Last year, the gaming world was introduced to Matt Hazard, a new video game character who was meant to be a clichéd mixture of old 1980s and '90s action heroes from film and TV. His game, Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, was a parody of gaming stereotypes that the industry has seen in its short 30-year history. The game referenced and made fun of anything possible, from game tutorials to early first-person shooters to Japanese RPGs to the industry itself. Most gamers and critics appreciated the humor and high production values, but few felt that the gameplay matched the developer's ambitions to make a funny but fun triple-A third-person shooter. Fast-forward to less than a year later, and we now have the second game from the fictional video game character. Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond arrives in both a different genre and a different medium than before. In a way, this is probably for the best, as the sequel makes for a better overall game.
The premise of Blood Bath and Beyond is a little more "out there" than what was seen in the first title. Six months have passed since Eat Lead hit stores, and General Neutronov, your arch-nemesis from a previous game series, has been let loose in the Marathon Software game servers. By the time you discover his presence, he has kidnapped your old 8-bit self to ensure that you'll never exist. Your job is to go through the various games in the server to save yourself and capture Neutronov before he causes any more damage.
Unlike Eat Lead, this game changes genres from a third-person shooter to a side-scrolling one. Just like a few of the classics from this genre, the game asks you to defeat enemies as they come at you from either the top, bottom, left or right sides of the screen. You have full control of where you shoot, as opposed to sticking with eight fixed directions so hitting enemies or objects at all angles is no problem. As a bonus, you also have the ability to shoot at enemies in the background, fully taking advantage of the 3-D system fixed with a 2-D perspective.
Blood Bath and Beyond offers three different modes, though two are the same and the other isn't unlocked until you complete the game. You have the main Story mode, which takes you through all eight chapters in order, either solo or in co-op with the second player taking control of Matt's sidekick, Dexter Dare. Quick Play mode lets you replay any of the eight chapters you choose with the same rules as found in Story mode. Finally, you have the chance to play the Lunar Lander sequence again after you beat the game. The course never changes from what was found in Story mode, but you have infinite lives to tackle it perfectly.
One of the brightest spots of the previous title was the humor that it provided. At every opportunity, Eat Lead had the uncanny ability to mock classic games, game mechanics, itself, and the industry at large. The smaller budget for this XBLA title doesn't prevent it from providing more humor on subjects that it didn't get to lampoon the last time. Blood Bath and Beyond actually starts out by making fun of its prequel becoming bargain bin fodder six months after its initial release, and it also pokes fun at the current game for resorting to voice-less cut scenes because of a reduced budget.
Get past the jokes about itself and the industry, and you get to see homages to some games that it didn't touch on last time. The cruise ship you're on, for example, quickly feels like it's a mobile version of BioShock's Rapture thanks to the architecture, flooding and hulking giants in diving suits. Super Mario Bros. is also referenced in one level, which features pipes and exclamation blocks. There's even an allusion to the old NES; one type of dropped items looks like old NES cartridges from unlicensed third-party publishers. There are a few other homages and touches that the game has in store, and while mentioning them all would spoil the game, it's safe to say that those with keen eyes and some knowledge of recent titles will appreciate what's here.
The gameplay accompanies the humor rather well. Like the jokes, the gameplay hinges on older, more popular titles and touches on what made side-scrolling shooting games so memorable. Blood Bath and Beyond feels most inspired by Metal Slug, and it shows in the core game features. You always have unlimited rifle ammo, but power-ups like shotgun fire, flamethrowers and rockets have a limited ammo count. The game also uses melee attacks whenever enemies are close, giving you a chance to preserve some ammo when possible. The slow-motion mechanic of the previous game has been replaced with one that extends the firepower of your guns either through longer range, faster firing rates or bullet spreading.
The real inspiration comes with the game's difficulty. In short, it's tough. Even on the easiest difficulty level, you'll be punished with numerous enemies coming from all sides and bullets flying everywhere. You have an energy meter, but it doesn't seem to help against some enemies, who are still lethal with one hit. The presence of a few traps will certainly trip up players who didn't expect them. The three difficulty levels differ with both the number of lives the player begins with and the number of continues given. The easiest level gives you infinite continues, while the hardest barely gives you any. There is a little reprieve, as you get to save the game after every level, but get used to seeing the continue prompt over and over again until you get the levels memorized.
