Unfortunately, Eat Lead plays as if it were designed to support Ellis’ assertion. The story is compelling, the jokes are funny, and the clever references to games past evince a genuine love of the medium. But (there it is) there isn’t much else occupying the “pro” side of the ledger. The game’s repetitive, uninspired gameplay and technical shortcomings will test your desire to “experience the story,” even if (for me, at least), they ultimately fail to quash it completely.
Gameplay-wise, Eat Lead does nothing that hasn’t been done better in other shooters. From a third-person perspective, you run, you jump (er, scratch that-there’s no jump button), and you shoot. Yes, you can hold L1 to sprint, and press square to melee nearby foes, but that’s about all there is to it. Seriously, the manual is about six pages long, and that’s including the diagrams intended for the people who don’t know how to insert the disc or hold the controller (someone must be reading those things, right?). Be sure to remember that R2 fires your weapon, and R1 reloads it-I was still confusing those during the final boss fight.
Eat Lead does distinguish itself from last-gen fare by including a surprisingly functional cover system. A depression of the semi-responsive X button will stick you to a nearby cover object; once under cover, you can vault over it, aim over it, lean around it, or “target” another cover object toward which to move. You’ll find yourself using it regularly, and you’ll rarely become overly frustrated with its implementation. Most objects available for cover dematerialize after they absorb a certain amount of damage, so you’ll have to keep moving to remain shielded. You’ll also want to make frequent use of the L2 button for enhanced aiming, since only one out of three bullets actually seems to hit its target otherwise, even when the reticule is glowing red.
The game’s most glaring problem is its enemy AI; no matter how many different skins the developers slapped on these gun-toting masses of 1’s and 0’s, none of them offers a particularly stiff fight. You might feel like you’re playing “You Only Live 1,317 Times” (Matt Hazard’s N64-era adventure) as you watch your foes mindlessly expose themselves to your line of fire. True to form, Vicious Cycle makes a joke out of its own inept programming. Enemies spout lines like “I shall flank left,” “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m going right,” “I am low on ammo,” “Freeze to examine area for enemies,” “Reporting in-no sign of him,” and “Let’s just run around!” Most of these utterances repeat fairly often, though a few new ones appear from time to time. Hazard himself chimes in often, interrupting the sound of gunfire with remarks like “I don’t know if you’ve been keeping track, but I’m almost dead.”
Unfortunately, while these lines made me laugh, they couldn’t make me have fun on their own. One wonders whether the developers intentionally sabotaged their product in order to enhance its comedic value, or simply used humor to make the best of a bad situation. Either way, it’s a problem. Turning up the difficulty level either makes Hazard weaker, or his enemies stronger, but it definitely doesn’t make the latter any smarter. I’d recommend ‘Maximum Hazard” mode only if your idea of a rewarding challenge involves repeating the same dull action sequences over and over. In “Minimum Hazard” mode, relying on the melee attack to bludgeon bewildered bad guys represents a viable strategy. Temporary enhancements distributed across the levels, like the “Hazard Shield” visible in our media section, and fire and ice attachments for the firearms, do alleviate the monotony, to a degree.
To make matters worse, technical problems hamper what fun there is to be had. Larger environments and firefights cause severe frame rate problems, and wonky level geometry and collision detection occasionally allow bullets to pass through “cover,” and parts of characters to pass through walls. Advancement through levels is controlled through contact with various invisible trigger points; if you don’t stand on the specific patch of ground appointed for the purpose, the enemies you need to fight simply won’t appear. Even though this system is usually rather unobtrusive, having to fight a certain number of enemies in order to progress through one previously locked door after another makes the game feel like an exercise in endurance, interspersed with moments of levity that renew your commitment to continuing. ‚ Both video and audio could best be described as “serviceable.” There’s nothing here that will make you cringe (perhaps because Vicious Cycle intentionally kept the level design fairly simple, so as not to tax the engine), but only the PS3’s higher resolution saves the game from occupying last-gen Xbox visual territory.
Most of the game’s boss fights are disappointingly simple and brief, often relying on waves of “minions” to flesh out the central confrontations. However, I found myself anticipating them in a way that I hadn’t since I played No More Heroes–the cutscenes preceding and following the fights themselves are that entertaining. The showdown with Alto Stratus, a quintessential JRPG boss, is particularly delicious (check out the screenshots above for a glimpse).
When you finish Eat Lead’s campaign, you’ve seen all there is to see: neither online nor offline multiplayer makes an appearance here, and there’s nothing to collect or upgrade. Unsurprisingly, the game pokes fun at its own simplicity; one loading screen blurb notes, “If you are having difficulty interrogating characters, that’s because the game has no interrogation feature.” Similarly, Hazard remarks “I wish I could throw grenades back,” when confronted with an incoming explosive projectile. Of course, not only can he not throw them back, he just can’t throw them, period. Making fun of these absent abilities is nice, but actually having the abilities might be nicer. Eat Lead’s $49.99 price tag reflects its rather “budget” features package.
Croteam’s Serious Sam series (try saying that five times in quick succession) succeeded in creating a pastiche of other shooters which also passed muster as an enjoyable experience in its own right. Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard does the former considerably better than even Serious Sam did, but the total package more closely resembles Serious Sam’s underwhelming PC knock-off, Will Rock. If you’re willing to tolerate forgettable action in exchange for the privilege of laughing along with Vicious Cycle, Eat Lead is worth a future trip to the bargain bin; otherwise, you might be wise to stick with the games which serve as the fodder for Eat Lead’s satire. The credits boldly proclaim, “Matt Hazard will be back,” and despite the rough patches marring his inaugural effort, I’ll be waiting to welcome him with open arms. I just hope he remembers to bring the exciting action with him next time. After all, you know what they say: “Gameplay is king.” If anyone understands the wisdom of hailing the king, it should be Vicious Cycle. Here’s hoping that they nail it next time around.