REVIEW / Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard (Xbox 360)

The pantheon of videogames is fraught with hilarity, not all of it intentional, as rarely do solid gameplay and strong humor coincide. But developer Vicious Cycle hopes to tickle your funny bone and sate your bloodlust with Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, a tongue-in-cheek send up of 20+ years of gaming clichés. Unfortunately, no amount of humor can cover the sub-par shooter at the heart of this game, as every laugh comes at the hard-won cost of enduring hours of repetitive level design, monotonous combat and clunky controls.

The story revolves around Matt Hazard (voiced by Will Arnett), the self-aware star of a once popular videogame franchise who has fallen into obscurity after a series of questionable spin-offs. In this world, game characters exist outside of their games, which adds a certain amount of pathos to Matt’s plight as a once iconic star whose string of poor paycheck choices, including lending his name to a kiddy-friendly kart racer, has banished him to obscurity. Eat Lead is supposed to mark his triumphant return as the star of Marathon Megasoft’s first next-generation shooter, but unfortunately the company’s new president Wallace “Wally” Wellesley (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) just wants to pull him out of retirement long enough to kill him. The premise is funny enough; it’s when you actually start playing the game you realize the joke’s on you.

Eat Lead is fundamentally flawed, a parody of videogame clichés that is itself rife with them. Enter an area. Clear out the baddies. Unlock the next area. The gameplay is pure Gears of War, with a cover system that allows Matt to stick to objects, vault over them or shimmy around them. Once hunkered down, you can blind fire in cowardly safety or peek, pop and aim at the risk of taking some damage. There are a few nice twists to the basic formula, such as the “point to cover” mechanic that allows you to high tail it to a new hiding spot automatically, an ability that comes in handy as most objects eventually de-rez under fire, leaving behind a glowing tear in space. This works to your advantage, as you can quickly and easily move around during most battles, either waiting for enemies to peek out or destroying their cover. That is, when the controls work—sometimes, rather than snapping satisfyingly behind a bullet-blocking barrel, Matt will perform a suicidal “Running Man” dance to the delight of his enemies. Coupled with a targeting system that doesn’t always register hits and a molasses-slow melee attack, combat can be an annoying combo of frustrating and forgettable.

You’ll go up against gunslingers, yakuza, space marines, Russian soldiers, zombies, fembots, security guards and the occasional inexplicably evil construction worker or marineyard welder, but all of Eat Lead’s enemies tend to follow the same predictable attack pattern. They either rush you or take cover, sticking their heads out at regular intervals for an easy kill shot. Matt cracks jokes about the predictable enemy placement, obvious ambushes, and miraculously unlocking doors, but his awareness and acceptance of these clichéd conventions doesn’t make them any less annoying. There are some welcome variations, like the two-dimensional Secret Soldiers of the Wafferthin who can turn sideways to become impervious to gunfire, but most enemies are only distinguishable by their different costumes and weapons.

Though Matt can only carry two weapons at a time, there’s a nice assortment to choose from. Most feel eerily similar, but wielding A Fistful of Hazard’s six shooters or pumping the kid-friendly Soak Em’s water sub-machine gun is strangely satisfying. Certain weapons are also more effective against certain enemies, which adds incentive to switching up your arsenal. After reducing enough baddies to bloodless packets of code, you can activate an ice or fire upgrade that temporarily boosts your damage. There are also power-ups scattered throughout that make you temporarily invulnerable or exponentially powerful. Despite the variety, combat gets old fast as it never really evolves beyond take cover, shoot enemy, rinse and repeat. Perhaps it’s a good thing the game is so short; you’ll be able to plow through the campaign in six to eight hours, even on the hardest difficulty setting.

It would take even less time if Eat Lead’s enemies weren’t such rotten cheats—they might lack brains, but they make up for it in dirty tricks. Foes appear out of thin air, spawn behind your back, and in the last couple of levels overwhelm you with sheer numbers. You’ll go up against wave after wave of the same chumps you’ve blown away hundreds of times before, making you wish whoever pitched this idea in staff meeting would “eat lead.” The boss fights fare no better, ending in anticlimactic quick time events or pitting you against never-ending waves of grunts, who you’ll mostly have to avoid while trying to pick off the main baddie from a distance. This wouldn’t be so terrible if these bosses didn’t deliver one-hit kills—battles against an impossibly precise sniper, a tentacled sea monster and Wellesley’s powerful de-rez rifle quickly devolve into pillow throwing, profanity spewing peeks into your hitherto unknown anger management problem. At least the genre-skewering intros have their moments, like the showdown with the androgynous Altos Tratos, a Final Fantasy-clone who speaks in overly verbose text bubbles punctuated by ambigious ellipses.

Eat Lead certainly has other chuckle-worthy moments, as Arnett’s gravel-voiced, world-weary hero pokes fun at the randomly placed exploding canisters, ridiculously long-winded bosses and the lengthy elevator loading sequences that have become industry staples, but too much of the humor is dated (Matt’s would-be replacement, Sting Sniperscope, sports an awful Arnold Swarzenegger accent), cheap (more than enough crotch shots to please the America’s Funniest crowd) or lazy (Master Chef? Are we seriously just removing letters from the names of popular videogame characters and calling it spoof? Is this a parody or a porno?). It would have been great to play in the styles of the games the intro cinematic so effectively lampoons, including Matt Hazard 3D (Duke Nukem), Assault on Biosphere One (BioShock), Conflict of the Deities (God of War) or Haz-Matt Carts (MarioKart), but instead of fighting enemies in their own setting, you’ll be running and gunning through sparsely decorated warehouses, office buildings and loading docks. When enemies appear in a room, they bring their themed cover with them — zombies bring tombstones, gunslingers bring barrels, soldiers bring sandbags, but a crate by any other name is still lame.

The worst part is that Eat Lead had so much potential to be great, but Vicious Cycle didn’t take it far enough in any particular direction, opting to make a game that tries to be both side-splitting satire and action-packed shooter and fails to truly standout as either. Though there are some genuine laughs to be had, they only make us sadder for what could have been, the humor used to mask an uninspired, unoriginal shooter filled with bland environments, clunky animation and clumsy gameplay. At least the achievement points are easy to come by, as the game rewards you for such feats as pausing, watching cutscenes or letting the credits run their course. This might make Eat Lead a great rental for those looking to pad their gamer score, but recommending it beyond that is no laughing matter.

+ good cover system, when it works
+ strong voice acting from Will Arnett and Neil Patrick Harris
+ interesting assortment of weapons
+ plentiful checkpoints
+ achievement whore heaven

– boss battles are either completely anticlimatic or excessively frustrating
– idiotic A.I.
– bland environments, clunky animation and clumsy gameplay
– overall lack of polish
– humor is dated