Like great B movies, The House of the Dead games eschew formal ambition in favor of express goods delivery: Monsters attack, you shoot them, they die gorily. An essential part of that formula, though, was the light-gun controllers that graced the arcade cabinets and made the zombie-shooting experience vastly more rad. So the console versions remained consolation prizes until designers looking for things to do with motion controls recalled the simple delights and easy programming of rail shooters, sparking a wave of games where the player is strapped to a chair and jerked through hordes of bloodsucking freaks. The House of the Dead 4 for the PlayStation Move can’t hope to match the glee of, say, pumping a plastic shogun to reload in the stand-up version of The House of the Dead 3. But it nails pacing, energy, and fun, and that redeems all disappointment.
The rail shooter is the game genre that most resembles music (and most music games are basically rail shooters) because the developer has such precise control over timing, and The House of the Dead 4 throws enemies at you like it was Charlie Parker with a horn full of rabid leeches. There’s just enough rests and andante passages to make the fast parts all the more thrilling, and some genuinely clever enemy patterns, like zombies that dive into the water with a great flurry of movement, then wait for the next guy to distract you before attacking. If you want to play The House of the Dead properly, you obviously have to play with a limited number of continues (which the game properly calls “credits”), so you’re likely to replay levels quite a few times. The House of the Dead 4’s killer pacing means levels are a kick every time, and just as much fun to master as to discover.
The previous console title in the series, The House of the Dead Overkill, made an honorable effort to push all the game’s narrative elements to the same hysterical pitch as its gameplay, and I’m sorry this one doesn’t even try.
Motion controllers are never as satisfying as light guns, partly because they force you to point at a camera rather than your enemy, and largely because guns are cool. But the Move controller combines pointing and trigger-pulling into a package with a satisfying girth and heft, and though having to calibrate before each game is a little annoying, it does mean you get to decide exactly how much arm waving you enjoy. The developers were smart to make the main weapon a submachine gun; pointer controls are inherently a little shaky, so they gave you a weapon that rewards smooth movement rather than pinpoint accuracy. It took me a second to realize that the game wants you to shake, rather than point off screen, to reload, but it adds a great burst of energy to the gameplay, very different from the monomania of other light gun shooters. There’s a number of “waggle points” in every level, but not so many that it gets as annoying as its been in nearly every other motion controlled shooter.
Graphically speaking, this franchise has always prized consistent style over pixel-pushing, so it was a special joy to see how great this one looks. The House of the Dead 4 is the first to run in HD, and the designers took the opportunity to give the series a welcome makeover. There are still lots of identical zombies, but they have some great punk-rock style, and there’s a marvelous late-game shift into a sci-fi look that’s a real surprise. The bosses are some of the grodiest in the series, including one who’s mastered the Truffle Shuffle and another that impels me to steer arachnophobes far, far away from this game. The lighting has a great crispness, color, and detail without the flatness that’s dulled the visuals of other The House of the Dead games. Even the 5.1 Surround mix is simple, dumb, and perfect.
But sometimes, simple and dumb ends up just dumb and simple. For every brilliantly designed boss, there’s one that looks like it came from a Devil May Cry fan Tumblr. The dialogue is occasionally brilliantly stupid (“Classified information room! Maybe we can find some information in there!”), but sometimes it’s just functionally stupid, which is a wasted opportunity. And a lot of the gender clichés in the script invoke a breed of dumbness that’s much less fun than the kind we play this game for. The previous console title in the series, The House of the Dead Overkill, made an honorable effort to push all the game’s narrative elements to the same hysterical pitch as its gameplay, and I’m sorry this one doesn’t even try.
But these are narrative quibbles in a genre that’s always prized experience over story. And the experience of The House of the Dead is glorious. It’s striking how many of the best games for this generation’s wave of motion controls have been rail shooters. Child of Eden, Dead Space Extraction, and now The House of the Dead 4 are entertainments that can easily claim the status of interactive art: they have a precise formal system which is leveraged to aesthetic ends; the player’s actions define the event, but the designer’s point of view remains paramount; and they’re all beautiful in their own way. The House of the Dead 4 is a particularly feisty specimen of this undead genre, and I couldn’t be happier to have it chewing on my hand.