Nick's Gaming Blog

A Review of Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard

I have a weakness, ladies and gentlemen, and its name is Will Arnett. Ever since I first saw him Segway-ing around asking his brother Michael for some of “that company money” or singing along with his horrifyingly racist puppet compadre Franklin on Arrested Development I knew I’d developed a man-crush on this gravely-voiced Houdini wannabe.  I mean…”Come On!” the man escaped from the county prison (he was shanked by “White Power Bill” despite being quite pasty himself) and also made the family yacht disappear (he sunk it with explosives).

"Illusion, Michael, a trick is something a whore does for money...or candy."

"Illusion, Michael, a trick is something a whore does for money...or candy."

Enough reminiscing on one of the best comedies ever, I’m certain my point has been made; offer me any consumer product Will Arnett has had even the most minimal of involvement in, and I’ll still unconditionally buy it.  If I can’t get Vin Diesel to narrate children’s books as Riddick, I want Will Arnett doing it as Gob Bluth.

With all of this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that when I discovered that Will Arnett was involved in a video game…well…umm…I took a look at my wallet, followed by the composite scores on Gamerankings and Metacritic, prayed my selfish actions would not land Will Arnett on the streets, and waited on buying the game.  With half a year gone by since, and the price halved as well, and me looking at a “Buy 2, get third free” offer, I got it.

Now, I know that 90% of all of you, like myself, don’t care what the game’s about.  Will Arnett’s in it, after all.  But…I guess for the rest of you *sigh* I’ve got to review this game.

So…here you are (along with a minor tangent on humor in games)

Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard perfectly understands the #1 rule of parody: (as invented and self-enforced by me) good parodies always stick to the medium in which the original is presented, and are done by those with a good understanding of said medium.  For far too long video game oriented jokes, skits and general mockeries have been found in web sketches and television shows.  Yet, for the most part, the majority of these have had the perspective of outsiders forced to gaze inward on an industry they don’t quite understand or grasp, they just feel it involves Donkey Kong and out of shape people breathing somewhat excessively through headsets.  Because, apparently, that’s humorous enough.  Also, random tangent, but I love Will Arnett, so I’m including this clip, too.  If you don’t like it, suck it.

And while I’d like to think that most video gamers have enough of a self-depricating nature to laugh at most of this (regardless of whether or not it accurately depicts us as individual gamers) most of the people creating past jokes have only had a superficial understanding of why video games are funny, and resort to laughing at gamers, instead of with them.  You can choose to “cash in” on stereotypes and laugh at how we’re all apparently sex-starved and lacking girlfriends, or you can get to understand gaming, and make a crack at just how much hair gel Final Fantasy character’s hair must require, amongst other things.  The point is that Eat Lead has taken a huge risk in creating a new and pricey IP with the intent of providing gamers with something they can laugh at, made by people that get games.  And for that alone, that deserve major points.

Vicious Cycle created three viral websites for the game, did a fake "Behind the Music-esque" special on it, and created wonderful box art like this for Hazard's past titles.  Color me impressed.

Vicious Cycle created three viral websites for the game, did a fake "Behind the Music-esque" special on it, and created wonderful box art like this for Hazard's past titles. Color me impressed.

This most recent title by Vicious Cycle Software (recipient of the first ever Writers Guild of America award for video game writing for Dead Head Fred) surrounds the video game protagonist Matt Hazard (who exists in a world where video game characters are real performers like actors), for whom they’ve created a fictional back history of games.  Like most, he started out doing side-scrolling platformers, a la Contra, and moved on to pseudo-3D shooters (think Doom), as well as the obligatory “sidekick” co-op title.  Yet, as every long-term franchise character has (think mostly Sonic and Mario) Hazard gets too caught up in the wealth and signs off on some “questionable” projects: a go-karts and squirt gun game (perfectly capturing the “when in doubt, kart” and “make more kid-friendly” trends of gaming franchises), to be specific.  After a long break, Hazard’s decided to make a comeback of sorts, yet he does not know the myriad of evildoing that Wallace Wellesley, CEO of Marathon Megasoft has in store for him.  He’ll have to fight through a variety of his old game locales to get to the bottom of it.

