The evolution of the zombie is an interesting one. Originally used in jungle movies and relegated to being the man-servants of voodoo witch doctors, the walking dead got a new lease on life with the release of George Romero's seminal zombie film Night Of The Living Dead in 1968.
Romero's film was the first to remove the zombie from the wilds of Haiti and other third world populations and place the undead right in the heart of middle America (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in this case). Not only did Romero remove the zombie from his jungle home, he also made the creatures autonomous—there are no voodoo masters controlling the shambling hordes of death in Romero's films. The zombies here are compelled into action by one driving need: the desire to devour human flesh.
While most people make the erroneous assumption that the zombies want brains, they're actually pretty indiscriminate in Romero's universe. Brains didn't become a staple element of the zombie diet until Dan O'Bannon released Return Of The Living Dead, his tongue-in-cheek spoof of Romero's zombie films. Prior to that point, any old hunk of living flesh would suffice.
When it comes to genre archetypes, the zombie is essentially the Rodney Dangerfield of horror—they just don't get the respect they deserve. They're not as debonair as the vampire, as savage as the werewolf, or as tragic as Frankenstein's monster. No, the zombie is just one of a horde of mindless creatures propelled along by one of humankind's basest desires—the urge to eat. They're not pretty, they're not seductive, they're not smart, and no one feels sorry for them. Heck, they're not even much of a threat in the Romero films unless they're in large numbers. They're slow, clumsy, and people could just as easily run around them as shoot them in the head.
This has changed over the years though. Filmmakers like Umberto Lenzi created zombies who could run and use weapons in his uber cheesy City Of The Walking Dead (aka Nightmare City) and recently, Ryuhei Kitamura's cult sensation Versus has featured a new breed of walking dead—fast, smart, and incredibly lethal.
For whatever reason (and my own feeling is that it's because the zombie films feature a claustrophobic and apocalyptic tone that translates well to gaming conventions) the zombie has recently become one of the staples of gaming enemies. Aside from Nazis (who are probably chosen because they're a great human representation of absolute evil) the zombie is the hardest working stiff in all of videogames (pun fully intended). And while Romero's zombie universe has served as the template for the earliest zombie games (including the much-lauded Resident Evil series), developers have begun to emulate some of the new breed of zombie as well. One of the games to do this quite successfully is Sega's House Of The Dead III.
Rather than emulate the slow-paced and moody conventions of the Resident Evil games, House Of The Dead goes for the full frontal assault—zombie hordes are everywhere, and the player has no choice but to continually react to the onslaught.
Reacting to the barrage is a great deal easier with a light gun. While the game can be played with the Xbox controller S (and it plays much better than one would expect with the controller), this was a game that was meant to be experienced with a big piece of green plastic in your hand (or two, if you want to go for the whole Chow Yun Fat thing). With the light gun, House Of The Dead III becomes a 'pick up and play' title—meaning anyone, whether they're a gamer or not, can grab the gun and jump right into the action. Much like the shooter (or sh'mup), the light gun games are wonderful tools for highlighting the joys of gaming to people who normally aren't interested in videogames.
In keeping with the break from the Resident Evils of the game world, House Of The Dead III features little in the way of plot. This game takes place twenty years after the events in House Of The Dead II, with Thomas Rogan having gone missing, and his daughter and Agent G. on the trail to find him. The minimalist narrative is presented through several cutscenes between levels, but it's not essential to one's enjoyment of the game. Players aren't here for the story—they're here to blast the crap out of everything that moves. In this regard, the game is almost a complete success.
While casual fans of the series aren't likely to notice many differences between this outing and House Of The Dead II, there are quite a few tweaks to the gameplay formula. The majority of them are subtle, but they're almost all improvements over the previous incarnations of the series.
About the only thing that might not be seen as an enhancement is the switch to an auto-loading weapon. Rather than have to shoot off screen to manually reload your weapon throughout the adventure, House Of The Dead III features shotguns that reload themselves when they're empty. Granted, this still takes a second to happen, and the player can take damage while doing it, but it almost makes the game too easy in spots. In the earlier games, one had to not only keep their eye on the screen, but needed to keep a mental count of how many bullets they had left before needing to reload.
In the game's defense, this new version of House Of The Dead seems to play a lot faster than the last one. There's nary a break in the action for reloading manually, and having to do it would certainly increase the difficulty level almost exponentially. However, it would have been nice if the manual reload feature had been included as an option for the purists out there—or those just looking for the most hardcore challenge the game can offer.
In the last outing, players would be required to save innocent civilians at certain parts of the stage. Doing so would often open up a new pathway through the level or provide some other bonus. Failure to do so would cost the player a life bar.
This time out, there are no innocents to save. Instead, the player will be called upon to save his partner from attacking enemies at different points in each stage. Doing so successfully will earn the player an extra life bar. Failing to do so causes the player to lose one.
The branching paths are back in this installment. But since there are no innocents to save, getting to them is different than it was in the last game. This time out, players choose which path they'll take through an area at the main screen. In fact, the game has something of a non-linear feel in that the gamer can choose to go just about anywhere from the earliest stages of the game. Taking different paths will yield different enemies and areas and can even influence the way later stages of the game play out as well.
Because of this, House Of The Dead III does have some replay value—which is a good thing, because the game is incredibly short even by light gun game standards. Beating House Of The Dead III on the normal difficulty setting can take around 30 minutes, which is a very quick gaming experience. However, the multiple paths, various unlockables (including a full version of House Of The Dead II that is unlocked after beating the game) and different difficulty settings make it so that the game does feature reasons to play through it again. And, let's face it—these games are fun in the mindless "grab a gun and kill a bunch of guys without thinking about it" sort of way. Even after beating the game, I still play it regularly.
It seems odd to say it, but truthfully House Of The Dead III is amongst the nicer looking Xbox titles out there. One doesn't usually equate light gun games with graphical excellence, but this title is an exception. The console version looks almost as good as the arcade release, featuring vibrant colors, nicely drawn enemies (with a surprising amount of variety for such a short game), and impressive lighting effects. It's not the most beautiful game on the console, but it is definitely pretty.
I can't help but think that "pretty" was what Sega was aiming for with this release. The light gun genre has never been one that's particularly deep—instead, it's content to continually recycle conventional gameplay mechanics with better visuals with each release. House Of The Dead III is no exception in this regard. The changes and tweaks to the gameplay are minor at best (and probably unnoticeable to everyone but the hardcore fans of the series) and the game never does anything that gamers haven't seen before. However, there's something truly cathartic about blasting hordes of zombies, and that just never gets old. Zombies may not get any respect, but they sure do make great gun fodder.