Hands-on Preview / Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard

Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, the upcoming third-person shooter from Vicious Cycle Software and D3 Publisher, is a game for gamers. That may sound retardo to you because who else are games for? What I mean is it’s loaded with references and in-jokes that only seasoned, hardcore gamers will fully understand and appreciate. Finally, 20+ years of useless knowledge will prove to be of use in something other than Trivial Pursuit at drunken gatherings.

To start my hands-on, I was shown the opening cinematic with Matt Hazard (voiced by Will Arnett) giving his life story about the meteoric rise in videogames he made from the 8-bit days into the world of 3D shooters and subsequently his downward spiral of shovelware, kart racing and crappy, non-violent water gun-based affairs. It’s full of references to games like Duke Nukem, GoldenEye and Mario Kart that perfectly sets the tone for what’s ahead and shows it’s as serious as a bear riding a tricycle. For the record, bears riding trikes are awesome.

After being fast-forwarded to a scene showing the game’s villain, Wallace Wellesley (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris), being the quintessential asshole, fed up with his lackeys’ ineptitude, I was let loose to run Hulkamania all over the near-final build in front of me.

The level I played had Matt going up against enemies from his past, the SoakEm commandos, who throw down with Summertime’s favorite weapon: water guns. However, this being a game world, they’ve been hacked to deal actual damage and thus aren’t just to make your siblings cry. It’s funny, but when the reloading animation has Matt pumping like a real water gun, it throws it over the edge and becomes “LOL”. The game is full of neat little touches to remind you it’s just that; enemies don’t even bleed, instead they go through a “de-rez” like in Tron and their code packets transfer to you for activating power-ups. I expect code packet-related killings to go up 1000% in the next year.

Further on, I was introduced to downed enemies resurrected as zombies — gotta shoot ’em in the head! — and the Wolfenstein 3D-esque, Wafferthinn, which are 2D sprite-based enemies that turn sideways to avoid being seen or shot (take a moment to let it sink in). The circus of ridiculous culminated in a boss battle with a character straight out of a Final Fantasy game that I so badly want to put a screenshot of up, but it’s too great to spoil on purpose. If you see it and don’t at least smirk, you’re dead inside.

Everything I saw involving enemies, story and thinly-veiled game references was clever, genuinely funny and refreshing. Unfortunately, the gameplay doesn’t step it up to the levels the writing does. It’s a by-the-books third-person shooter with a (destructible) cover mechanic, limited weapon slots, slow-mo melee and automagic health refilling we’ve experienced in games like Gears of War and Uncharted. It’s not necessarily done poorly or sloppy, besides a camera that sticks way too close making your surroundings difficult to see, but in a game that pokes fun at 20+ years of convention and history, it falls kind of flat. It was hinted there may be some surprises involving gameplay from Matt Hazard’s history, but secrets like to be kept and candy couldn’t loosen lips.

The humor and writing in Eat Lead is definitely at the forefront of the experience and perfectly nails the point of the game. No surprise there as Vicious Cycle won the Writers’ Guild of America Video Game Writing Award in 2008 for their PSP title, Dead Head Fred. Hopefully this aspect and its razor-sharp wit and nods to gaming pedigree like Super Mario Bros. and Halo will allow gamers to see beyond what many might feel is generic gameplay to find something pretty special and surprisingly different in presentation.

Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard is due out Q1 2009 for Xbox 360 and PS3.