When a small-time publisher releases a game that seems to borrow from a number of other successful franchises, you don't have high expectations. But when the game turns out to be a hell of a lot of fun, only to be let down by a few bugs and poor game design decisions, you'll be disappointed, not because the game is bad, but because it's good and could have been so much better. El Matador from Plastic Reality Technologies and Cenega Publishing is such a game - flirting with greatness, but never quite getting there.
As an agent with the DEA, Victor Corbet is used to dealing with shady organisations, but when a whole team of DEA agents is taken out in a drug raid gone bad, he's pushed over the edge. Revenge is all he can think of, and a whole host of guns and other explosive weapons come along for the ride. It's a pretty typical action movie/game set up, but serves its purpose as a reason to kill lots and lots of people.
Without a doubt, El Matador has a lot in common with Remedy Software's Max Payne series. The two Max Payne games are known for their action movie-style over the top stunts and explosive gun play, and although the settings are very different, El Matador could almost be the series' spiritual successor. The inclusion of a bullet time-like effect is the icing on the Max Payne flavoured cake, and although the cribbing is a little obvious, the game is no less fun for it.
For the most part you can think of yourself as a one man assault team, so pretty much anything goes. You'll get a huge selection of weapons to choose from and they pack quite a punch, often sending enemies ragdolling through the air. In an attempt to mix things up a little, the developers also threw in a number of sections that require caution, not running and gunning. These sections prove to be pretty tricky, and you'll frequently die unless you play them as required, taking cover and picking off enemies one by one.
At times you'll be fighting with a team on your side, but while this elevates the feel of the fire fights to something much larger, team-mate AI can cause a few problems. The biggest and most infuriating problem comes from your team-mates' seemingly predetermined locations to take cover. At various points during a shootout your allies will throw themselves against walls in order to take cover from enemy fire. The problem is that they will do this even if you're already there, pushing you out into the open, and at the mercy of the bloodthirsty drug dealing enemies.
All-out action is what El Matador does best though, and what the developers should have stuck with. Other niggling problems crop up from time to time as well, such as enemies not reacting properly to being shot, in-game audio stopping for the duration of a mission, characters glitching trough objects, and crashes to the desktop. While these issues could certainly be fixed with a patch, until one is released it'll be hard to play for a whole level without noticing a problem.
Although the overall level of polish isn't as high as you'd see in a big budget production from the likes of EA, on the right hardware El Matador looks very nice indeed. The use of HDR lighting gives the game a real vibrant look, and you'll travel to a number of diverse locations, making a change from the usual warehouses and industrial complexes found in action games. The jungle settings look particularly great, with the impressive lighting combining with dense foliage and well modelled enemies. Audio work is adequate, but not as impressive as the often stunning visuals.
El Matador could have been a must have for PC gamers looking for their next action fix. As it stands, though, it will provide plenty of entertainment, but not without problems. As a game destined to find the bargain bins pretty soon after release, those with a decent PC could do far worse than to take a gamble, but don't expect a game to rival the best from the big boys.