IGN Review of House of the Dead: Overkill
While 2008 was home to some great games, it feels like it's been months since Wii owners – and us right along with them – have had a reason to really stand up and cheer for any big releases. The holiday season was slow, January was off to a boring start for the most part, and now here we are, smack dab in the kick-off of February, and we get not only Deadly Creatures, Tenchu: Shadow Assassins, but also the self-proclaimed "hardcore you've been waiting for" with the SEGA franchise reboot of The House of the Dead: Overkill. I, being the HOTD-obsessed freak that I am, started my ritual of playing dozens upon dozens of hours of Overkill months ago, replaying preview builds in place of late night Xbox Live sessions, and doing it all again over and over when new builds landed on my desk. Now that the game is heading off to stores, and landing in your greedy little mittens, it's high time I lay down my thoughts once and for all on the Wii-exclusive shooter.
Overkill is a unique Wii title for a few very obvious reasons. Stylistically, it walks the line between AO content and comedic, Tarentino-like cadence through violence and vulgarity. Looking at it from a purely historic perspective, this is also the first original console House of the Dead that isn't tied to an arcade release, and the only version not created by the original team, WoW Entertainment (or AM1, for all you oldies). There's a lot to live up to with this one, as a great game could mean a new series on Wii, while a less-than-awesome performance could send it right back to WoW for a slower, perhaps even non-existent Wii lifespan.
And without going as far as to say Headstrong Games "nailed" The House of the Dead: Overkill, I can say with confidence that this game is undoubtedly a success, and what appears to be a kick-off to an all new era of The House of the Dead on Wii. The interface is stock full of huge poster art, character cut-outs, screen shakes and film scratches. The game's "Grind House" look sets the tone for plenty of movie references throughout the adventure, the characters are over-the-top (if not a bit too much at times), and everything from tweaking the title's audio, done by grabbing on-screen knobs with the IR and actually twisting your wrist to turn the dials, is designed first with the style in mind, and secondly with intuitive, quick IR control at the helm. This is a beautiful game to boot up, it has a front end that's actually fun to just cruise around in and admire, and it nails the title's intended look.
To make a quick point on vulgarity, I'll just note that there's a fine line between well-written profanity, over-the-top swearing, and tasteless vocal-vomit (to give it a playful name). Overkill certainly jumps freely between being well-written and over-the-top, and even edges on the line of being tasteless at times, but more than anything there are just some sections that throw in a few too many F-bombs. Isaac Washington, partner for Agent G and medical lab-born clone of Samuel Jackson gets some great lines throughout the game, but also has a few instances where the team could have pulled him back a bit simply because it doesn't always flow. Ironically enough, Washington's best line in the whole game contains no profanity, and only a lollipop.
The House of the Dead: Overkill contains seven levels, each set up like a short segment of a film and given a playful name that reeks of drive-in movie tradition. Each area gives players a short little intro, usually containing G and Isaac, as well as the fearsome foe Papa Ceaser, or the busty Lola Guns, who enters the story shortly after the first level wraps up. Each level brings its own little style into the mix, and original mutants to blast through as well. My favorite in the group, Ballistic Trauma, is riddled with nurses and doctors as G and Washington tear through a zombie-infested ER. On the opposite side of things, The Fetid Waters doesn't quite have the charm as a few of the other levels, as it can be repetitious in its darker, swamp theme. Move from area to area, pond to pond, and just blast the hell out of everything. This is also the first section of the game to make use of flying enemies, but black character models against an almost entirely back skyline doesn't work so hot. All in all though, Overkill has some awesome areas to explore, and plenty of level-specific zombies to tear through; even if you get a lot of clones along the way, what with the four or five level-locked creatures to fight.
In the boss battle department, I feel like Headstrong could have gone much farther, as a game like House of the Dead 2 stands out in having much stronger level climaxes to it. There are a few fun ones, and Overkill always manages to add in quirky dialog or an interesting little story twist to make sure you're always having fun during the level finale, but most of the bosses themselves are a bit too easy; especially when you factor in leveling up guns and pouring round after round of powered up ammo into them; I've had a fight last about 10 seconds before. The great thing about Overkill though, is that it's really heavy on the cinematic style, so even if you tear through a boss, have a moment of wanting for more of a true cap-off to the level, Washington is lighting up the sky with unbridled profanity within minutes, or Lola takes a second to poke fun at the two "buddy cops" she's dealing with. It may not always be the most difficult House of the Dead game out there, but it's often the most cinematic and connected from level to level.
