I have no problems with video games which are parodies of video games. One of my favorite titles in the world is the original SERIOUS SAM, which I consider a landmark not only in wacky, comic imagination but in game design as well. Thus, I could not pass up the opportunity to scope out this more recent shooter parody title EAT LEAD: THE RETURN OF MATT HAZARD. Having heard little good about it, I approached it with some skepticism, but reading about the cheap price tag and the number of parodies on display justified my investment. I'm wondering now if I made the right choice.
The story is a meta-game parody. Matt Hazard is a fictional video game hero who had a hot career during the 80's starring in 2-D shooters, hit the high point of his career in a bestselling FPS game, but has been trying to recapture his former glory. In the world of his latest video game, an espionage shooter set in Japan, his program is tampered with and Hazard finds himself in a peculiar position. Enemies from his older games start appearing out of nowhere and they're all determined to kill him. Apparently someone from the programming world has it in for Matt Hazard and wants him dead, having hacked his newest game and sending in all his opponents from his past games to give Matt the biggest challenge of his life. With the help a friendly AI, Matt must navigate the digital world jumping from video game to video game in an attempt to escape from this virtual trap and prove, that despite his age, he's still the baddest digital soldier around.
The story sounds like a predecessor to the animated film WRECK-IT RALPH, and in that regard, it's a cute concept. But the comedy more often than not falls kind of flat. The jokes are underplayed, never going far enough to be flat out hilarious. There are some cute references like appearances from characters called Master Chef and Captain Carpenter (who is a parody of Mario). But most of the game relies on poking fun at video game stereotypes, courtesy of sarcastic commentary by Hazard himself (who's voice can be hard to hear at time). Some jokes are horribly predictable, like bystanders reprimanding Hazard for spouting out his one-liner "It's Hazard Time!" again and again. Another problem I have with the game's humorous angle is the protagonist himself. If it isn't clear from the description, Matt Hazard is clearly a parody of Duke Nukem, who was developed of action heroes and video game stereotypes from the 80's. That means that effectively the protagonist is a parody of a parody. What sense does that make? It would be like if somebody tried to make fun of STAR WARS by making a spoof of SPACEBALLS. The classic parody has already been done. What need is there to compound the comedy? You would only do such a thing if you were convinced that your spoof will be superior to the original spoof. But alas, the character of Matt Hazard is in no way superior to Duke Nukem; quite the opposite actually.
The game is a run and cover shoot em up in the vein of GEARS OF WAR and its successors. As Matt Hazard, you will gun down an assortment of enemy soldiers, monsters, zombies, Wolfenstein 3-D rejects and robots across 8 levels. There's a cover system here borrowed from GEARS OF WAR, but enhanced a little so you can quickly (or relatively quickly) leap from cover to cover point. While this sounds like a good setup, the gameplay is about a simple a shooter as you can imagine. "Kill Everything that Moves." The game even makes fun of that concept by giving it you as a universal objective. However, making fun of a contrived video game trope does not justify building an entire game around that contrived trope. Unfortunately, as a game MATT HAZARD brings nothing new to the formula. Most of the enemies you fight are bland stereotypes like Russian soldiers and cowboys, and almost all of them can be killed with a well placed head shot. The game basically devolves into killing everything in one room, running to the next room and doing the same again 10 times over until the level ends with very little variation. It's as basic as can be and gets old fast.
What bugs me about the gameplay is just how underwhelming it is. The cover shows an awesome illustration of the titular character armed to the teeth with dual chainguns, swathed in bullet belts, looking like the most powerful badass in the history of macho video game heroes. Yet nothing in the actual game evokes any of this insanity. The weapons you pick up are painfully generic (pistol, shotgun, machine gun, etc.) and lack a sense of impact thanks to subpar sound design. Out of all the weapons available, I found the dual machine guns to look the coolest. But they're far from the most useful due to a low clip size and a wildly inaccurate target box. Most of the time, I was just relying on the weak pistol for headshots. The image of sneaking between cover, sniping weak enemies from afar is a far cry from the chaingun toting badass the cover art advertises.
