It's not often that you can play a full-length videogame that exists as nothing more than one big self-referential in-joke. At the very least, Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard deserves attention simply for what it was trying to do, even though most people were expecting the idea of a game about the star of a fictional videogame franchise to go disasterously wrong.
Does this parody videogame manage to make good use of its inventive concept, and just how far can one idea carry a game when so many other elements are working against it? You're about to find out, as you join myself and Conrad Zimmerman for the Destructoid review of Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard.
Eat Leat: The Return of Matt Hazard (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Vicious Cycle Software
Publisher: D3 Publisher
Released: February 26
Before the release of Eat Lead, publisher D3 worked very hard to build up a viral reputation for Matt Hazard as a character, sending press releases and information about past games that never existed. In the alternate reality that has been created, Matt Hazard is one of the most recognizable characters in videogame history, with a decades-long career spanning multiple generations and every genre you can think of.
After a run of successful videogames, Matt started to branch off into various ill-advised ventures, moving away from previous action titles such as The Adventures of Matt in Hazard Land and You Only Live 1,317 Times to casual titles such as 2000 Haz-Matt Carts. After 2002's Choking Hazard: Candy Gramm, he went off the rails and slipped into obscurity. Eat Lead is intended to be his big comeback game, but it seems that fictional publisher Marathon Megasoft has other plans.
Shockingly, the premise of the game actually manages to work, and the script is genuinely funny at times with a sense of ridiculousness that never becomes too stupid to enjoy. The various potshots at other franchises and parodies of recognizable videogame characters are all handled with a sense of class that manages to keep the game consistently entertaining, while the vocal talents of Will Arnett and Neil Patrick Harris help bring the humor to life.
The gameplay itself is a bit of an odd duck. On the surface, it's a rather bad game indeed, with loose, sloppy controls and the kind of stunted third-person combat that we saw back in the PlayStation era. Despite the cover-based gunplay, there is an unshakable mid-nineties feel, from the sparse environments to the enemies that seem to wander around or get stuck in looping animations.
A number of bugs plague the game, such as Matt's refusal to efficiently stick to cover at times, or his magic ability to slowly move of his own accord without player input. However, if you can look past the glitches, the bad AI and the backwards design, one finds an undeniably solid experience that is, at the very least, playable. Eat Lead even does a few interesting things on its own, most notably the "point to cover" feature, where Matt can aim his target reticule at a piece of cover, lock onto it and make his way there of his own accord.
Unlike D3's last big joke, Onechanbara, Matt Hazard actually succeeds in being a game that is bad but fun. While Eat Lead meanders between ridiculously easy (you can score headshots without even leaving cover) and frustratingly difficult and cheap, there is so much charm and character that it's impossible to stay mad. The game also makes up for its old fashioned gameplay with some interesting and fun weapons. Lethal water pistols more than make up for mid-nineties game design.
It's difficult to review a game that is quite obviously rubbish, but is still thoroughly entertaining and playable. The enemy AI is awful, but the enemies themselves are a joy to fight thanks to their amusing dialog and conformity to videogame stereotypes, such as masked Russian soldiers that blatantly communicate their positions to the player, or a Lara Croft parody that tells Matt to "smeg off." Even the Achievements are in on the joke, with a vast majority of them being based off self-referential humor. For example, you automatically get a "Multiplayer Master" Achievement upon beating the game, through virtue of the fact that there IS no multiplayer.
When reviewing videogames, there are a number of factors to consider, and Matt Hazard manages to fail in most of them. It's sloppy, unbalanced and frustrating. The graphics are standard at best, the animations are poor and there's zero replay value. However, despite all this, Eat Lead scores points in the most important category of all -- fun. This game manages to be fun no matter how grievously flawed it gets, and that is an accomplishment in itself.
Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard is most definitely a gamer's game, but the irony is that most gamer's will demand much, much more than what has been offered. However, for those willing to lower their standards and just have a good laugh, this game provides a solid few hours of gaming that will amuse and even cause a few audible giggles. Technically, this game is bad, but in terms of pure entertainment value, it somehow manages to be good. It's worth checking out for the paradox value alone.
When D3 started their viral marketing campaign for Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, I completely ignored it. Release after release about a twenty year-old gaming "legend" who I had never heard of before? To be honest, I first thought that it was just some blog having a bit of fun and it took a good while for me to realize what was really going on.
I mention the marketing for two reasons. The first is that I agree with just about everything Jim has said and need to stretch this review out a few paragraphs, but the other is that it truly set the tone for what the final product would be. Not once during the several months of near-constant press releases did the publisher ever break kayfabe.
That is the greatest strength of Eat Lead: its unflinching approach to defining exactly what it is. Every element of the game is tailored around the premise that the world of videogames exists independently of our own. Matt Hazard is a very real "person" and the characters who exist within videogames are real in the sense that they have emotions, relationships and distinct personalities which persist outside of the framework of the game (or games) they appear in. What results is an amazing amount of freedom to both dissect and mock fundamental aspects of games which the audience takes for granted. Matt Hazard does not merely break the fourth wall; it refuses to erect one in the first place.
Because there is no semblance of disbelief expected from the player, every single aspect of the game is open to ridicule and self-referential jokes. Whether it's the cookie-cutter enemies or the text indicating your next objective, absolutely nothing is sacred. The giddy delight of writer/lead designer Dave Ellis (X-Com: Interceptor) is almost palpable as the game rapid-fires one joke after another and the comedy is only amplified by the acting of Will Arnett, whose voice is positively perfect for the role of Hazard.
It's a damn good thing that the concept is so strong and lends itself so easily to humor because the gameplay alternates between being numbingly dull to rage-inducing. I disagree with the assertion that the enemy AI is poor, as they do use cover effectively more often than not and are more than capable of flanking if you get sloppy. But, then again, they are also helped by the fact that they can seem to appear practically anywhere at any time and having one or two baddies warp in behind your back is not an uncommon occurrence. It's unfair, but that's sorta the point. The villainous CEO of Marathon Megasoft is clearly not playing by the same rules you are.
What I can't justify away is the "run to cover" system Eat Lead uses. While in cover, Matt can run to another hiding spot by aiming and pressing a button. It has become a pretty standard feature in third-person shooters for a while now, but winds up failing you at the most inopportune moments in this title. Often, Matt will affix himself to the wrong surface of an object when sent to run, despite what side of it you may have been aiming at, and leaves himself open while you struggle to take him out of cover and around the corner. It's a poor implementation of something which should be second-nature by this point.
All of the other myriad issues Jim mentions are absolutely present, but I find myself not really caring about them in the long term (save for the game's difficulty which more closely resembles a line graph depicting Oprah Winfrey's weight in the last twenty years than a curve). Speaking strictly in terms of mechanics, calling Eat Lead mediocre would be excessive praise. But its charm, savvy writing and excellent humor shines in the face of all of its shortcomings and elevates it to a being a game that may not be worth owning but should certainly be played by anyone who can manage to plant their tongue firmly in cheek.
Overall Score: 7.0 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)