplay, some of which yield humorous comments. There's also a boss for each of the game's handful of levels, all remarkably and hilariously grotesque. The first is fun to kill, the others less so once you realize they all follow identical patterns. Deflect projectiles by shooting them, aim at the weak body part (which the game conveniently circles for you) to knock down a mini health bar, which in turn depletes the main health bar. Strangely enough the final boss is the easiest, but probably also the most disgusting, which perhaps makes up for it to some extent.
The stages are creatively designed, including locales like hospitals, a circus and a prison. Each is provocatively titled, again reflecting the bombastic silliness of grindhouse movies. Titles as glorious as Papa's Palace Of Pain, Jailhouse Judgement and Ballistic Trauma are worthy of having their own games.
The game can be played with one or two players, and is naturally a lot more fun with two. One slight problem arises in that it's easy to lose track of which aiming reticule is yours, with only a subtle colour trail to distinguish between either player. The best way to avoid confusion is to use different weapons: a pistol will produce only a small reticule, a shotgun a much wider one, making it easier to distinguish.
This is not a game for the sensitive. Aside from the gore, rotting flesh and overt sexual content, this would be up there as being one of the most foul-mouthed games ever. Detective Washington is quite literally a fountain of the f-word and its many beloved variants, particularly the one with the matriarchal prefix. If you felt your poor ears were being aurally assaulted by the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV or Saints Row 2 you'll be needing to turn the audio down. But to do such a thing would be a travesty because you'd miss out on the incredibly seedy soundtrack, a fine mix of cheesy rock and wah-wah porn music. The menu screens have a few amusing ditties on offer too.
Aside from the main game are three mini games that can be played with up to four players. One is a very boring game shooting targets. The second is a timed survival mode that throws zombies at you until you either die or time runs out. The third is by far the best of the three, in which you overlook a static area in which civilians wander around and it's up to you to pick off any approaching zombies. The three games aren't that great overall, but they're a good example of what this game would be without its rampantly over-the-top personality: a regular old light gun game.
This definitely isn't the sort of game you'll play for hours on end, forever and ever. The story mode can be finished in around two hours, though upon completion you can unlock the more substantial and more difficult Director's Cut version, which adds extra scenes to each level and throws more zombies at you. It's the sort of game you can pull out for a laugh when friends come around. You'll thoroughly enjoy your time with it, then put it away again for another few months. And hey, at least you don't need to cough up a precious golden coin every time you want a go.