When I was 19, my two favorite comic books were Sin City and Hellboy, and my three favorite movies were Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, Dolemite (link NSFW), and Escape from New York. Knowing that, just imagine how amazed I was last year when I heard that Platinum Games was making a game that looks exactly like Sin City; stars a guy who looks like a perfect cross between Sin City‘s Marv, Hellboy‘s Hellboy, and Evil Dead‘s Ash; and has a story that is almost exactly like Escape from New York. If, at age 19, I had the power to make any videogame I wanted, that game would have been MadWorld.
It wouldn’t be until I actually played the game that I realized how much Dolemite-style ridiculousness MadWorld has, too, but I’ll get to that later.
Now, at age 32, I still love stuff like Sin City and Evil Dead, but that kind of over-the-top action/comedy/horror isn’t my favorite thing in the world anymore. I need at least a little substance to make me happy now, not just great art design and bloody chainsaw duels.
Is MadWorld a game that is only suitable for 19-year-old me, or is this a game that 32-year-old me can get into as well? More importantly, what about you? Is this game worth your time, or even worth buying a Wii for?
Developer: Platinum Games
Released: March 10, 2009
As a huge fan of Clover/Platinum’s two other beat-’em-ups, Viewtiful Joe and God Hand, I was initially pretty disappointed with MadWorld. It was only after playing it for about a half hour that I figured out that MadWorld isn’t a beat-’em-up; it’s a “kill-’em-up.” Not judging it against prior beat-’em-ups really went a long way towards helping me appreciate the game. It was also at about the half-hour mark that the game went from being “sort of weird” to “totally batshit insane,” which also did a lot to win me over.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
MadWorld is a game about a man trapped in a city filled with killers, forced to compete in a televised murder-sport called “DeathWatch TV.” Like in Escape from New York, the game takes place in a city that is being held hostage by criminals and maniacs, and like in the Japanese classic film Battle Royale, the only one allowed out of the city is the game’s winner (i.e., the last person left alive). While in the midst of this life-or-death struggle, Jack (the game’s lead) will meet many willing contestants, as well defenseless citizens who were forced into the games when their city was transformed into a giant cage filled with predators hungry for death and money.
The game’s scenario vacillates between being 24-level serious, action movie cool, and completely zany and madcap. One minute Jack will be talking about government conspiracies and the true meaning of evil, and the next he’ll be loading a rollerblade-clad Grim Reaper onto a catapult and launching him headlong into the moon, resulting in a big, bloody splat. The game follows its own sort of dream-like logic from beginning to end, leaving the player constantly unsure of what to expect. I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say that everyone from Star Wars fans to BioShock devotees will find something to like in MadWorld. It really feels like the guys at Platinum just took everything they ever liked in any movie, game, or comic, and tried to stick it all in one place.
Thanks im part to the consistent art direction, these many deviations from normalcy never come off as out of place. MadWorld‘s black-and-white look is probably its most distinguishing characteristic, and it’s also something that the game couldn’t function without. After playing it for a few minutes, you’ll likely forget that the game is mostly devoid of color, just as most people who watch The Simpsons quickly forget that they’re watching yellow-skinned freaks with no eyebrows as they begin to accept the world’s unique rules as the new normal. But just because you get used to the game’s stunning look doesn’t mean it isn’t always actively involved with the MadWorld experience. The game’s art direction, and truly amazing character designs, do most of the heavy lifting in providing MadWorld with its one-of-a-kind atmosphere, as well as help excuse the many ridiculous (and ridiculously violent) events that take place therein
Quick digression: did you know that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is rated PG, despite the fact that it features the slow, deliberate cleaving of a man’s limbs from his body, loads of penis, spanking, and oral sex talk, and a bunny that bites people’s heads off? If that kind of stuff was in a game, there is no question that it would get slapped with an M, or maybe even an AO rating. I bring this up because the violence in MadWorld is only a hair more “serious” than that found in Holy Grail. In fact, a case could even be made for MadWorld being more harmless, as Monty Python and the Holy Grail features real human beings in those violent situations, while MadWorld only features pseudo-drawings of human beings getting murdered, and in super-unrealistic black and white, no less. My point is that if you’ve been turned off to MadWorld because of how violent it looks, I suggest you play it first before you pass judgment. The violence in the game is almost as tame as the mass murders that Mario commits against turtles in his titles. It’s honestly not a game that I would be worried about showing to children, no more than I would be worried about showing them an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon.
Letting kids listen to profusely profane sound-scape of MadWorld is a different story. The music is mostly hip-hop, with lyrics written specifically for the game, which means a whole lot of talk about Jack being a chainsaw-wielding maniac. Louder and more attention-grabbing are the game’s two comedic “announcers,” voiced by Greg Proops (Whose Line is it Anyway?) and John DiMaggio (Futurama, Gears of War). With the music and the sportscaster-style comedy, the game really feels like some MTV reality show of the future, where instead of seeing people compete for prizes by eating bugs and voting each other off, they fight to the death with chainsaws and kill each other off.
