If you’re reading this review, you’re already quite familiar with Matt Hazard. You might know him by a different name–Bill Rizer, Duke Nukem, or even Jack Carver, perhaps–but the substance is the same. The star of Eat Lead is a composite of every major video game action hero of the last quarter century: a muscle-bound, armor-laden agent of destruction who’s never found a crook or a catchphrase that he isn’t capable of beating to death.
We may have learned to overlook the inherent absurdity of these over-the-top troopers, but developer Vicious Cycle still views their adventures as fertile territory for satire. Enter Matt Hazard, an 8-bit 80s relic who’s fallen on hard times since his brand became diluted with kart racers and non-violent ‚ water-gun shooters in the 21st century. Hazard signed a lifetime contract with “Marathon Software” at the height of his popularity, but now that the has-been hero no longer stars in popular titles, he represents something of a liability for the company.
Feb. 26, 2009
The only way to void the contract is to kill Hazard in-game, and evil CEO Wallace “Wally” Wellesley (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris), who remains scarred from his childhood inability to beat Hazard’s 2D side-scrollers, sets out to do just that. He lures Hazard with the prospect of a next-gen outing, only to attempt to kill him at the end of the first level and install a dim-witted narcissist named “Sting Sniperscope” in his place. Hazard’s having none of it, and with the help of a renegade programmer, he’ll fight his way through an array of environments from his previous games, seeking to make Wellesley pay for his treachery.
I’ve devoted this much time to the game’s backstory because it deserves to be commended. Vicious Cycle formulated a fantastic premise for a game, and developed the idea to the fullest extent possible. This is no flimsy scenario fabricated merely as an excuse to shoot bad guys; it’s a fleshed-out alternate reality. By the time the credits roll, you’ll come close to believing that you’ve been aware of Matt Hazard’s exploits not only for the 6-8 hours it takes to complete Eat Lead, but throughout your entire experience as a gamer. This curious effect stems from the fact that the game’s levels and cutscenes are peppered with references, both verbal and visual, to Hazard’s earlier outings, most of them inspired by easily identifiable games you know and love.
Eat Lead seizes every possible opportunity for humor; a litany of memorable moments, coupled with an impressive attention to detail, combine to form a complete comedic package. An intentionally bland rock soundtrack evokes memories of the game’s generic forebears, transitioning to themed motifs at suitable junctures. The jokes can come from anywhere: they’re buried within the menu screen (one message actually defines the word “tip,” rather than providing one), the “objectives” text that scrolls across the screen at the beginning of levels, and the text on the bulletin boards within the levels themselves. The game lampoons long elevator rides designed to hide loading points, exploding barrels, text-heavy RPG’s, and a number of other gaming staples. One sequence forces you to stand at a sniper rifle emplacement reminiscent of the Silent Scope arcade game, rather than toting around the portable version
Throughout the game, you’ll encounter a dizzying array of characters, ostensibly drawn from the extensive Matt Hazard archives. The levels themselves are fairly unexceptional carbon copies of the warehouses, factories, restaurants, and ships you’ve fought through a hundred times before, albeit with some nods to particular games and subject matter. Populate those levels with hooded Russian troopers, cowboys, zombies, space marines, and pixellated, paper-thin pseudo-Nazis straight out of Wolfenstein 3D, however, and you have something special. Fighting zombies and Russians simultaneously (on a tennis court, no less) is an experience you’ll remember for some time. Each enemy model spawns in a unique manner; for example, the cowboys push their way through saloon doors which materialize in mid-air. Each class of adversaries wields its own type of weaponry, from the standard to the futuristic and exotic. You can pick up and use anything they drop, which makes for a fair fight under any circumstances; ammunition can be scarce, so you’ll find yourself switching weapons often. You’ll also encounter several memorable leading characters from Hazard’s past, including a wizard with Shatner-esque diction, a Mario look-alike, and best of all, the “Master Chef,” who bears a striking resemblance to a certain cybernetically enhanced supersoldier.
I expected the jokes to dry up as the game wore on, but Matt Hazard’s brand of humor proves surprisingly sustainable, most likely thanks to the award-winning writing of in-house scribe Dave Ellis. Publisher D3’s promotional materials trumpet Ellis’ influence over the finished product, eliciting a warm glow deep within my English major’s heart. In addition to Harris, D3 enlisted Will Arnett (who voices Hazard) to deliver his lines, exhibiting a laudable commitment to storytelling, an art often neglected in the “shooter” genre.
You’ve probably sensed that there’s a “but” on its way; it’ll be pulling into this station presently. Ellis is quoted in D3’s reviewer packet as saying the following:
“We set out to make a solid shooter first and foremost. If you don’t make the game fun and competitive in a gameplay sense, nobody will play long enough to experience the story.”