Review: Matt Hazard: Blood Bath & Beyond (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Matt Hazard: Blood Bath & Beyond
Publisher: D3Publisher
Developer: Vicious Cycle
Genre: 2D Run-and-Gun
Release Date: 1/6/2010

It was hard for me to look at Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard when it released in early 2009. Vicious Cycle took a concept that I was shocked no one had come up with before – taking all of video game’s noted clichés and a faux gaming universe and throwing them into a blender – and unleashed it as a current-gen offering. See, as gamers, we really should enjoy Matt Hazard in concept and I’m sure a good portion of us still want to, but Eat Lead just didn’t offer what it takes to win gamers over: The story and level progression was a mess, the characters and AI were subpar, the presentation was average and the Gears of War-style cover shooting was woefully plain. However, what probably hurt the most was the fact the title annoyingly sank into the conventions it attempted to make fun of and most of the humor just wasn’t that funny to me. If the title made anything clear, though, it could be said the series definitely had potential if it could balance its humor and gameplay and, thankfully, Vicious Cycle has given the series another go with the new downloadable effort Blood Bath & Beyond. Painfully cheesy subtitle aside, Matt Hazard: BB&B shows the team went back to the drawing board and even though the title misses the must-buy mark, we’ve thankfully seen one step of advancement with this series.

In case Eat Lead‘s game box scared you away from ever playing it, Matt Hazard is a fictional video game “legend,” who has starred in an obscene amount of gaming titles from hard-boiled action to kart racing to quiz titles throughout his career. His enemies always somehow find a way to jump between games from Hazard’s past and wreak havoc on the hero’s life and in BB&B, he comes fresh off Eat Lead to contend with General Neutronov, who has abducted his 8-bit self from the past in a plan to eradicate him during his gaming roots. The story isn’t extravagant as it pans out through static cutscenes and boxed-in text dialog, however, the title’s conventions, parodies and ability to turn the other cheek really saves the title from being the mess we were provided in Eat Lead.

Immediately from the beginning, the series lays into itself stating Eat Lead is cluttering bargain bins around the country and the resulting cutbacks in budget immediately eliminates voiceovers and cutscenes in between levels. Call it lazy if you will, but it’s refreshing to see a series poke fun of itself, especially with the fairly humorous ending sequence. Most of the story, though, is just QA and Hazard conversing about the current game they are entering at the moment and while the story is by no means amazing, there is far more humor and less convoluted twists and turns to make BB&B‘s tale leaps and bounds above Eat Lead‘s. The problem in Eat Lead stemmed from the game just throwing out random game titles, clichés and references without taking any effort to get players accustomed to the character and build a personal rapport with him, which is crucial since players are supposed to pretend they have been controlling the character for the past two decades. Thankfully, some of the items in BB&B actually explain some of Matt Hazard’s past exploits in better detail, While more backstory would be nice, we get to see just a bit more of this fictional past in the newest title.

Outside of the story, however, BB&B doesn’t give players a whole lot to return to. A quickplay mode allows players to tackle one stage of their choosing, a mini-game reflecting one of the segments encountered late in the game is unlocked and there is a gallery of hidden items to unlock and view, so players are really just getting more of the same in different doses. The title was smart to include a two-player mode with Hazard’s “sidekick” Dexter Dare but, unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to online play. On the front of modes, BB&B doesn’t deliver as much as it probably should have for $15, especially considering some of the other offerings at $15 or even less. Regardless, what is delivered is a no-nonsense affair – players paying for a 2D run-and-gun title will receive exactly that.