It’s all extremely well done … technically speaking. The music is fresh and original, and Proops and DiMaggio are both convincing and likable in their roles. The problems comes from all the stupid, sometimes abrasive stuff they actually say. For the most part, the catchy hooks really grew on me, but only after I started to block out the lyrics (which feature such deep thoughts as “Ya’ll ready to fly? Y’all ready to die?” and “I play the hottest shit with a nine strapped to my hip”). The commentary is a different story. So much of it just wasn’t funny to me at all. I don’t want to even start getting into why; this is a game review, after all, not a comedy critique. Still, you should know that in my experience, MadWorld the game and MadWorld the soundtrack are two undeniably connected, but very different, creative entities — and just because you like one doesn’t mean you’ll like the other. Luckily, you can turn off the commentary and soundtrack whenever you want, so if the game’s sound doesn’t work for you, it’s easily silenced.
Okay, enough about that; let’s talk about gameplay. Despite the Wii’s relatively small array of face buttons, MadWorld provides the player with quite a few attacks, more so than you’d get in many fighting games. Most of Jack’s basic attacks are done with a simple press of the A button, but as you progress through the game, you’ll need to rely more and more on the motion-controlled chainsaw moves. You can also juggle opponents, dash attack them, clear them out with a massive backhand, or dodge with a shake of the Nunchuk and then quickly counter-attack with a tap of the A button. It takes a little while to learn what all the moves do and what they’re good for, but actually pulling them off takes very little practice. Learning the more complicated combos and how to actually use them, that’s something else.
Remember how I said that the first half hour of MadWorld was sort of a letdown? Well, most of that has to do with the fact that in the first area of the game, the “city” levels, most of the enemies are complete pushovers. It seems like Platinum thought that starting MadWorld by permitting players to learn to kill at their leisure would help ease them into this very strange game, and for the most part, they were right. I’m glad the game isn’t too hard at first, especially since almost none of the skills I’ve acquired over my years of gaming apply to MadWorld. Not only does MadWorld control like no other game on the market, it requires you to think like no other game on the market. This isn’t a game about fighting, it’s a game about killing; and not just for survival. It’s a game about killing for the entertainment of others.
The trick to MadWorld is that you can’t progress further into the game until you’ve racked up enough points, and you only get big points by getting creative. You can kill as many guys as you want, but they’ll just respawn. Kill a guy with a simple chainsaw attack, and you’ll get something like 1,000 points, and two more guys will take his place. Slam a barrel over a guy, jam three street signs into his head, then throw him into a meat grinder, and you’ll get five to ten times as many points, and will maybe get to progress to the next part of the level. Pulling off these more complicated kills involves quick thinking, knowledge of your environment, control over your character, and the ability to maneuver around the enemies surrounding you without getting killed yourself.
Jack can’t block, and he doesn’t take damage all that well either, so if you do let your enemies get to you, you will die. This goes double for your encounters with the game’s many bosses and mid-bosses (twenty in total), who can often kill you in one or two hits. I found the game’s mid-bosses to be especially lethal, as they tend to attack you while you’re with regular enemies at the same time. Remember that Grim Reaper on roller blades I was telling you about? Well, if you get grabbed by a regular enemy while he’s around, he’ll come up and decapitate you in one hit, Dr. Salvador-style. Events like that will quickly teach you that no matter how well you think you’re doing in MadWorld, letting your guard down for even a second can mean instant death.
On the lighter side are the game’s “Bloodbath Challenges” hosted by the extremely Dolemite-esque pimp “Black Baron,” who is brutally murdered before every event. These are simplified, gimmicky murder games that are generally easier than the rest of the levels, and are played mostly for points. Examples include running over as many aliens with a motorcycle as you can in three minutes, using a golf club to knock zombie heads into hovering targets, and tossing ninjas onto giant, spiked billboards of “sexy ladies.” These diversions, as well as the game’s occasional platforming elements, are all generally well done, and do a lot to both mix things up and lighten the mood.
Sadly, the Bloodbath Challenges are also a part of the game’s weakest element: its multiplayer mode. Basically, all the mode offers is a chance to play Bloodbath Challenges against another person via split-screen. It’s a fine start, but most of the challenges just aren’t fun enough to warrant playing outside of the context of the main game. Actually, the most fun thing about MadWorld‘s multiplayer is that it gives you the opportunity to try all your hard-learned killing techniques out on your friends, and vice versa. You don’t get points for ignoring the challenge in favor of fighting your friends, but it sure is nice to have the option. In the end, though, it really is a double-edged sword. Giving us just a taste of how cool a full-on versus mode and/or a co-op campaign mode would be just makes MadWorld‘s multiplayer seem even more lame by comparison.
