After recovering from the savory shock of seeing House of the Dead: Overkill running on my Wii, I stumbled headlong into a steaming vat of déjà vu. Sega's new light-gun rail-shooter breaks no new gameplay ground. Aim your Wiimote at Zombies and kill kill kill. The game sticks closely to its arcade roots, easing the difficulty, presumably, for the non-hardcore Wii audience that will, ironically, never buy this game anyway.
The real action in Overkill, and the déjà vu, is all about STYLE. This game is a nasty love letter to trash-cinema aficionados who will gleefully unpack its self-conscious funkalicious 70s B-movie homage and pastiche. Overkill is a mixtape medley of blood that relies on the power of one medium to dismantle another. It's a pop culture funhouse, especially if you're a gamer / movie-lover of a certain age, and it's well worth a visit. Just make sure the kids, if you've got 'em, are in bed. Overkill is absolutely an adult game with enough violence, gore, and F-bombs to melt your Wii's innards.
But wait a minute. We don't want our games to be like movies, do we? Yes, we do, when the game smartly employs the audiovisual tropes and genre-language of cinema as a framework for showcasing an experience that benefits from such treatment. Overkill isn't a game trying to be a movie. It's a game that leverages the grimy exploitation-film aesthetic and recasts a fairly standard zombie shooting game as a raucous and self-aware deconstruction.
I know. Academics like me are suckers for this stuff. Sure, Overkill is a simple light-gun game with a 70s exploitation-movie vibe. But if you look a little closer, everything is heavily mediated. Overkill isn't inspired by 70s splatter flics or Romero zombie films at all. Its real inspiration is Tarantino/Rodriguez's Grindhouse films, which were, in turn, inspired by 70s films.
The badly scratched "film" look and the gravel-voiced narrator convey the trappings of the originals, but everything is a little more pumped up, exaggerated, garish, ala Tarentino/Rodriguez. Detective Isaac Washington (who shares his name with The Love Boat's bartender, by the way) owes more to Samuel L. Jackson than Fred Williamson. And the zombies in Overkill more closely resemble Resident Evil undead than anything George Romero created.
Complicating the genre hodgepodge is Overkill's status as a House of the Dead game, which brings with it a slew of other conventions that must be packaged into the medley. Interestingly, the developers at Headstrong Games originally intended to maintain the traditional House of the Dead look, then briefly considered a steampunk theme, before finally settling on the grindhouse aesthetic. Clearly, they thought the simple gameplay could be transported to other settings, but they wisely went well beyond simply relocating the game. BritishGaming has a terrific account of the game's evolution, including lots of revealing quotes from the designers.
House of the Dead: Overkill is a victory of style over substance. It suffers from framerate issues, repetitive gameplay, dumb and predictable AI, endless duplicate zombies, and a general lack of new ideas. You should definitely check it out.