House of the Dead: Overkill Updated Hands-On Impressions

We crank the funk to 10, pick up our trusty shotgun, and wade into the Bayou City hospital in search of zombies in this updated hands-on.

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Zombies--who doesn't love them? House of the Dead has built a successful franchise on blowing away the undead both at the arcade and from the comfort of your own couch. Previous games in the series have had hammy dialogue and action, but with the upcoming release of House of the Dead: Overkill, developer Headstrong Games is taking the well-worn shooter series in a slightly different direction and to an all-new level.

Fret not, light-gun purists, this isn't a total reinvention of the series you've come to know--the series' gameplay fundamentals are still well and truly intact. You'll still need to point your peripheral (in this case the Wii Remote) at the screen; you'll still need to press a button to unleash a barrage of bullets into your targets; and it's still an on-rails experience. House of the Dead: Overkill is being pitched as a prequel game. In addition to reprising the role of Agent G, you'll be joined by a new partner: Agent Washington. Whether you're playing solo or in the cooperative multiplayer mode with a friend will determine which character you play as, but you'll never go it alone, with the other character chiming in to provide comedic relief. Undoubtedly the biggest change in HOTD:O is the new artistic direction. The game is peppered with familiar but seldom-used lo-fi visual effects like off-kilter and exposed film cells reminiscent of budget projection, celluloid cigarette burns, and flashing jagged text--all of which give a distinctive pulp, grindhouse, B-grade film feel. The groans and screams of the tormented are offset by the jauntiness of the porno-funk soundtrack that accompanies your adventures through the infected world.

Dr. Zombie is here to check your temperature. Just not in the traditional way.
Dr. Zombie is here to check your temperature. Just not in the traditional way.

With lines like "they've come for brains, you'll give them bullets," it should be fairly obvious that this game doesn't take itself too seriously. It's set in Bayou City, Louisiana, and you'll follow the trail of dead as you race to solve a series of mysterious townsfolk disappearances. Our hands-on time took us through Bayou City hospital and saw us battle infected rednecks, doctors, orderlies, and nurses in their work uniforms as we cleared a path to safety. This is still very much an on-rails shooter, meaning that you won't play any part in deciding which rooms to explore or the best way to clear an area. That's not to say it's a totally hands-off shooting gallery, though, since you'll be able to waggle the Wii controller slightly past the screen's field of view to peer left, right, up, or down of your current centre-screen position. Exploring the entire field of play will turn up extra goodies like green DNA-strand-looking slo-mofo mode power-ups and extra weapons. There's also a risk-versus-reward gameplay mechanic at play since exploring to look for goodies leaves you open to being broadsided by flanking zombie attacks.

Blasting away is as easy as pointing the Wii Remote at your television screen and pressing the B button on the underside of the controller to fire. Reloading is performed by pressing the A button, by tapping the Z button on the Nunchuk, or by giving the Wii Remote a quick shake. All reload speeds appeared to be completed at the same rate, so it's more preference and hardware configuration rather than a tactical advantage when choosing one over another. We opted to avoid shaking to reload, as even a single sharp snap of the wrist often caused our onscreen reticle to disappear from view (not what you want during the heat of undead slaying). Two weapons were available for us to try out: the HOTD mainstay pistol and a shotgun. Both were available from the outset and can be switched on the fly using the 1 and 2 numbered face buttons. We didn’t have a use for them in our session, but we've been told the plus and minus buttons will also play a role in the action and will be used to unleash special attacks, such as lobbing grenades.

House of the Dead: Overkill's grindhouse art style is littered with classic budget film effects.
House of the Dead: Overkill's grindhouse art style is littered with classic budget film effects.

Another mechanic we came across in our hands-on time was a new combo meter. It’s still unclear if it builds based on your hits or headshots, but each consecutive headshot added one combo point to a pistol chamber animation, and once we had completed five successful shots we were rewarded with a bar. This bonus continued to stack as we went along, though at one point we could swear we didn't miss, but our combo was reset. The combo system only appears to affect your score at the end of the level, and in typical House of the Dead style, you’ll be awarded a rating based on your performance and shot accuracy.

House of the Dead: Overkill is already shaping up to be an original and entertaining reboot of the well-loved zombie shooter franchise. We're eagerly awaiting grabbing our shotgun and pimp cane when this game blasts its way onto store shelves in early 2009.

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