Thursday, March 5, 2009

Eat Lead: the Return of Matt Hazzard

I picked up a copy of Eat Lead on release day after watching a couple of gameplay videos. The videos were hilarious, showing really funny parodies of a couple of gaming genres. On the promise of wit and amusement, I bought it.

When I think of funny games, I immediately think of Conker's Bad Fur Day. A tight, playable platformer married to a running string of shit jokes and sexual innuendo. I literally laughed my way through the entire game.

Eat Lead, not so much. It is amusing, when you get to the custcenes. And it does have its share of cute details (like the crates labeled "Crate #3 Low Cover") scattered throughout the levels. But, ultimately, it's a mediocre third-person shooter mashed up with occasional retrogaming parodies an in-jokes.

The thing that kills it is the gameplay. It's based on the trendy take-cover then peek-and-shoot mechanic, made popular in Gears of War and Rainbow Six: Vegas. But, while it's crisp and intuitive in those examples, it's mushy and frustrating in Eat Lead. There's no way to win if you don't use the cover system, but by god you'll wish there were every time you have to duck behind a box.

Equally annoying for what should be a light-hearted adventure with a player character who knows he's in a video game is that you can only carry two weapons. You want a new gun, you'll have to drop one. It seems like they easily could have gotten about fifty good jokes out of the old "where does he keep all that?" questions. And you never have enough ammo for those weapons you like. As a result, you're forced to pick up whatever piece of shit--including squirt guns--the current batch of enemies is wielding. This becomes especially irksome during boss battles. It doesn't help that most of the guns suck.

All of the enemies are roughly the same difficulty, until you get pretty far into the game, when they become impossible to beat with any weapons you've encountered before. Furthermore, they all exhibit nearly identical behaviors. They foolishly run around pointlessly, occasionally dodging behind nearby cover. The game also has an annoying habit of spawning bad guys behind you in the middle of large firefights, leaving you to fight with the cover to detach from the wall and protect your back.

And then there's the slowdown. Insufferable framerate drops in the middle of battle the moment you encounter the slightest whiff of smoke, flame, or any other particle effect. It's the PS3 for god's sake, and it's not as if we're talking about breathtaking graphics here. Most of the level geometry is barely above Goldeneye quality. Although I'm sure that if pressed, the developers would claim that the slowdown is present ironically.

The opening credits inform us that Eat Lead is built on something called the Vicious Engine. If I were looking to license a cross-platform engine, this would not be it. This game simply does not look modern or professional. It looks like either a hobbyist engine (think Torque) or a low-cost last-gen engine hastily ported forward. I've gotten better performance in Java using JMonkeyEngine, and if I were going to build a commercial 3D game, I'd take just about anything else.

I'd forgive all of this if I were laughing the whole time, but I wasn't. The cutscenes are witty and poke fun at all the obvious tropes. But only the obvious ones, making the same jokes I've heard on the forums since 2000.

And none of the wit makes it into the gameplay. You slog through long, boring, repetitive, derivative lengths of level to be rewarded with thirty seconds of mildly amusing dialog. The game fails utterly as humor and entirely as satire.

Basically, it feels like the developers thought "Oh, this game isn't serious. What's the point in polishing to make it fun?" It's the awkward repartee of a socially-retarded pre-teen who squanders every beautiful setup with "that's what she said." It emulates the cliches instead of parodying them.

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