By Alec Meer on November 4th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Sometimes, there’s a price to be paid for being a PC gamer. By which I don’t mean “two hundred quid on a new graphics card every couple of years.”
I didn’t enjoy this shock sequel to The Typing of the Dead, a 2000 (on PC) reworking of arcade and console on-rails shooter The House of the Dead 2, in which you killed zombies by correctly typing on-screen words at them reallyreallyreally quickly instead of waving around a plastic lightgun. It was and is the greatest concept for a videogame ever – that delectably weird disconnect between diligently rote-typing oridinary but unpredictable words and the extreme violence of zombie massacre. The Typing Of The Dead: Overkill is its sequel, and also a similar modification of 2009 Wii on-rails shooter The House Of The Dead: Overkill, which used grindhouse movies rather than Resident Evil-esque survival horror as its basis. This was my first experience of Overkill, and I’m afraid I couldn’t find a single thing to like about it.
(I’m not being entirely honest there, actually. The funk soundtrack is alright.)
I had a diatribe all written, a torrent of invective about Overkill’s clumsy, failed satire of grindhouse movies, how its up-to-eleven objectification of its female characters isn’t excused by having its tongue jammed so forcefully into its cheek that you can practically count its papillae, how in any case grindhouse mockery/adulation is so 2007 and how if you are going to rely on satire, it needs to be smarter than featuring obese zombie strippers and a black character who employs the word ‘motherfucker’ in every single sentence.
Then I did The Worst Thing. I read another critic’s take on the game, and thus my own was compromised. In my defence, that wasn’t my intention – I looked up Nathan’s announcement post on TTOD:O so I could link to it in this piece, then was floored by his outpouring of enthusiasm for the original Overkill. Now, I know that Nathan tends to be as discomfited as I am by cheap objectification and titillation in videogames, so this couldn’t be so simple a matter as two minds coming from completely different directions. Helplessly, I found myself reading 2009 reviews of Overkill, and there was no shortage of positivity (thought I was relived to find many references to the story and dialogue becoming grating later in the game). What had happened?
Here’s my shortlist:
1) I am getting old. 34 isn’t old by human standards, but by Man Who Writes About Videogames For A Living standards I’m entitled to apply for a bus pass. I’m also a new dad. Perhaps I’m getting prudish, intolerant of sound and fury, or becoming lower-case-c conservative.
2) I was having a grumpy day.
3) I played the game on my own, in an office chair in a small room.
Here are my responses to these self-made accusations:
1) It is true that my interest in shooty-bang games and indeed cinema has lessened in recent years. However, I retain a seemingly unquenchable thirst for genre fiction in all its forms, videogames in almost all their forms, swearing like a motherfucker and killing digital things in more intricate ways than simply hovering a targeting reticule over their faces and pressing the left mouse button. So it’s not that.
2) I’m always having a grumpy day! So it could be that.
3) Yes, it’s that. Nathan played the game on Wii, in the apparent company of chums, and I am quite sure that it only takes one person hooting at Overkill’s record-breaking stream of swearing, nonsense dialogue, knowingly wooden acting or politically incorrect zombies (guy in a wheelchair, fat’n'thin poledancers etc) to set everyone else off. Sat on my own, I’ve both no-one else’s laughter to inspire me and I’m simply not in the mindset for the lowest of low culture. I AM HERE TO REVIEW A VIDEOGAME SERIOUS BUSINESS.
I think this reflects The Typing Of The Dead: Overkill’s problem as much as it does my own. It’s a party game now on the most solitary platform (it doesn’t help that online features are missing at launch, due to be added later), and on top of that it’s now also a pseudo-typing tutor. The killing of zombies via high-speed touch typing was the greatest of all gags back in 2000, and for the first few minutes of Overkill it is again, but simply repeating it 13 years later is inherently problematic even before getting to whether the noisy, gleefully obnoxious grindhouse riffs hit or miss.
Not helping matters is the far too blatant self-awareness here. Mavis Beacon Teaches Headshotting was a brilliant enough concept, but added to that was the dizzy wonder of the gibberish the game’s dictionary randomly spouted. Comedy came from unintended juxtaposition of the word you had to type and the shambling arcade zombie on-screen: neither part of the game seemed at all aware of the other. This time around, it’s all so deliberate.
TV quotes, innuendo, zombie-related phrases, gore and filth: someone’s worked very hard in the hope of generating a steady stream of WTF. I can see why they’d do that, as it’s capitalising on what made TTOTD so magnificently batshit, but now the joke feels forced, even a little desperate for attention. There’s no shortage of zingers in there when surrealist juxtaposition of nonsense hits home – Expensive Hat Taste was a favourite – but sadly the overtly contrived words undermine these insane accidents of dictionary-rattling.
It could well be that there was no way to make the gag work a second time, and the developers do have my sympathies in terms of how tricky a task re-bottling lightning is, but it doesn’t help that there’s no attempt to expand the type-to-blamblamblam formula. There’s a new combo system which can result in megadeaths for long strings of accurate letter-pushing, but other than that it’s simply a bullets-to-words modification of the original Overkill. Even the brilliant sight gag of House of the Dead’s agents wearing Dreamcasts on their backs and keyboards slung over their shoulders is abandoned – there’s no attempt to have fun with the concept.
