Don’t bother doing a Google or Wikipedia search for Matt Hazard. Unlike Mario, Kratos or Master Chief, Hazard is a fictional video game icon. His “return” is all part and parcel of Vicious Cycle Software’s parody of the last 25 years of gaming. It’s a clever concept and I’m sure the team at Vicious Cycle had a lot of fun making the game, but will you have as much fun playing it?
Eat Lead opens with a VH-1 style documentary chronicling Matt Hazard’s fanciful rise in the video game industry; from his side-scrolling 8-bit debut to Matt Hazard 3D, the game that netted him a lifetime deal with publisher Marathon Software. However when success went to his virtual head, Hazard began to branch out into other genres, a disastrous move that triggered the downward spiral of his career. He’d been out of video games for six years before new CEO Wallace Wellesley bought Marathon, renamed it Marathon MegaSoft, and insisted Matt be the star of their next-gen shooter. Little does Hazard know his new boss has a personal vendetta against him and very much plans to kill his character off once and for all.
Video game enthusiasts are sure to get a chuckle out of the introductory cinematic. Matt Hazard himself is very much a caricature of retired virtual action star Duke Nukem (he is retired, isn’t he?), and there are winks at Bionic Commando, James Bond (“You Only Live 1317 Times”), BioShock and Kart racers, all in the opening movie alone. The satire is infused throughout the third-person action game, as Eat Lead pokes fun at not only action gaming clichés but also video game culture in general. It blasts game mechanics from tutorial levels and cover systems to its own lack of a jump button. It mocks stereotypical enemies from zombies and space marines to cowboys and Russian terrorists (the 2D German soldiers from Wolfenstein are my favorite; they turn sideways to become paper-thin in order to avoid oncoming fire). Master Chief, World of Warcraft, Mario, and sexually ambiguous JRPG characters; no one is safe from the tomfoolery. Not all of the material is comedy gold though. Some of the more notable flops include a water gun toting enemy type and an Arnold Schwarzenegger sound-a-like boss who regrettably makes multiple appearances during the course of the story.
A sense of humor gets your foot in the door but it’s entertaining gameplay that keeps you on stage. Tragically this comedy act gets the hook almost the moment you actually start to play the game. It’s a joke in itself really. Eat Lead jests overworked action gaming clichés and then proceeds to present the most tired gameplay. Here’s the set up: You walk into a room. The door closes behind you. The room fills up with bad guys. You kill all of the bad guys. A door leading to the next room opens. You walk into the new room. The door closes behind you. The room fills up… You get the picture. Sadly there’s no punch line here, that’s pretty much the formula throughout the entire game. It’s gameplay straight out of the 90s; dated and annoying, and it doesn’t get much help from the game’s cover or targeting systems.
Like most titles in the third-person action genre nowadays, Eat Lead stresses the use of cover. The cover system is functional enough in terms of being able to enter and exit cover, move from cover to cover and blind fire, but movement is sluggish, particularly when you peak and snap around corners to shoot at enemies. To make matters worse, enemies tend to rush past your position, rendering the use of cover pointless. Targeting is another issue. Not only is it difficult to target moving enemies, you’ll quickly learn that shooting an enemy in any part of the body other than the head is a complete waste of ammunition. I once engaged an enemy not 10 feet in front of me, firing at least 8 slugs from my shotgun into his chest. He stood there and took it like a champ, and here’s the problem with that: Pistols become the weapon of choice. Even though enemies are often more susceptible to their own type of weaponry (Energy Pistols to Space Marines, for example), there’s very few instances where you’ll want to equip anything other than a couple of different pistols; and that seems like a waste of the game’s arsenal of guns to me.
Eat Lead looks almost as dated as it plays. Visually I would categorize it as a first-generation next-generation game, and even that’s being a little generous. Character models lack finer detail and the environments are bland and repetitive; the latter a trait the game makes fun of by commenting on the number of warehouse levels used. The most disappointing aspect of the presentation has to be the weak weapon effects. There’s no punch when firing a shotgun, no impact pulling the trigger of a sniper rifle. There are some positives in the audio department. Will Arnett and Neil Patrick Harris deliver strong performances as Matt Hazard and Wallace Wellesley respectively, and whimsical quips abound from various other characters, most notably from a group of online avatars that join the action late in the game.
There’s a lesson to be learned here. It’s not enough to merely come up with a clever concept for a game. You still have to back it up with innovative or entertaining gameplay. Eat Lead doesn’t execute well on the latter and so it’s forced to use its wit and sense of humor as a crutch in the face of gameplay that is dull, derivative and downright frustrating at times; a crutch that ultimately fails to hold up. There are laughs to be had, and for that it might be worth a rental, but anything more will only be Hazard-ous to your wallet.