Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard is very close to being a good game. While playing the opening level anyone who's made gaming one of their primary pastimes in life will struggle not to raise a wry smile or even let out a mild chuckle at the gamer-focused humour, and because of this you want to love the game. More than any other game we've played in recent memory, Eat Lead seems designed for gamers and only gamers, yet developer Vicious Cycle has failed to deliver the kind of gameplay anyone who's played a modern shooter will be expecting.
Matt Hazard is the star of the show. As one of the leading action video game characters of his era he thinks quite highly of himself. But after a series of misguided spin-offs (including a kart racing game) he's found himself like a washed up, used to be big-time actor who's struggling to get work after deciding to make a few too many kids' movies. Matt is an action hero, not a do-good racing driver, and in Eat Lead you get to see what he's all about: shooting lots of people and punching them in the face.
The storyline has clearly come from the minds of gamers, with an awful lot of in-jokes, tongue-in-cheek characters and bosses, and Matt himself constantly reels off one-liners about the game you're playing. Essentially Matt is given a new lease of life by the new owner of Marathon games (re-branded to Marathon Megasoft), but this turns out to be nothing more than a way to get rid of him for good. During the first level Matt encounters an Arnold Schwarzenegger-alike soldier who tries to kill him. Your helpful virtual assistant QA (these are the kind of nods to gaming culture that raise the smiles) explains that there's no mention of you in the game code past level one, and from then on someone is constantly changing the game in order to take you out.
As a third-person cover-based shooter the focus is clearly on action, but the settings are surprisingly varied and the enemies diverse, all because of this idea that the game is being controlled by Marathon Megasoft owner Wally. One very early example is where a fairly average looking modern level is transformed into a Wild West shoot-out. The first two levels are actually quite dull compared to what comes next, with the developer really doing its best to create a fun, roller-coaster ride of a game that touches on practically every gaming cliche we can think of.
Judged purely on the concept Eat Lead should be a resounding success. It's genuinely funny (something that's still quite rare for a video game) and full of ideas, but the controls and clunky gameplay bring the whole thing down. Nothing here is fundamentally broken, but it lacks fluidity and finesse - qualities you expect from the very games that Eat Lead's audience are likely to have played and loved
Let's start with the cover system as it's one of the gameplay mechanics that works reasonably well. Matt can hug cover as you'd expect him to, leap over cover, pop out to take down bad guys, and target and run to new areas of cover. This comes in handy as it means you can quickly run from cover to cover without having to clumsily get into the right position, and is similar to how the system worked in Activision's Bond movie tie-in Quantum of Solace.
Where things fall down quite dramatically is the gun-play. Shooting in Eat Lead just feels off. While enemies will go down satisfyingly with a single shot to the head, trying to hit them in the first place is far more frustrating than it ought to be. The precision aiming mode, which zooms the camera in over Matt's shoulder, is terribly slow too, making hitting anything that's moving a chore. Enemies also have a tendency to rush you, which will make you resort to frantically pulling the trigger and missing a lot until they get close enough to be taken down with a melee attack. Speaking of pulling the trigger, the PS3 version insists that you use R2 to fire, which really doesn't do the game any favours.
In terms of presentation Eat Lead can be split down the middle between visuals and audio. The audio work here is top class, with funny man and Arrested Development star Will Arnett voicing Matt superbly, and actor Neil Patrick Harris doing an equally fine job as the villain of the piece. Sadly the visuals here aren't great, with some iffy character models, dull environments and some erratic performance issues - especially in the PS3 version of the game. There's no shortage of ideas, with the levels aping many of gaming's most iconic titles, but it's just not pulled off as well as it could have been.
In the end Eat Lead simply isn't a good enough game to make the most of the brilliant script. While you're likely to enjoy Matt's many one-liners and smirk at the sheer absurdness of what's going on, you're not going to enjoy the clumsy combat and generic gameplay. When a game sets out to parody the entire industry it's got to be damn good and this simply isn't. Unfortunately, Eat Lead isn't the game to get Matt Hazard's career back on track.