Then there are the boss fights. Ever since the post-HALO age of shooters, bosses seem to be an increasingly low priority on the developers checklist. I remember back in the days of 16 bit schmups and even classic FPS games like DOOM, QUAKE and BLOOD, boss fights were an absolute joy to encounter. Remember the multitude of ginormous enemies you would encounter in the classic CONTRA and METAL SLUG titles? Remember the chill you got upon laying eyes upon the mammoth Cyber Demon for the first time? Or the sense of awe you felt when you first encountered that enormous lava monster in the QUAKE? There's a lot of reference points for good boss fights in both 3rd person and FPS titles. However MATT HAZARD, coming in the age of post-HALO, post-GEARS OF WAR shooters , eschews the opportunity to return to the glory days in favor of infuriatingly tedious, puzzle based battles which rely shockingly little on shooting.
For example, one fight has Matt squaring off against a giant sea monster aboard a pirate ship. A good shooter would give you the brutal satisfaction of tearing into the main body of the beast with every weapon you have at your disposal. Instead you don't even get to see the main body of the monster; the game has shooting its tentacles for a majority of the battle. How is fending off a bunch of small tentacles supposed to make for an epic boss fight? To make matters worse, you have to constantly wait until the fins expose their weak point before you can blast em. This is tedious, requiring a lots of running around and waiting. The camera is so ill positioned during this battle, you'll constantly be killed by tentacles slapping you from off screen, and then get sent back to the beginning of the fight wherein you'll have to do more running in circles and waiting.
Then there's the final boss battle. I won't spoil the details here, but I will say that it manages to be both maddening and unsatisfying at the same time. If it was intended as a joke, it was in poor taste.
Still, there is some entertainment to be had here. At the end, things finally gel together a little bit more. There's more weapons, interesting enemies that pop up near the end of the game. My favorite opponent is the WOLFENSTEIN 3-D Nazi soldier 2-D cutout which literally dodges bullets by turning sideways so it disappears from the 3-D environment. There's one particular boss battle against a villain modeled off JRPG characters, which is a charming and unexpected cameo and actually hits a good comedic note. Combine this with the increased difficulty level, and the shootouts do become more exciting. The problem is all this good stuff happens near the tail end of the game, and most players will have tuned out by then.
The graphics are nothing extraordinary. The models for Hazard and his enemies are actually quite good (even though Hazards running animation looks a little stilted). The backgrounds and environments Hazard fights in fare significantly worse. The biggest problem here is the art design...its as bland as can be. Across the game, Hazard will shoot out in such exciting places as an old warehouse, another old warehouse and an office building under construction complete with scaffolding and piles of plywood. If this was supposed to be an ironic contrast to Hazards semi-heroic quest, it doesn't really work. I also don't like the would be impact and blood effects are replaced by ugly, blue pixelated distortions. I understand its supposed to be a joke, but it looks real cheap and unattractive.
The audio is not much better. The sound of Hazards gunfire are woefully subdued, as are the sounds of his melee slaps. The voicework is slightly better. Will Arnett and Neil Patrick Harris are decent as Hazard and his archenemy respectively. Everyone else is either generic or average. The soundtrack is nothing to write home about. Hazards heavy metal influenced main theme is the standout, however it loops far too often.
I really wanted to like RETURN OF MATT HAZARD. I love the concept of a down on his luck, retired video game hero returning to endure all his challenges from the the 8, 16 bit and 32 eras respectively. It would be a great way to parody the last 25 years of gaming. Alas, the game just does not do enough with the concept. The bland, GEARS OF WAR inspired combat does no justice to classic material they're parodying, and the uninspired game design and writing never amounts to anything to remember. The game has certainly studied its source material, but it doesn't seem to understand the fun nature of it. Unlike the classics its parodying, MATT HAZARD is just a rock that will most likely be forgotten with the passage of time.