Dead Head Fred:  You play a decapitated detective voiced by Dr. Cox from Scrubs in a 1940's horror/noir drama, getting abilities by using the heads of your enemies, all while trying to find your killer.  These people at Vicious Cycle must have the best brainstorming sessions.  Or weed.  Or BOTH.

Dead Head Fred: In Vicious Cycle's previous effort you play a decapitated detective voiced by Dr. Cox from Scrubs in a 1940's horror/noir drama, getting abilities by using the heads of your enemies, all while trying to find your killer. These people at Vicious Cycle must have the best brainstorming sessions. Or weed. Or BOTH.

While there’s plenty of time to return to gushing over the tongue-in-cheek cleverness of Eat Lead, let’s get the dirty laundry out of the way.  Eat Lead’s game play is derivative, repetitive, and for the most part, uninventive.  You enter a room, find something to hide behind, and mow down waves of enemies.  A door opens, you enter the next room, and do the same once again.  One does not even need to “pat down” the corpses to figure out which one of them has the keycard hidden in his front pocket (or alternately, is just happy to see you) or discover the “hidden switch” on the wall, located, of course, behind crates.  Effectively, it’s the streamlining of a fairly antiquated motif in a modern age that has become, on occasion, far too pretentious and full of itself than to just let you kill things.  Tangent analogy: You might find a faster way for me to go about pulling out my fingernails, but that does not keep the overall experience from being an unenjoyable one.

The cover system is quite perfectly realized, however.  To begin with, none of that auto-stick stuff that has been the bane of my existence in past titles, you walk up to a surface (most surfaces can double as cover, amazingly enough, and this takes out the frustration of having to play NBC’s lesser known show “Cover or Not Cover/Horrific Body Mutilation”) and press “A.”  From here you can blind fire (another one of those “blind fire’s overpowered” titles) or pop up or lean out on the sides to fire.  Need to simply move to a different side of the same object?  At the edge of the object, lean towards the side you want to move to, and press “A.”  Want to simply hop over the cover without having to awkwardly move around it?  Lean up and press “B.”  Spotted cover ahead that you’d like to move to?  Target it with the cursor and press “Y.”  It’s a helpful technique when taking on the game’s earlier levels, but the unpredictability of just how the game will move Hazard from Point A to Point B (I’ve seen several scenic routes plotted by the AI from time to time, always with the final destination of my face down on the ground) along with the uncertainty of just at what speed this will be accomplished, will have you taking back the reins toward the end of the game.  All of these aren’t a gimmick either, with cover being destructible, you’ll have to do your fair share of relocating.

What helps “mix things up” is the genre-breaking variety of firearms from all of Hazard’s adventures: AK-47s from his anti-Ruskies game You Only Live 1,317 Times, six shooters out of his Wild West title A Fistful of Hazard, and Super Soakers knock-offs from Soak ‘Em. You’re able to carry two weapons at any time, and with the variety of waves thrown at you, one’s always only five minutes away from the gun they desire.  Complicating this though, are the plasma weapons dropped by generic space marines.  While the remainder of the weapons in Eat Lead are equally effective against all enemies, taking on these HALO-esque characters with anything other than plasma-based arms is just short of sheer futility.  Enemies, like the weapons, are equally diverse, representing all the various tropes and motifs of video games: cowboys, Russian soldiers, space marines, zombies, construction workers, and the occasional 2-D member of the Waferthin, the fascist army in Hazard’s Wolfenstein game (when they turn on their side, they can’t be shot).  However, the tactic for eliminating them is always the same: headshots, plz.  There’s also a melee combo, which is favorable for one-on-one encounters, but it leaves you vulnerable to fire while completing it, aka, instant death in latter levels.  Finally, there are power-ups that allow your weapons to freeze or set alight enemies, or turn you into a glowing killing machine, or a heavily shielded Colossus look-alike for a limited time.  While they might seem “out of place” or cheesy for a modern tactical shooter, they harken back to what classic power-ups did, and for that I’ll let it slide.

