Name: Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (Reviewed on PlayStation 3)
For satire to work there needs to be enough popular source material to lampoon. Thankfully, with video games bringing in billions of dollars every year, there’s plenty to joke about within the industry, and Vicious Cycle’s Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard looks to be the first franchise built on that idea. It stars, naturally, Matt Hazard (voiced by Will Arnett), a fictional character whose titles replace several series throughout gaming’s history. Instead of Contra, there was Matt in Hazard Land; instead of Duke Nukem 3D, there was Matt Hazard 3D; and instead of Mario Kart, there was Haz-Matt Carts. After a few failed titles, the character was retired until his fictional publisher, Marathon Software decided to star him in their first next-generation shooter, Eat Lead. It was a trap, with Marathon’s President, Wallace "Wally" Wellesley (voiced by and Neil Patrick Harris) hoping to kill the character out of his life-long contract. With the help of the rogue programmer “QA,” Hazard needs to beat the last level before he is erased forever.
After an entertaining cutscene establishing Hazard’s place in video game lore, Matt begins shooting his way through an array of different, varied levels. In order to kill the action star, Wellesley uses code from all of Matt’s previous titles, and it isn’t uncommon to find cowboys walking around a nightclub while Soviet troops move to flank. Later in the game, zombies from Matt’s arcade title begin to rise from the corpses of downed enemies, and there are moments where the developers were able to mesh together the continuity to create some engaging encounters. This blend becomes increasingly hectic and diverse, and before the game is finished Matt will meet friends and foes from a vast assortment fictional titles.
The game mechanics are standard third-person shooter fare, and Matt’s abilities are slightly expanded from the typical stop-and-pop thanks to interesting cover mechanics. In fact, cover is apparently important enough to dedicate three buttons to the system, with one sticking to objects, one hurdling over them, and another giving Matt the ability to “point to” any location to sprint to the area. It’s nothing revolutionary, but adds a bit more to the typical formula. At first, it feels as though the game might pay off its promises, with interesting levels and a silly, but exciting plot, but sadly, little by little, everything begins to fall apart, and all of the good ideas in Eat Lead fall victim to poor design and uninteresting, repetitive gameplay.
While some of the game’s cliché mechanics are write-offs to the gods of parody, others are simply inexcusable. The unique cover system is severely flawed by seemingly random blind fire mechanics, which can prove either impossibly accurate or unnaturally inaccurate. The actual gunplay also falls victim to this folly, and headshots might not land as they should, while obvious misses can often drop enemies. Even the interesting “point to” ability becomes unusable due to glitches which will have Matt running wildly against objects, seemingly ignorant to the fact that he hasn’t moved forward for several seconds. If those were the only hitches it wouldn’t be too much of a nuisance, but other control problems, like Matt deciding to fire uncontrollably after a reload or, in other instances, refusing to fire at all, mar the gameplay irreparably. To make matters worse, enemies seem all too aware of the game’s issues, and will take advantage of the sluggish controls and ill-developed cover system as if they were intentional.
Weapons from Hazard’s previous titles, like the Six-Shooters of A Fistfull of Hazard and the water guns from his kid-friendly shooter, all feel too similar, save for the fact that some are incredibly powerful while others are unreasonably weak. Later enemies can take an extreme beating before falling, and tend to also drop less ammunition, a terrible combination that becomes annoying quickly. In fact, with the notable exceptions of the zombies and later 2D sprite enemies, most of the enemies are usually defined more by their armor and weapons than their AI, one of many missed opportunities in Eat Lead. It isn’t until the last level that the game really hits its stride with enemies that seem to take appropriate amounts of damage before death, but by then it’s too late. There’s also the issue of Matt not being able to throw grenades while enemies lob them in his direction at a nearly nonstop pace, a flaw that Vicious Cycle explains with enemies joking about not giving him that ability. As expected, this does little to actually fix the problem, and simply instills the fact that it wasn’t forgotten, just needlessly left out. Jumping also suffers a similarly miserable fate, as Matt is quick to point out during the tutorial.
Under the guise of parody, Vicious Cycle was able to get away with more than is usually allowed in terms of gameplay. Enemies simply appear, spawning out of nothingness, something that would be immersion breaking in any other series, but, in Eat Lead, is explained with “Matt is in a video game.” At first, this is acceptable, but loses its relevance the tenth time an enemy spawns from behind and takes Matt down in one hit. It becomes more frequent as the game progresses, and later levels will have Matt fighting dozens of enemies at a time, literally appearing as others are killed, ruining any sense of progression, and growing increasingly tedious. Instead of being a good game made better by inside jokes and parody, Eat Lead is a bad game asking to be excused by them.
Though there are issues with gameplay, much would be forgiven if the game’s story and wit were solid. Sadly, despite a few moments of amusement, the game feels incredibly dated in terms of humor. Bill the Wizard’s references to the Gauntlet series might be funnier if they weren’t delivered by an awful William Shatner impersonator; though it pales in comparison to Sting Sniperscope’s Schwarzenegger. Some of the jokes hit, and give glimpses into what could have been (most notable of which is an RPG boss who is actually turn based) but the rest of the game lacks this wit, and plays as corny, instead of funny.
In the end, Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard is a bad shooter with worse excuses, and there’s little chance you’ll enjoy playing it as much as Vicious Cycle enjoyed making it. The developers relied too heavily on cheap laughs, and didn’t take advantage of the satire nearly as much as they should have. Instead, they used it as a crutch, explaining missing features and other problems on the game’s premise – an excuse that grows thin quickly, as far too often, it’s used to the detriment of the player instead of to their benefit. Vicious Cycle has missed this chance at creating gaming’s first real satire franchise in Matt Hazard; hopefully, without any more excuses, they won't make the same mistake again.