Full of unrealized potential, Eat Lead disappoints on many fronts
Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard is a game that should have been better. Despite excellent voice talent, a (mostly) humorous script, and writers who are obviously passionate about games, Eat Lead is a jangled mess of a game that falls victim to many of the foibles and clichés it seeks to parody.
Eat Lead focuses on the latest exploits of 80’s video game superstar, Matt Hazard. Once the hottest commodity in the video game world, Hazard has faded into relative obscurity, buoyed only by a lifetime contract with Marathon Software. However, the megalomaniacal CEO of Marathon has a bone to pick with Hazard: as a kid, he could never beat any of Hazard’s games. Hell-bent on eradicating Hazard from the face of video games, he and his minions hack into the Marathon servers, turn the safety off, and throw the kitchen sink at our hapless hero.
What ensues is a tongue-in-cheek parody of Hazard’s previous outings, each a thinly-veiled reference to popular games of the 90’s and today. Through it all, Hazard is assisted by a foxy holographic protector named QA (an obvious homage to Cortana from the Halo series), who hacks in power-ups and exits, while the malevolent programmers toss in spawning enemies to keep Hazard occupied.
The concept sounds brilliant on paper, seemingly bursting with potential. Unfortunately, aside from the occasional clever self-aware quip, Eat Lead fails to deliver in almost every capacity.
Perhaps the biggest issue with Eat Lead is that, while the writing is obviously driven by a conscious awareness of the ridiculous conventions gamers have tolerated over the years, the level design and gameplay elements are not equal to the task. The end result is a game that suffers from many of the issues it tries to ridicule.
The level design is incredibly poor, with bland and uninteresting takes on common FPS settings, such as warehouses, mansions, big-ass boats, nightclubs, and even the Wild West. While such varied scenery could have made for a fresh experience, the duck-and-cover gameplay remains largely unchanged throughout, delivering a repetitive experience that rarely takes advantage of the locale.
This lack of direction is further exacerbated by the kitchen-sink quality of the enemy encounters, as the enemies which spawn rarely have any real connection with the setting. The result is a mishmash of enemy types bombarding the player during each level in a manner that frankly feels sloppy. While some of the enemies are interesting, such as the paper-thin 2D sprites harkening back to the days of Wolfenstein 3D, other characters suffer from a complete lack of personality. What’s more frustrating is that some enemy types are weak against a particular weapon, but with the ability to only carry two weapons at once, you will often find yourself caught with the wrong tool for the job.
Another sloppy design element is the enemy spawn system. While yes, random spawning was a staple of the 1990’s, here it is employed ad nauseum, often to an unfair effect. Enemies may spawn in all corners of a room, leaving the player disoriented and unable to find appropriate cover before being mercilessly gunned down, even on the easier difficulty levels. Other areas will keep respawning wave after wave of enemy until you kill a magic number that opens the door to the next area. A one-off parody of this mechanic may have worked, but when the whole game consists of this haphazard ambush mentality, you soon get the feeling that the joke may be on us.
The enemy AI is fairly unsophisticated, with encounters drawing difficulty from the sheer number of enemies rather than their intelligence. While they do use cover, they often expose themselves for an insane amount of time, letting you cap them with a headshot with relative ease. While they will occasionally toss a grenade your direction or destroy your cover, their aim is terrible, rarely penalizing you for taking time to line up your shot.
The boss battles fare a bit better, relying on different mechanics to gain the upper hand. But, it’s not all roses. Some of the battles rely on rather unforgiving quick-time events that just feel rote. And, the most frustrating battle, reminiscent of the first boss in God of War, suffers from a janky camera that prevents you from seeing cheap shots that lead to one-hit kills. But, other fights, such as a skirmish with a JRPG boss provides a few moments of brilliance that makes up for an otherwise bland battle.
One positive aspect of Eat Lead’s design, however, is a pretty nifty cover-to-cover mechanic, which allows you to tag an embankment in front of you. With the press of a button, Hazard will leap from his current position, and take up cover at the next. However, during encounters with some of the more formidable enemies, Hazard’s rather slow transition animations fail to keep him safe. As a result, it’s often easier to just hold down the run button and do it yourself.
The armory is also rather uninspired, ranging from simple pistols, to automatics, to plasma weapons. Perhaps the most interesting inclusion is water pistols, but they are only really effective against one enemy type, which undercuts their utility. Ultimately, though, the weapons all handle pretty much the same. While their accuracy varies in blind-fire mode, they all become deadly accurate when aimed, even at long range. Each weapon can be enhanced by a temporary elemental power-up, but headshots are so effective that the power-ups have little practical utility.
Graphically, Eat Lead is a colossal disappointment. While Hazard himself looks fairly decent, the remainder of the characters suffer from low-polygon counts and extremely stiff and wooden animation that would not have been acceptable fifteen years ago.
The environments are also preposterously amateurish. While one cannot criticize the simplicity of the brief Wolfenstein section of the game, the other environments are inexplicably underdeveloped, with blocky surfaces, low-res textures, and non-existent lighting. Calling Eat Lead’s graphics mediocre would be far too kind… this game is not even on par with last-generation standards.
The sound is a mixed bag. Will Arnett, who will be familiar to fans as G.O.B. Bluth from Arrested Development, provides the voice of Matt Hazard. Arnett does a very capable job, clearly understanding the throwaway humor of the dialogue. He is backed by a mostly excellent cast of supporting characters, including a pitch-perfect Arnold Schwarzenegger sound-alike who manages to evoke a few laughs. The other notable voice talent is Neil Patrick Harris, who turns in a scenery-chewing performance that unfortunately fails to hit its mark.
However, while the voice acting is generally good, the remainder of the sound design is as bland as the graphics. The weapons fail to pack a punch, and the music is extremely repetitive, offering the same rock and roll riff every time Hazard encounters a batch of enemies. There are a few incidental tracks here and there that fit the mood of the levels, but they are far too brief, and often yield to the aforementioned combat riff.
Ultimately, it’s disappointing to see so much potential squandered. While Matt Hazard was supposedly a star of 1980’s platformers, there is nary a side-scrolling section to be found, which seems like an obvious omission. Furthermore, the illusion of a game-within-a-game is underdeveloped, as everything is rendered in the same style, even when Hazard launches a “real world” assault on Marathon headquarters.
It would have been truly great to see the Neil Patrick Harris moments filmed in FMV on practical sets instead of using the in-game engine. As an extension, it might have been a riot to see Marathon’s offices and workers rendered in digitized graphics, maybe even taking on the characteristics of a rail shooter.
This unrealized potential pervades the entire game, and ultimately, that is why Eat Lead fails. This game is obviously crafted with the veteran player in mind, yet the audience for a game of this nature is one that will immediately see the squandered opportunities to fully take advantage of the source material.
For those with a sense of nostalgia for the games of the 1990’s, Eat Lead may be worth a rent. Likewise, achievement whores will probably find Eat Lead worth the six-hour playthrough, as 800+ points can be earned with relatively little effort. However, for the remainder of the gaming demographic, Eat Lead is tough to recommend.