All of this praise does come with a few criticisms that are hard to ignore. For one, the game is pretty short. On the easiest difficulty, Blood Bath and Beyond can last between two and three hours. The hardest level doubles that, but you still come up with a five-hour game at the most. Shooting fans won't mind, but with the recent glut of downloadable games bringing gameplay lengths close to double digits, this feels a bit on the short side, especially since two of the three modes don't differ all that much. The problem is alleviated with co-op play, but that's only available locally. No online co-op really hurts the title, as XBLA games like Castle Crashers, Contra and Metal Slug 3 have proven the online experience is just as fun as an offline one. Finally, the difficulty level can hinder some people. The somewhat punishing gameplay will thrill gamers who live for titles like this, but it certainly isn't for everyone. More casual gamers will be turned off, especially those who thought the previous title was a breeze to get through. It's not really a negative, per se, but those who are looking for a pushover of an arcade title have been warned.
The controls are spot-on for a title like this, thanks to their overall simplicity. The left stick handles movement while the A button makes Matt jump and the X button makes him shoot. The right trigger makes him throw grenades, while the left trigger makes him face into the background to kill enemies. Either bumper makes him stand still to perform 360-degree aiming. The key for games like this is responsiveness, and the title doesn't disappoint in that regard. There's no time during the main shooting sequences when the game feels sluggish or unresponsive, whether it comes to jumping over pits or trying to aim at someone who's shooting above your normal line of sight. Even the background shooting seems fine, though an option to shoot into the foreground would've also been nice, since you also have enemies coming in from that plane.
The only exception to this statement comes during the game's lunar lander sequence before the final level. Gravity differences aside, this is one area where the controls make you feel like you barely have any control of your craft. Despite there being a practice sequence before the real event happens, you never feel comfortable with the vehicle, and you end up hating it even more as you keep getting hit by gunfire or crashing over and over again. Tightening up the controls here would have made this element of the game perfect, but as it stands, you'll wish that this was a pure shooting level instead of the diversion it was meant to be.
Graphically, Blood Bath and Beyond looks mighty impressive. The 3-D graphic renders work well with the 2-D viewpoint. Characters look good, and despite their size, there's plenty of detail to be found on enemies and both Matt and Dexter. The animations are better than expected, especially the ragdoll effect, which can get outrageous at times but feels in place with the rest of the game. The environments are also good, and the sense of depth is amazing though you won't get to appreciate this until you start shooting into the backgrounds and seeing enemies fall.
If there's anything that really stands out, it would be the lighting and particle effects. The use of lighting alone to add flair to the levels is great, though the use of the flashlight in the Portal-inspired level ends up being the most breathtaking of all. The explosions and use of blood, albeit gratuitous, gives off that same feeling of awe when it occurs amidst a large wave of enemies and gunfire. Interestingly enough, the blood becomes a negative aspect of the graphics whenever large amounts cover the screen as a result of bodies flying toward it. The effect is nice, but because it doesn't leave right away, it quickly transforms into a hindrance when things get hectic.
Sound was a strong point for the first game, and while it isn't as pronounced here, it still manages to make a positive impact on the title. The sound effects are just as good as the last title, and even though this is now a side-scrolling game, the title still employs Dolby Digital sound. The richness of the sound doesn't make an impact until you get bodies and body parts flying at your screen, but once it does, it makes the experience a better one. The music is nice and bombastic and filled with new tunes. Unlike the last game, it doesn't feel like musical scores were repeating over and over again, but it also doesn't feel like they're incorporating old and new styles of music either. There are voices in the game but not for the cut scenes. Interestingly enough, the voice actors for both Matt Hazard and Dexter Dare are different, but they do a good job of sounding like the originals. The quips they say will repeat a bit, especially bits about low health meters and continuing, but they remain funny even if the one-liners toward bosses are meant to be cheesy.
Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond's short length and lack of online co-op are only amplified by its price tag. These faults could be overlooked if the price were $10, but at $15, those two aspects become detrimental to the game. If you can look past that, though, you'll find a title that combines gaming humor and modern looks and sound with classic gameplay from the great shooters of yesteryear. Overall, side-scrolling shooting fans and those with a passing interest will be pleased at the results of this game, as will fans of Eat Lead who aren't afraid of something a little tougher. With something this good, gamers wouldn't mind seeing the parody action hero in another downloadable game like this somewhere down the road.
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