MadWorld is a terrific idea. From a distance, it looks like an amazing, unique project, full of creativity. But the closer you get to it, and the more time you spend working your way through its levels, MadWorld loses a lot of its charm, quickly becoming a slow-paced brawler that shows you all of its best tricks in the first ten minutes. Everything else, from the game's unique art style to its rampant use of blood and cursing, feels like a sleight-of-hand trick designed to make you think the game is more than it really is. If you can keep up the suspension of disbelief, MadWorld is probably pretty amazing. But after hearing the announcers repeat the same handful of phrases again and again for the first hour, and seeing the same death animations applied to multiple levels and multiple opponents, all I could see was the basic, repetitive fighting underneath MadWorld's thick layer of style.
The game takes place inside some sort of futuristic terrorist-run killing game show known as DeathWatch, and it's sort of like The Running Man or Smash TV. The organizers of the game have cut off access to a large island in a big city and given everyone some sort of virus. The virus vaccine is given to people who agree to join the game by killing one of their fellow citizens. You play as a tough guy named Jack, who, at first, appears to be nothing more than a contestant. But as you play, you'll discover his true motives for being on the island and in the game. The story is loosely told between levels, and it's just enough to provide a point to all this madness.
MadWorld is level-based, and most of the levels are relatively open. You can run around anywhere and beat up standard enemies to your heart's content. But the levels progress via your points total. So as you earn points for taking out enemies, you'll earn additional weapons, health recovery items, minigames that can be played for more points, and eventually, the boss battle. The control in MadWorld is effective, using Nunchuk shaking to avoid incoming attacks and Wii Remote shaking to pull off different attacks or toss enemies onto various death-dealing contraptions.
You'll earn more points for eliminating enemies with combos, but there's more to the combat than just using your fists. The combos let you take tires or other similarly hoop-like items and ring a guy to immobilize him. Then, you might want to jab one or more street signs through his neck. And to finish him off, you might want to throw him in a burning garbage barrel, or toss him up against a spiked wall, or maybe lay him down on a catapult that's helpfully pointed at a statue's large, sharp sword. Or maybe you just want to unleash your retractable chainsaw and cut him in half. While the later levels use higher point totals to coerce you into playing along with the combo system, it's usually pretty easy to just grind out the points with less-elaborate kills. While there's always a time limitl, you usually have plenty of time to get things done.
The problem is that there really isn't all that much to do. Even though you change environments, the basics of the action remain the same. In the city levels you'll find tires, street signs, and trains with spikes on the side. In the castle you'll find big gears, lamp posts, and meat hooks. In the "Asian Town" set you'll find spiky trees and lanterns, and so on. The action doesn't really change too much from level to level. The boss fights do offer some differences, but it's not enough. While you can slug it out with each boss and hope for the best, you're better off trying to trigger a Quick Time Event, which are easy to pull off and do significant damage. The catch is that each boss only has one QTE, so you might be performing each one three or four times over the course of a battle.
Of course, it helps that those interactive cutscenes look great. The entire game has a terrific sense of style to it, presenting most of its action in black and white, only making exceptions for red blood and yellow action words to give jumps, hard landings, and cutscenes a little more flair. The blood splatters around quite well, staining the otherwise-stark landscape in a dramatic fashion.
The game's audio gets to be a bit much. In addition to the standard sounds of fighting and the splats of bodies coming apart, the game's soundtrack is an aggressive, rap-fueled collection of music, most of it featuring vocals. On top of that, the game has a two-man commentary team who chatter constantly while you're playing. When you first dive in, it's pretty intense, and a lot of the commentary is really funny. But it's one of those things that's only great from a distance. If you spend time focusing on the music, you'll realize that most of the songs only have one repeating verse... and that they really aren't very good. The commentary sounds great at first, with a lot of natural back and forth between the two announcers, but if you single that out and really listen to it, you'll quickly realize that they're constantly repeating themselves. Weirdly enough, the audio mix sounds like it was mixed so that no one element stands out, like they knew that if you paid any actual attention to any one aspect of it, you'd notice that it was kind of crummy.
And really, that same statement could be applied to the entirety of MadWorld. It makes an amazing first impression, and it has a consistently great sense of style. But once I started digging deeper, I hit bottom fast, and the spell was broken. If you're the type of person who can appreciate style-over-substance games, you'll probably love it. But once I figured out what was really going on in MadWorld, it felt pretty thin.