Thursday, August 16, 2012

Eat Lead review

I recently picked up some old games I missed first time, including Matt Hazard - or rather, Eat Lead: The Return Of Matt Hazard, to give it it's full title. While the reviews I read did not speak too highly of it, I thought it looked like a game with a sense of humour, which is exactly what I wanted.

It goes without saying that humour is subjective, so I can only speak for myself when I say that I found Eat Lead to be entertaining. The game is very self-aware - while it doesn't exactly break the fourth wall, Matt Hazard knows he's playing a videogame, and most of the humour might be considered "in-jokes" - at one point Matt visits a familiar looking carpenter in a factory that produces all the exploding barrels used in videogames, to give an example.

You might not think it very witty, or you might appreciate the nod to the fact that so many games try to hard to be so realistic and to justify every little detail, when the truth is we all know none of this is real, it's just bright lights dancing across a screen for our entertainment. Personally, I thinks it's nice to see a game that remembers why we're all here: to have fun.

And that's exactly what Eat Lead tries to do, by taking advantage of this self awareness to liberate itself from some of the rules that modern videogames impose on themselves. Zombies battle alongside space marines and Russian soldiers in seedy night clubs as you gun them down with super-soakers and plasma pistols. You might be in a Japanese restaurant one minute, then walk through a door and find yourself in a Soviet nuclear missile silo. Saloon doors open in mid-air to admit gunslinging cowboys while Nazi "Waferthin" troops seems to appear out of nowhere as their 2D sprites turn to face the camera.

You will have noticed that I said "tries". Unfortunately Eat Lead's gameplay is mediocre at best. It's a basic cover-based third person shooter, and never anything more. The weapons aren't particularly satisfying to use, and sadly the most unique weapon in the game was a rifle that could be charged up for a more powerful shot. There's a few special abilities and temporary power-ups, but they don't really add anything to the game. What's worse, for some reason I found aiming very hard to do, at least at speed; achieving headshots at distant targets hiding behind cover with a humble pistol was far easier than trying to hit an exposed enemy right in front of you with an assault rifle if that enemy wasn't standing completely still.

Strangely, despite the mediocre gunplay, Eat Lead has the best implementation of a cover system that I've seen. It's quick and easy to move between and around cover without exposing yourself - something that's not true of some high-profile big-budget third person shooters I've played recently - and there's even a streamlined, if not really necessary, "point-and-click" cover system for advancing into cover. What's more, this is the only game I've ever played where you could smoothly look or aim all the way around your position in cover without the camera fighting you, which is a very nice feature.

While enemies are visually interesting, there's very little different between them in game terms. Zombies spring up where normal enemies die, Nazis disappear by turning away from the camera after taking a few rounds and can't be killed until they turn back, space marines are very resilient, fembots have to be finished off up-close. That's about it. Actual level design doesn't vary much either, as you can imagine it can all get a little repetitive. It's a shame that the same creativity that went into the writing wasn't applied to the actual game design.

Despite these issues, I actually found the story and characters entertaining enough to keep me playing all the way through. Little moments kept things interesting, like a character from a different type of game who spoke with speech bubbles that Matt has to click on to advance through, or a part when I genuinely wasn't sure if the game had glitched or not (it hadn't). Not wanting to spoil anything, but... gunning down developers who didn't know how to play their own game? Genius!

In the end I've settled on a 6/10. If the controls had been just a little better, or the gameplay just a little more creative, I might have given it a higher score. Unfortunately it takes more than a sense of humour to make a good game.

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