It feels more like a mod than a proper reconfiguration; I can appreciate that playing it straight, in that regard, is one way to not exhaust the gag, but even if I did like the game, I don’t know what it would have given me to breathlessly tell others about. (I should note that I’m also well aware of TTOTD:O’s somewhat tortured genesis, but much as the devs have both my sympathy and my admiration for making this mad thing happen in face of such adversity, I can’t let that affect how I feel about it).
Similarly, I know full well that the terrible voice-acting, high implausibility and generally air of skeeziness is deliberately referential to the notoriously wooden dialogue and visual excess of earlier House Of The Dead games. That’s multiplied by the cross-pollination with low rent 70s exploitation cinema. Overkill is clearly aiming to be deliberately terrible. I found its knowingness too obvious, putting reliance on self-reference rather than striving for enough gags of its own. sFor how long can ‘haha, the voice acting in that old game was rubbish!’ remain a hilarious observation? About 48 seconds, I found.
I know full well that Grindhouse, in both its connotations, was characterised by extreme gore, chauvinism and titillation. I know there is a market that wants that, and that Overkill seeks to both serve and mock that market. I know also that Overkill intends to say that Grindhouse fare is absurd and nasty rather than bold and erotic. Again though, sat alone in my chair it felt like sniggering at the back of the class rather than any attempt at wit of its own. It gives us disabled strippers, it gives us grotesquely obese zombie strippers, it gives us grotesquely emaciated zombie strippers, it gives us zombie nurses who look far more like strippers than medical professionals, it gives us strippers whose brains are removed and kept in a jar. It also uses a disabled character as a figure of fun and makes jokes about fat people that the writers of Married With Children would have shied from.
There’s also a theme tune at the start of the game, littered with comic-effect obscenities. I’m more than comfortable with obscenities, but trouble is the song seems to believe that simply referencing sucking dick or motherfuckers is hilarious. So it just shouts them in an aggressive voice and expects us to laugh because it’s being obnoxious. It’s less Tarantino than it is a drunken uncle who thinks repeatedly farting at the dinner table is the height of wit, before saying something unforgivable about his sister-in-law. Drunk enough, I’d probably laugh too. Sober, I’d just want to get the hell away from him.
‘Satire’ is its armour against all this, the same used to defend GTA V from accusations of misogyny and misanthropy. “What did we expect, flowers to womans?’ I wasn’t shocked, but I did feel bored by all these things I’d seen many times before, both in seriousness and in satire. If nothing else, Tarantino/Rodriguez’s Grindhouse is now seven years old: I laughed then, should I still be doing so now?
At a party, with beer and savoury carbohydrate-based snacks, it is entirely possible I’d feel differently, more prepared to hoot and guffaw at the silliness and the crudity. Sadly TTOTD:O is necessarily a product for solitary consumption, and the doubling up on both shock-satire and repeating a 13-year-old gag makes it that much harder to work its intended magic in that more reflective context.
And if you don’t care about any of that stuff, perhaps you’ll be more put off by the fact that this is an extremely ugly game, with limited graphical and resolution options to help redress that. I swear the original, 13-year-old TTOTD looks better than this muddy, smeary puddle of a game.
I should mention that also included in TTOTD:O is a full version of the original Overkill – now a mouse-controlled on-rails shooter. Oddly, I enjoyed this a little more, even though the core gag was lost: the frantic blamming of anything that moves and panicked reloads means it’s that much more high-speed and ridiculous, with the gruesome rollercoaster the game was initially intended to be shining through. Its inclusion does make this release good value, if we pretend ‘value’ is a term with a concrete meaning. It’s a simple game, but there’s plenty to do.
In the typing aspect’s defence, one thing Overkill is good at is throwing and then keeping me off balance. Disorientating word combinations and easily misspelt bugbears can show up hot on the heels of very simple terms – it sensibly avoids a rythym in order to save the player from complacency and to remain appropriate stressful. On Normal ‘Agent’ difficulty (the other settings being ‘Bitch’ and the inexplicably censored ‘Motherf***r’) it isn’t especially challenging, though does spike and does escalate, and I am quite certain that dedicated time with it would indeed improve my touch-typing. At the same time, it’s too manic and noisy and distracting to be truly effective as a typing tool – stick to the original, or dear old Mavis.
It’s not fair, I want to whine, and so I will. The Typing of the Dead, which should still be sought out today, is dear to me – a game that helped me believe the world will always be able to surprise me, that unexpected silliness can wait around every corner. Overkill feels like someone took my favourite joke and told it again and again until it lost all meaning. Then they kicked me in the teeth and called me a motherfucker. If you did not play the first TTOTD, I both pity and envy you. Pity you for missing out on such a wondrous gag and clever game, but envy you because you can approach Overkill with wonder and hilarity, amazed that such an impossible thing could exist. Sadly I feel like I’m Dave Bowman visiting the Monolith again ten years later. “My God, it’s full of – oh, you know.”
But if I went to a party and this was on a projector with a bucket of beer next to it, you couldn’t hold me back. Expensive hat taste blam blam blam haha!
The Typing Of The Dead: Overkill is out now.