"This is like something out of a VIDEOGAME!" screams the brilliant B-movie box art for House of the Dead: Overkill, SEGA's Wii-bound revisit of its classic lightgun series. Only the irony is layered deeper than that, because the first thing you'll think when you see it is, "this is like something out of a MOVIE!" One specific movie (or two if you're picky, and European): Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's trash pastiche, Grindhouse.
In fact, it's one specific bit of that one specific movie that developer Headstrong Games used as a style guide, Rodriguez's spoof Machete trailer. Which, as it happens, is now being made into an actual film, so is no longer a spoof. Such are the tangled webs woven by self-referential, cross-media, post-ironic genre culture.
It's not just the trailers' gravelly narration, or the stripper cavorting with a Wii remote in grainy 16mm film under the credits. Even during gameplay, House of the Dead: Overkill is smothered in overlays that give it the pops and scratches of a battered, ancient touring film print. The colours are bled out, replacing arcade-machine brio with pale, washed-out 1970s colour processing. The two lead characters, Detective Washington and series stalwart Agent G, exchange dry, filthy quips instead of earnest exclamations. Incongruously polite elevator funk percolates on the soundtrack. There's even an excuse for all this retro conceit - this is a prequel, a flashback to G's first case in the steamy Bayou City, Louisiana.
No-one - least of all SEGA or Headstrong (formerly Kuju London, a GameCube/Wii specialist which made the decent Battalion Wars games for Nintendo) - is pretending this is anything more than funny and fashionable set-dressing for traditional House of the Dead action. There may be marginally more gore - this is an absolute splatterhouse of a game - and the hospital setting of the level we played really could have been lifted directly from Planet Terror, but you're still aiming your gun (remote) at the screen and shooting things. Lots of things. Around 500 things per level.
Naturally the game plays perfectly with a Wii Zapper, although SEGA also had some pistol-grip third-party alternatives on hand that, since no nunchuk input is required, we very much enjoyed using. The controls couldn't be simpler: B to fire, + and - to switch between your two weapons (we had a machine pistol and shotgun), and A to reload, although it's easier, quicker and infinitely more satisfying to reload by flicking the remote upward instead. Other than that, sit back and enjoy the on-rails ride.
It's not quite as rigid a set-up as previous House of the Dead games, however. One of Overkill's additions is to add a tiny amount of camera freedom - the view can be adjusted slightly left, right, up or down by moving your cursor to the edge of the screen, similar to Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Cursor conflicts make this practically unusable in the excellent two-player co-op mode, however. Even in single-player, the sensitivity feels off and it's hard to see the virtue in changing the viewpoint when it slows down your aiming so much - although we're sure that Headstrong will seed plenty of scoring opportunities and pick-ups just off-camera for you to find.
It's details like this that will be essential if Headstrong is going to make a success of the first House of the Dead custom-designed for the home. A couple of runs through the demo - level two of the game proper - show that the arcade-game design is strong enough: highlighted civilian rescue scenarios for extra points, a "slow-mofo" pickup for extravagant, bullet-time explosions of dismemberment and gore, and a smart and easy-to-follow combo system. Combos are built up simply through successive hits, tracked on a six-shooter cylinder graphic, and each cylinder gains you a rank with scoring and performance bonsues, up to the heady Goregasm. We also loved the bold, cartoony ammo readout on the left side of the screen.
Length is one thing, but it's really a combination of densely-packed opportunities for score-attack improvement in the level design, and a broad range of unlocks and options, that will make Overkill a worthwhile investment for the home. The signs are good; the level we played was very busy, and layering combo multipliers over judicious use of pickups over timely weapon-switching over pattern-learning over simple reflexes gives plenty of headroom for score improvement.
As far as options and unlocks are concerned, Overkill is naturally still an unknown quantity. Headstrong is promising a weapon reward and customisation system that will allow you to expand and improve your arsenal considerably as you replay the game - and, theoretically at least, push that score-ceiling even higher.
All the customisation in the world would be worthless if Overkill's guns didn't have the right feel; there is nothing to do in House of the Dead but shoot, and shooting, more so even than in an FPS, needs to be a deep, visceral, addictive thrill in itself. On this score we have no concerns at all. Even pistols fire with meaty, explosive force and a kick of rumble in your hand. There's also a quick buzz from the remote whenever your crosshairs successfully target an enemy, a lovely touch that provides both helpful information and an extra jolt of tactile satisfaction, another accelerator to the feedback-loop of adrenaline.
Combined with the amusingly shameless presentation and some superb graphical effects - Headstrong has taken advantage of the game's linearity to add the kind of depth-of-field and motion-blur effects developers usually reserve for more powerful hardware - House of the Dead: Overkill is already a remarkably confident blaster. Whether it provide any deeper involvement and satisfaction than a funny, throwaway parody of a B-movie trailer is something it - and for that matter, the Machete movie itself - will have to prove next year.
House of the Dead: Overkill is due out exclusively for Wii in Q1 2009.