Reviews | Arcade


The House of the Dead 4
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By Alex Kierkegaard / September 20, 2006


With a 62-inch LCD screen of astonishing clarity, housed in a massive, stylish cabinet, The House of the Dead 4 is by far the most impressive piece of kit in arcades at the moment. It was the first high definition title to make it into game centers, and the first one running on Sega's new Lindbergh hardware, a powerful Pentium 4-based system which is meant to replace the aging Naomi 2 platform.


Though the game certainly doesn't take full advantage of the 3.0 GHz processor and the NVIDIA GPU of the Lindbergh, seeing it running next to Sega's own Ghost Squad and Virtua Cop 3 games (both Chihiro-based) gave me a bit of a shock; I used to consider them the prettiest light gun shooters around, and both of them now look horribly dated in comparison. But though the cabinet and the sparkling graphics make an immediate impact, you have to put quite some time into the game before you become equally impressed by its revamped play mechanics. And it's all because of that submachine gun.


You see the first two games gave you handguns, the third one a shotgun, and now you are given something that looks like a cross between an Uzi and a Mac-10. Because of this, The House of the Dead 4 initially feels like the light gun equivalent of a button masher -- you simply hold down the trigger and wave your arm around the screen, gunning down one horde of zombies after another. When the going gets tough you simply use a grenade, which takes out a bunch of enemies if thrown at the right moment.


That the designers felt they needed to give you grenades, in addition to the submachine gun, should give you an indication of how ferocious the zombie onslaught in this game is. At certain points there are dozens of enemies simultaneously on-screen, and some of them are quite tough, taking more than four to five bullets before dropping. Moreover, the action is unrelenting, with the camera racing along and constantly swinging around in unexpected directions, making this the fastest House of the Dead game yet.


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Now given the sea of enemies attacking you, and all the firepower at your disposal, it's only natural for you to keep your finger constantly on the trigger, pausing only momentarily to reload, and using up enough bullets to sustain a small war in sub-Saharan Africa for months. Certainly, going through the first few scenes in this way is amusing... for about five minutes. Then you get your ass kicked before you even reach the first boss, and discover that the compulsion to start over is just not there.


That's what I thought when I played this back in December, and again when I went through half the game at an arcade in Paris a couple of weeks back, credit-feeding it together with an enthusiastic Frenchman, who didn't mind paying for both of us as long as he wasn't playing alone. Note that all the other people I saw playing the game in Paris (and there were quite a few) also played it like a "light gun-masher".


But then just a few days ago, back in Tokyo, I walked into an arcade and saw this Japanese dude use the gun with a precision I didn't think was possible. He would squeeze off single rounds at most zombies, aiming straight for the head and killing them with one shot -- even the strong ones that had been giving me a lot of trouble. And not only would he waltz through the initial stages like this, but he would also get one or two bonus lives after every stage for scoring high.


His awesome display of skill made the game look much more exciting, so I got out a bunch of 100-yen coins and tried to copy his style, playing until I was so tired I had trouble keeping my arm steady. I've been going back for more ever since.


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Playing The House of the Dead 4 the way it was clearly meant to be played felt like a completely new experience. On the one hand it is much more challenging, because when a horde of enemies is charging you you need to have a lot of confidence in your skills to pick them off with headshots one by one, instead of panicking and filling the walls with bullets. On the other hand it is easier, because you get the extra lives when you score well (one for A/B rank, two for S). Moreover, by using the gun with discretion your arm doesn't get tired as fast, because you don't have to keep it constantly extended and pointed at the screen.


What I realized was that, when used correctly, the submachine gun opens up a new dimension in the old light gun game routine. You now have to figure out when it's best to fire single shots, and when to hold down the trigger and pepper the enemies with bullets. Sometimes, for maximum scoring, you'll have to alternate between the two styles during a single encounter -- figuring out when and how exactly to do that is the essence of the game. Become good enough and you won't even need to use grenades -- in which case you'll score even higher, because you are awarded extra points for every grenade you have left at the end of each stage.


Moreover, going for the bonus items which are scattered around the stages (extra lives, grenades, and coins which increase your score) is harder here than in any other light gun shooter I've played. You really have to be quick and precise, and know exactly where they are located, because the window for getting them is absolutely tiny.


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But for all its difficulty there are no cheap shots here; it's a fair and honest challenge, and if you suck at it it's all your fault for not practicing enough. In terms of play mechanics this is the best House yet. I never expected to say this, but if there's one light gun shooter that deserves a Superplay DVD then this is it.


But unfortunately the game disappoints in other areas. Though the action starts out in the European branch office of AMS, and moves out to the streets of Venice, where the second game took place, the enviroments are much more bland here than they were in The House of the Dead 2 (1998). The initial stage has a cool industrial facility vibe to it, with armies of imprisoned zombies breaking out and swamping you, but the next two stages are just a collection of indistinct dimly-lit rooms and corridors. And when the action moves out to the streets of Venice you hardly notice the difference, since you are always ducking behind some doorway, into yet more dimly-lit rooms and hallways. The final stage will give you a strong sense of deja-vu if you've played 2, but it adds nothing new. Sega should have gone with a brand-new setting instead of retreading old ground, which anyway had been covered perfectly well the first time round.


Worse still, most of the boss fights are disappointing, and some of them are even outright boring. The first boss is the largest, ugliest mother you've ever seen, but all you need to do to defeat him is point the gun at the center of the screen and keep firing. The stage three boss is even more impressive visually, chasing you down a subway train and cutting it to pieces (the whole damn train!) with a large, double-ended chainsaw, but he is not much more difficult than the first one. What a let-down, given that the game's predecessors introduced some of the most gripping boss fights in the history of light gun games, whereas here they are mere afterthoughts. There are two notable exceptions (stages two and five), but none of the boss fights here come close to The Tower of 2, or The Fool of III.


Sega dropped the ball on this one at the last possible moment. They went to such trouble and expense to build this awesome cabinet and design a complex and technical shooter, that you'd think they'd have taken the time to come up with some interesting enviroments and decent boss fights. It's still a hugely enjoyable game, but it could easily have been the best. Let's hope that next time Sega will go the whole way.