Gameplay has come a long way since the first time we went hands-on with the project, though it still isn't perfect. On the plus side, there's lots of dismemberment – and I mean lots. During your first trek through the initial stage, Papa's Palace of Pain, you might feel oddly underwhelmed with your classic pistol in hand, and very little limbs flying. After all, you've got the weakest bullets possible. Once you start leveling up guns though, or unlocking things like the shotgun, auto-shotgun, assault rifle, or eventual hidden guns in the game, there will be limbs flying with every shot.
Region-based attacks work great, so you can shoot a person's arms off, blow off their legs and watch them fall, or do a quick headshot to finish them off. Once guns power all the way up though, hitting center mass will auto-kill them, quickly swapping out the full zombie model for a limbless, headless one a frame later. Shot-specific blood spatter also makes an appearance, as you send some seriously detailed mutant models flying at walls in different ways. Oh, and it's all done with real-time physics, which is evidence of rolling limbs and shot-specific blowback when you pop a guy in the gut. Just awesome.
On the downside though, all that eye candy comes at a price, and it's sadly one that I'd rather not pay. The framerate in Overkill is sketchy to say the least, as the game fills up with on-board memory extremely fast, and is constantly doing little one or two frame freezes to load up the next area, or drop in the next set of zombies for you to blast. Lower caliber bullets seem to be ok, since you aren't constantly sending lots of limbs into play, or swapping out the "limbless model" over and over again with every shot, but for those using the shotguns or other heavier bullets, frame pops will become as natural as pulling the trigger. In fact, in specific levels – Scream Train is a good example, since it uses lots of smoke and particle effects on the green haze that litters the halls of the train – every shotgun shot can at times be accompanied by a single frame freeze as you pull the trigger. You squeeze, quick little freeze, and then shot blows the zombies to pieces. This can happen during motion blurred turns as well, or in one specific case (if memory serves, it's the Director's Cut level of Papa's Palace of Pain) you'll actually turn, and then see the zombies pop in around the room. The game just isn't optimized for what it's trying to pull off, and this frame issue – the biggest setback in the game, but not one that should discourage anyone from picking the game up and having a blast with it – is sad to see in a game that has so much amazing content in it.
Even with the random frame pop issue though, The House of the Dead: Overkill is a must-play hardcore game for Wii owners. The team has pushed this game to offer not only about four hours or so of House of the Dead gameplay (standard HOTD games can be beaten in around an hour, for reference), but also put together what is easily the best lightgun offering on the system thus far. The seven levels end with a pretty funny finish, those that search around enough will find evidence of a sequel hint in there, and the game pokes fun at a lot of different movies and pop culture references. There's mention of The Birds, a house that looks identical to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the duo of G and Washington screams Travolta/Jackson from Pulp Fiction, the final boss in the game (amongst other things) has a very Dead Alive feel to it, and frequent conversations on music and the common "white dude vs. brother" 80's jive found in things like White Men Can't Jump and 48 Hours can be found throughout. This is a game that knows its source material, and has fun with it.
And while you'll finish the game in around four or five hours the first time, the team does a lot to add to the bulk of the game as well. You'll never have enough cash to level up every gun fully (much less unlock them all after a first pass through each level), and littered throughout each level are brain icons that are used (amongst other stat tracking) for unlocking achievements that yield concept art, model viewers, movies, and album mixes of every song in the game. Director's Cut mode adds in a few new areas in each level, as well as upping the difficulty. Duel Wield mode is a nice addition, though it's unlocked after beating the game in both Story Mode and Director's Cut, so if you want to do it from the beginning of the game, you might as well just play two player by yourself instead of waiting. Oh, and for those looking to rock a gun shell like the Perfect Shot or the UK pack-in Overkill "Hand Cannon" peripheral, you're in luck. A "no cursor" mode is available, and the IR calibration system works just as well, if not a bit better, than House of the Dead 2&3 did. You can play this one like an arcade light gun game, and it works great; just don't expect to be resting your arms, as the new "Danger Cam" will look down if you do.
As a few quick gripes – or we can call them "tweaks" for the eventual sequel I assume we'll get – the game's gun store isn't shared across Story and Director's Cut modes, so you'll need to re-buy and upgrqade on the same profile twice, and that means all the bigger guns you unlock are tougher to get, since you'll need to go through the levels again with no "score bonus" cash, or initial "level X passed" money awards. Getting everything in the game will take a lot longer than it needs to at times, though even after dozens and dozens of hours with the game I'm still having a blast playing it. Along those same lines, it'd also be great to have the high scores board (which currently doesn't show anything but your scores, and "Agent G" for every other number on the list) that is shared via Wi-Fi. Ghost Squad had it, and Overkill is a much stronger overall offering than SEGA's light gun port from last year. Now that the main engine is set up, I could see the team going all-out with additions for a sequel; there's never enough time in a development cycle for everything.
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