This week, House of the Dead: Overkill versus Killzone 2. Place your bets.
You know that bit in the zombie movie where the zombie horde are chasing the heroes and the one guy who hasn't been as well characterized as everyone else lags behind and gets grabbed, and the zombies pull him down and start chewing on his nipples? This, I feel, is analogous to Nintendo's current position, only instead of zombies it's kids and housewives and grandmothers and clammy, green-skinned casual gamers. And instead of eating him, they give him atrocious amounts of money. Meanwhile, Microsoft is the flighty heroine with big tits going, "Nintendo, nooooo!" And Sony is Ving Rhames going, "Forget him, he's lost!" Then they hole up in a shopping mall and keep the hordes distracted by throwing down Guitar Hero peripherals.
Tortured metaphors aside, I'm of the feeling that Nintendo has almost completely switched sides in the invisible war of standard vs. casual gaming. As a console for hardcore gamers, the Wii is currently floating face down in the outlet stream of a water treatment facility, but as last Christmas's most sought-after baby toy, it's a licence to print money, forge diamonds, and deal heroin outside Glaswegian middle schools. And I can't really blame them. Better perhaps to be the king of the land of imbeciles than continue the arduous and futile process that is attempting to appease one's hardcore fanbase.
But if Nintendo is the king of Retardland, then Sega is the scheming vizier behind the throne, who between House of the Dead: Overkill and the upcoming MadWorld seem to be making one big, last-ditch effort to keep the Wii afloat as a gaming platform before writing it off forever as a hyper-advanced Etch-a-Sketch.
House of the Dead: Overkill is a rail shooter - because really, what else are the screen-pointy controls good for - in which several buildings - or "houses", if you will - have been taken over by large numbers of the non-living. Your task is to go in and kill them all - or re-kill them, or whatever - in an overly extravagant manner. So, as you can see, the title neatly encapsulates everything you need to know. And so far, I know it doesn't sound like it's revolutionizing the formula, but it's the presentation that makes it stand out.
House of the Dead as a series has long been the butt of jokes for its atrocious stories, disastrous translation and calamitous voice acting. But at the same time, it's also got a history of canny self-parody. House of the Dead 2 was re-released as a surprisingly hilarious typing tutor in which the guns were replaced by magical keyboards that blew off zombie limbs and heads with deadly shuriken-like nouns and verbs, and which I heartily recommend to anyone who feels that zombie massacres need not be precluded from the development of secretarial skills.
And House of the Dead: Overkill is so self-aware that its eyes have swivelled 180 degrees in their sockets. It's presented as a '70s exploitation film in which a dorky white cop and a sassy black cop who uses the word "motherfucker" the same way most of us would use a comma are forced to team up with a tough-talking but completely ineffectual motorcycle-riding stripper wearing about two handkerchiefs worth of material against the looming threat of mad science. We see all the action through a film grain filter, and every character is introduced with a bombastic, Grindhouse trailer-style voiceover.
If my description sounds a bit dry, it's because there's nothing to be gained from taking the piss out of something that's already taking enough piss to drown even the most open-minded prostitute. While most of the good ideas are nicked from a certain Robert Rodriguez movie, they seem to acknowledge that. And the cutscenes are so hilariously overdone, you'll want to keep on playing just to see what boundary they'll overstep next.
But as great as the writing is, a game must have gameplay, otherwise it's just machinima that you have to press buttons to watch. And this area is Overkill's big, red, glowing weak point. Fittingly it's totally retro, with the entirety of the controls being little more than, "press B to shoot" and, "don't press B to not shoot." But for rail shooter veterans, Overkill will come across as insultingly easy. That might be because you're forced to play through the shorter, easier mode before the full-length harder mode is unlocked, and after that what's the point? Appropriately enough, it's like you're watching a trailer that gives away all the best scenes and plot twists. I suppose then, the harder mode is just for the challenge, but the fairly vast problem with this supposition is that there isn't one. It takes all of one level to be able to buy an automatic weapon, and then with infinite ammo, you're unstoppable. If you're playing with a friend, then the subtitle becomes truly prophetic. The only real challenge is building up your accuracy combo, because the camera has a nasty habit of suddenly whipping around like a dog in squash court.
So if it's just the story and soundtrack, then what's stopping you from watching the cutscenes on YouTube and saving sixty bucks? To be honest, I don't know. Perhaps the retro charm is enough to redeem the shallowness of the experience, and it is a lot of fun to show to your friends, if only once.
But academically, it's interesting to hold up as a counterpoint to another recent release, Killzone 2. Now, I'm not going to do a full review of that one, because it would really only consist of the phrase "Gears of World War 2", possibly underlined a few times. A game that purports to take place a billion years in the future but features American soldiers fighting Nazis using contemporary weaponry. And I have a theory that the developers were actually making a World War II game until someone realized they didn't know any German voice actors, but anyway. Both games embrace cliché, but while Overkill does it for laughs, Killzone 2 does it straight-faced and ironically becomes the bigger joke. Killzone 2 flits absent-mindedly between laughable "war is hell" drama and obnoxious macho Republicanism and doesn't have the slightest idea what it wants to be.
Overkill knows exactly what it is, and what it is is totally, mouth-breathingly, paste-eatingly, chasing the girls around the playground with a piece of doo poo-ingly stupid. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
Actually bought Typing of the Dead: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
It's a shame I'm not reviewing Killzone 'cos I'm trying to end up with a review for every letter of the alphabet and I haven't got a K yet
I've got eight S's, stop making games beginning with S you fucks