The only other real complaint I have about the game is the difficulty progression. When it comes to the game’s main levels, Platinum did a great job at forcing me to gradually improve my skills and learn new strategies in order to progress. The same can’t be said for the game’s boss battles. The first nine bosses require an ever-increasing level of mastery to defeat, but from there, the remaining four bosses are way too easy. They are still really cool (especially for God Hand fans who are looking for a reference or two), but considering all the skills you’ve learned by that time in the game, these guys needed to be tougher.
MadWorld is also a little on the short side. The in-game timer told me I beat the game in four hours, but being the paranoid jerk that I am, I actually timed my play-through of the game on a separate clock. From start to finish, I was done in just over seven hours. The game only records and tallies the time it takes you to start and finish a level; it doesn’t record time spent watching cinemas, or any times you played the game and didn’t complete that level (due to death or reset). Seven hours isn’t terrible, but it’s not great.
There is stuff you can only get after you win the game, like two new weapons, as well as “hard mode.” This actually does a lot to prolong the experience, but only if you really enjoyed playing MadWorld in the first place like I did. After beating the game once, I went back immediately to try out the new weapons and take on hard mode, which led to at least an hour of additional play before turning the game off and starting this review. There are also a series of level specific “Deathwatch Challenges” I’ve yet to successfully complete, most of which involve killing tough mid-bosses in really difficult ways, or finding hidden stuff in the environment and using it to murder people. That’s nice and all, but even if these bonuses were absent, I’d still be playing MadWorld again, just to try to beat my high score and re-experience all the awesome boss fights.
I give the game an…
Score: 8.5 — Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won’t astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)
Here is my main problem with MadWorld: it’s only four hours long, yet it still manages to get repetitive. I absolutely adore the fluid controls (Jack’s chainsaw is almost as fun as Travis Touchdown’s beam katana), and I really dig the idea of a combo-centric beat-’em-up, but MadWorld simply doesn’t show the player enough new or interesting things to justify even its incredibly meager running time.
In the first few levels of the game, I got most of my points by jamming signs through people’s heads, then shoving barrels on top of them, then impaling them on a wall of spikes. In the last few levels of the game, I got most of my points by jamming signs through people’s heads, then shoving barrels on top of them, then throwing them into an active jet engine. For a game whose premise relies primarily on finding new and inventive ways to combo-kill baddies, MadWorld‘s environments are bizarrely unimaginative most of the time. Don’t get me wrong — it’s insanely fun to chainsaw and meat-grind your way through the first few levels, but after less than an hour of play one finds it difficult not to wonder, “…Wait, this is IT?” Each level has one or two little kill areas that stand out amongst the crowd (the bumpers in the Vegas level are my personal favorite), but the vast majority of the time, the environments suggest the exact same strategy: punch a bad guy, shove poles into him, then throw him into something made of knives/spikes/fire. I’ve read many gamers and reviewers suggest that MadWorld is easier to swallow if you play it in very short bursts over a period of days, and this repetitive core gameplay seems to be the reason for such a widespread strategy. Granted, that’s how I played the game, and I still found myself getting sick of poles and barrels and spikes by the fourth hour.
The game’s best moments come in the form of the Bloodbath Challenges, which exhibit a degree of cleverness and imagination so sorely missing from the regular gameplay. You’ll shake up soda bottles and force them into baddies’ mouths to send them rocketing into the distance. You’ll play golf using human heads. You’ll perform many varied and clever activities, totally different in gameplay terms but united by MadWorld‘s core conceit of over-the-top ultraviolence. By the end of the game, I found myself looking forward to the Bloodbath Challenges more so than any other part of the gameplay, considering the bosses are just as easy and repetitive as the regular grunts and the story is interesting enough to pay attention to for a while, but ultimately kind of irrelevant.
Unlike Jon, though, I did quite enjoy the announcer commentary, in spite of myself. Even though Proops and DiMaggio throw out lowest-common-denominator penis and ex-wife jokes throughout literally the entire game, their delivery is so damned good that I honestly found it hard not to laugh every time DiMaggio angrily threatened to kill Proops for making a bad pun. I actually found myself turning the music and sound effects down just so I could hear more of the dick joke-filled commentary.
MadWorld is an odd beast. Its violence and core controls are remarkably pleasing on a visceral level and its sense of humor is so startlingly unpretentious that it’s difficult not to admire, but its over-the-top premise is rarely exploited to its fullest potential. The Bloodbath Challenges exhibit a few brief flashes of genius and the combo-killing is fun enough to maintain interest for a couple of hours, but MadWorld frankly isn’t worth the $50 asking price considering how short and repetitive it is. It’s unquestionably a must-rent for any Wii owner above the age of eleven, though.
Score: 6.5 — Alright (6s may be slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.)
Overall Score: 7.5 — 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.)