Just because I worried you might think I was joking about the squirt gun part, I've included this picture.  If only I'd been this stealthy in the neighborhood squirt gun fights of my childhood.  Or that "buff".

Just because I worried you might think I was joking about the squirt gun part, I've included this picture. If only I'd been this stealthy in the neighborhood squirt gun fights of my childhood. Or that "buff". Or well-shaven.

Presentation is a mixed bag.  On one hand you’ve got the voice talents of Will Arnett, Neil Patrick Harris, and a very competent script to back them up.  But the moment the gamer is forced to open their eyes and face the visuals, one begins to wonder if you’re actually playing one of Hazard’s fictional older titles.  Hazard actually is well-detailed and animated, allowing for a great deal of expression, but the remaining characters lack detailed textures and well-defined features.  The locales, while varied (nightclubs, saloons, nuclear missile bases, cruise ships) are riddled with “jaggies” and low-poly count objects.  Simply put, there’s little chance that one would look at this game and have any doubt that it is indeed, a next-gen title.  However, one would be hard pressed to believe its a full-price AAA title launched over three years into this console cycle…its got all the trappings of a late ’05/early ’06 game.  Again, with a game like this, it sometimes becomes difficult to filter content between “bad, because its meant to parody” and “unconditionally bad,” but graphically the game is just…average.

Conventional critique methodology aside, with a game like Eat Lead, one question must be returned to, is it a video game that successfully makes fun of video games?  To this, the answer is an uninhibited “YES!”  Unlike The Simpsons Game, which attempted to use its half-assed self-aware nature, and a frustratingly frequent breaking of the fourth wall to excuse its shortcomings, Eat Lead’s self-referential humor is handled  with tact and wry wit.  Whether its the perpetually changing mission objectives that still manage to convey the same goal (Kill it…all of it), Hazzard’s rant with a mute, ellipses-loving JRPG protagonist, or a certain pervy enemy’s assistants that depict probably every over-sexed and anatomically-disproportionate female protagonist of gaming (though I probably could have just written “every female protagonist of gaming,” not including Jade and Alyx Vance) Eat Lead is riddled with “inside jokes” that will have the hardcore gamer smirking, and everyone short of that absolutely befuddled.  And that’s the way it should be.  No more of this “peddling to everyone” mentality that even Eat Lead takes more than a handful of jabs at.  Unfortunately, Eat Lead’s sales reflect the sad reality that meta-hardcore gamer discussions on the evolution of gaming and its predominating tropes don’t sell well.

Rules to surviving a duel: 1.  Wear body armor.  2. Bring weapons from the future.  3.  Shoot on "2"

Rules to survive a duel: 1. Wear body armor. 2. Bring weapons from the future. 3. Shoot on "2"

So, let’s sum up here.  Eat Lead is a third-person tactical shooter that with large waves of enemies and varied power-ups, resembles the side-scrolling shooter’s transition to 3D.  It’s repetition ad nauseum, but functional, and not difficult enough to allow unbridled frustration to wreak havoc.  The voice acting is grade-A both in terms of talent and performance, and aren’t just celebrities phoning it in.  In addition, both actors are quite the gamers themselves and I don’t mean it in the “I owned a NES” sense.  The music is a pulse-pounding non-stop marathon of 80′s guitar riffs.  And by that, I mean GREAT!    Visuals do little to redefine industry standards, but they aren’t awful enough to keep the artistic vision of the developers from shining through.  Finally, the story is downright perfect, and doesn’t try too hard to make you recognize all of the jokes embedded in it, either you get them or you don’t.  None of this “THIS IS A PARODY OF HALO” flashing over the scene in neon lights sort.  Consider Eat LeadE the “Weird Al” of video games: it’s genuinely talented, but at its best when taking digs at other works, and many times, only serves to remind you of the work being parodied, while Eat Lead itself stands a good chance of being forgotten.

Leave a Reply