I've covered the Xbox 360 since the console's launch and waded through more passable first- and third-person shooters than I can even really remember anymore. Even parts of seminal titles like Halo 3 or Gears of War can fade into a haze of sameness, simply due to the sheer glut of imitators on the market. It can get a little hard to take the endless cavalcade of grunting heavily armored mercenaries, space or otherwise, a little seriously when you get beyond the icons. It is for that reason that Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard significantly piques my interest.
This is how I imagine Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard was conceived. Some people realized that they should make a third-person shooter with cover mechanics and all that other fun stuff that sells by the bushel on the 360. This same group of people felt the sort of weary, soul-crushing ennui that I feel whenever a copy of something like Haze slides across my desk, marked "for review." These individuals simply couldn't bring themselves to make another ridiculous, blandly awful game like that. Then they had another thought: Maybe they could have fun with just how ridiculously samey 360 shooters were getting. They'd do all of the clichés that fans were comfortable with, but do them in an ironic, funny, tongue-in-cheek way that let the studio make money without having to bore themselves senseless with gritty nonsense for two years.
Who stars in a shooter that embraces shooter clichés purely for the sake of mocking them? This is how I imagine the character of Matt Hazard was dreamed up. If you've been following Eat Lead's truly clever marketing campaign, then you know that its premise calls for Matt Hazard to be one of the greatest video stars ever, exploding into popularity in the 8-bit '80s and only falling into obscurity after a chain of bad titles around the turn of the century. Vicious Cycle's marketing for Eat Lead has dreamed up an entire false history of Matt Hazard's rise and fall as a video game star, everything from sprites of his "original" titles to box art for failures like his inevitable Mario Kart rip-off kiddie racing title.
Eat Lead is the story of what happens when Matt is "called up" to star in a next-gen blowout comeback title after a six-year absence following a truly disastrous game. The plot just gets more silly and meta from there, as it becomes obvious that Matt's comeback title is a trap that someone keeps reprogramming on the fly in hopes of killing (deleting?) him once and for all. Matt's only ally as he tries to survive the unpredictably dangerous levels of his own game is a woman called "QA" (har har) from the real world who communicates with him by voice.
The gameplay relies on an appreciation of the "meta" levels of the story to be entertaining. If you viewed the Eat Lead demo purely as a standalone shooter, judging only the level design and controls, it's entirely acceptable but not really special. Perhaps the game it most strongly reminded me of was The Punisher, a licensed 3-D shooter that was itself a creature of pure formula and was released some years ago on the Xbox. Of course, Eat Lead is updated with mechanics like Gears of War-style cover, but otherwise, much of the game's goal is simply to blow away bad guys and then collect their (often very wacky) weapons for later use against other foes. Occasionally, you fight enemies, and there are some recurring characters among the bosses. A nice touch that livens up the non-stop action is purely in the graphics. Where most games would have splatters of gore falling all over the place, Eat Lead depicts the computer-generated bad guys being blown apart into their representations of their component data. Given that otherwise the characters are animated in all seriousness, this one ridiculous touch can surprise and amuse long after it should not have been able to.
Something else amusing about the early demo had to do with the plot. Of course, the demo is the first 20 minutes of the game, and so it begins with a scene out of virtually any modern crime-drenched shooter (and, in fact, I think I played through it at one point in The Punisher). Matt Hazard is the grim badass, played quite cleverly by Will Arnett, visiting a picturesque butcher's shop that is a front for a gang. Matt immediately gets into cover-fire shenanigans with the butcher mafia bad guys, until he also begins fighting zombies from a past Resident Evil-like game, and then also cowboys from a previous Western-themed adventure. Then he fights them all at once! The scene is gloriously stupid, and yet startling, because uncreative shooters present situations just as idiotic with no sense of irony all the time. At least Eat Lead lets you collect cowboy six-shooters with which to shoot the zombies. At the end of the demo, the recurring mid-boss type character (sadly, Disgaea beat them to just naming him Mid-Boss) appears, but Vicious Cycle refused to let us see the battle.
Likewise, Vicious Cycle refused to say much about the game's overall plot, which seems to concern the maker of Matt's latest adventure actually being out to destroy him. The CEO of the new company is played by Neil Patrick Harris, the genius of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," which makes me faintly suspect that CEO Wallace Wellesley might just be the bad guy. If so, then it seems safe to surmise that much of the game's future levels will feature the same straightforward action gameplay set in completely absurd settings. The marketing has carefully outlined the contents of the first "10" Matt Hazard titles, and the events of the demo directly reference three of them.
Most of Eat Lead's audio experience is the voice acting, which is all amusing enough, although the script is at points a little stiff and cornball, even given the game's thoroughly silly premise. As in most modern shooters, there's not a lot in the way of memorable music. The visuals are interesting in that the first word that comes to mind for them is "generic." They are neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad by 360 standards, and really, that's pretty much how a game like Eat Lead would need to look to carry off its premise. Despite a lack of true visual razzle-dazzle, there's nothing about the game's presentation that veers into the embarrassing, like clipping or gliding errors. You can always clearly tell what objects you can take cover behind, roughly how damaged (and ready to break) they are, and the hitboxes for Matt firing at enemies and vice versa are completely reasonable. You may not find Eat Lead to be brilliant, but it will definitely be solidly playable.
The word that comes to mind for characterizing Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard is "fun," if in a sort of beer and pretzels fashion. Nothing about the gameplay is fresh or subversive, and it is only really the narrative that mocks current and past video game clichés on a regular basis. The gameplay seems couched to be as broad and accessible as possible. Eat Lead is not wicked satire of "The Daily Show" variety, but more the dopey frat boy spoof comedy of an "Airplane" or "Top Secret!" movie. Matt Hazard himself is even supposed to be a parody of a specific character, who Vicious Cycle alleges is not Duke Nukem but actually some sort of film character they won't name for fear of lawsuits. Me, I look at the guy and see Duke Nukem, but that may just be my problem. A guy like Duke is going to seem like a joke in his next game, as mired in '90s clichés as he is, unless it's some sort of masterpiece of game programming. What Duke Nukem Forever is more likely to come off as, is Eat Lead with all of the funny bits taken out. Given my druthers, I would rather play Eat Lead.
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