Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hazard Time

Those of you who looked at my gamercard at the side of this blog may have noticed the appearance of Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard. You may be wondering why, with so many excellent games in my backlog, I bothered to play something with a metascore of 53. Well, you may recall my mentioning the game in my post about metagaming, how despite the poor reviews the idea still appealed to me, and that if it got cheap enough I might still be willing to give it a try. About a month or so ago, it got reduced to £4.99 at certain UK online stores, which made it about the same as a mid-priced XBLA game, so I thought I'd go for it. After completing Assassin's Creed II I really wasn't in the mood to start anything epic (or Mass Effect II would have been the next on the list), so I thought I'd give Eat Lead a go. And you know what? I quite enjoyed it.

Blind Fire!

Eat Lead tells the story of made-up 80's action game hero Matt Hazard's return to "next-generation" gaming, a set-up designed to allow Vicious Cycle to parody various elements of game design. At its core is a mediocre cover-based shooter in the style of Gears of War, as Matt fights his way through such gaming constants as warehouses, docks, trainyards, cruise ships and mansions, battling, amongst others, gangsters, cowboys, Russian soldiers, zombies, 2D Nazi sprites and scantily clad, sub-machine gun wielding women with hilariously overdone American, British and Russian accents.


It's not the most impressive game technologically, although the character animation is fine and the ragdoll mechanics quite satisfying. Some of the ropey environments actually worked quite well by reminding me of early Rainbow Six games and even Duke Nukem 3D at times. However, the game can be punishingly difficult at times, and being caught in the open can mean almost instant death, which is something that you are far more willing to accept from a more polished title. With a game like this you are often inclined to blame the sometimes inaccurate cover mechanics, poor set-piece design (there is a level where you get one-shot killed by a sniper if you leave cover for more than two seconds, which just wasn't fun to play) and perhaps a lack of play-testing.

Two dimensional Nazi sprites!

Judged solely on game mechanics the game was always going to struggle, but I don't think it is as bad as some reviewers made it out to be, and I really enjoyed the humour in the game. I noted down quite a number of things that made me chuckle during the game, but I'm not going to just list them here, as jokes are never as funny when you explain them, and I want to avoid a "I guess you had to be there" situation. Some of the humour works better than others; there is a power-armoured cook called the Master Chef who serves no purpose but as a weak name gag, but there is also an orbital laser weapon in one of the boss fights called the Maul of Mourning, which I thought was quite clever, and there is a brilliant encounter with a JRPG boss who speaks in text boxes (forcing Matt to push an on-screen button before he will say any more, even though Matt is trying to talk to him with a normal voice-over), and has the damage done to him shown numerically whenever you shoot him in typical JRPG style. Matt Hazard is voiced by Will Arnett (who played Gob in Arrested Development), who is well-suited to the role; there were a couple of dead-pan inside jokes which were so unexpected that they caused me to laugh out loud when I heard them.

Tentacled sea monsters and holographic female assistants!

I did appreciate that the game was fairly short, I managed to finish it in five playing sessions (it still took me nearly three weeks to get those in, though). This sounds like a very backhanded compliment, but with my gaming time fairly constrained I don't always want to play a 40+ hour epic, I am perfectly happy if a game is over quickly as long as I enjoy the experience while it lasts.

So would I recommend the game? While I certainly enjoyed it, I'm not sure I would. It's a game that you probably have to be favourably disposed towards to enjoy fully, and might be something of an acquired taste.

Effeminate, badly dressed, white-haired guys with improbably large swords!

Despite the poor sales of the game (evidenced by the incredibly low price it is now available for), Vicious Cycle did manage to develop a sequel, albeit a lower budget one. Matt Hazard: Blood Bath & Beyond, a 2D side-scrolling shooter in the vein of Contra, is currently available on XBLA and PSN, and has been slightly better received. I'm actually keen to give it a try, although maybe only sometime in the next few months.

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