Being a man of action, Hazard harks back to the days of 2D action titles such as Contra, where players will run to the right and blast the crap out of anything that moves in traditional fashion. Hazard and Dare both have the expected arsenal of a rifle with infinite ammo and Metal Slug-style grenades, however, pickups such as shotguns, flamethrowers and rocket launchers can be picked up from defeated foes to freshen up their firepower. All of this is standard affair for the genre, but BB&B attempts to deviate just a bit by having players hold the left trigger to be able to fire into the background, effectively dividing the gameplay into two planes. Enemies will attempt to overwhelm the players by swarming in from the 2D plane of focus, the background and foreground, with enemies in the background being able to fire upon the players. Honestly, this creates some really challenging situations and freshens up some of the boss battles more than one might initially think, even though it seems strange or counterproductive for a game of this nature. Finally, as players tear up common enemies, their Hazard Bar will fill up and a full bar allows them to press Y to enter Hazard Time. The mode puts players into a balls-to-the-wall action frenzy where their character is invincible and gains spread projectiles for a short time. Finally, now you and your friend no longer have to fight over the spread power-up and, interestingly enough, the mode also spreads special weapons, giving players three-way machine guns, rocket launchers and the like to experiment with.

Outside of these additions, though, fans of the genre will know what to expect from everything else including the giant bosses, vehicle segment and tricky jumps to keep players on their toes when they aren’t slaughtering goons en masse. Thankfully, players will get a decent span of environments to burn through, with each seemingly knowing about when to shift the action from mindless shooting to navigating deadly terrain, racing a clock or solving simple bits of necessary item interaction. As players head into the space sections, the reduced gravity and Lunar Lander-inspired segment further mix up the game play. However, that isn’t to say the game can get excessively repetitive. Much like other titles in the genre, BB&B inherits the certainty of running to the right (or occasionally other directions) and mashing on the fire button. Compared to other titles of its ilk, Matt Hazard doesn’t always measure up. While the fundamentals of running and gunning are all here and the package as a whole is enjoyable, the controls just seem laggy on occasion, there are glitches that can cause your character to get stuck and it annoys me to no end that you cannot fire downward without jumping. I suppose the control issues stem from placing an eight-way directional scheme on an analog controller but, for the most part, everything in BB&B‘s gameplay is still passable even in its worst moments. As for the rest of the issues I encountered, well, I suppose that would be blamed on the original Matt Hazard games being programmed with these glitches, right?

What really gets BB&B rolling, however, is its tongue-in-cheek humor which, admittedly, has improved since Hazard’s first outing last year. Packed in with the action, the humor will definitely keep most gamers’ attentions through 10 stages, however, it is unlikely most players will want to tackle the game again, even with achievements and the unlockable gallery that features “previous” Matt Hazard games. The game’s challenging nature might also disgruntle those not so into the 2D shooter genre as the game starts to pump up the difficulty toward the end of the first stage and doesn’t let up. BB&B is ripe with one-hit kill environmental traps and water/pitfall hazards to fall in and players must contend with these likely at the same time the screen is filled with enemy shrapnel. Even on the game’s easy difficulty of “Wussy,” it’s likely players will be taking advantage of the infinite continues offered, especially if a player can’t quite get the patterns of the boss characters down.

Even though BB&B is a downloadable title as opposed to Eat Lead, Vicious Cycle still pumped out a very reasonable presentation for the title. While it strikes me as odd that the game doesn’t hark back to 2D graphical styles or, more appropriately, cycle through various hardware to showcase levels in varying bit displays appropriate for the timeframe the fictional games’ releases (the only 2D model in the gameplay is the 8-Bit Matt Hazard, which General Neutronov amusingly carries around like it is a cardboard cutout), the visuals are indeed solid, making all of the various environments immediately recognizable.

The Hate Boat stage starts out simple enough as a typical cruise ship, but as players descend, it immediately reflects Rapture from Bioshock, complete with Big Daddy wannabe enemies. The Oh. Canada stage takes players through the stereotypical ice rinks with zambonni fight and maple syrup factory, but getting there requires a rooftop scramble that is a dead ringer for Mirror’s Edge’s visuals. The Dismember the Alamo section starts off as a simple western theme, but due to a scrambling of classic games stemming from a glitch, players will begin to see Super Mario Bros. themes mid-stage, culminating with a backdrop straight out of Team Fortress 2. While BB&B tends to pull its references from more modern titles such as Portal, there are still some references to the classics such as Lunar Lander and Rush’n’Attack that will keep longtime gamers paying attention.

Each of these backdrops is handled quite well with appropriate lighting and graphical effects and it is almost possible for the player to get lost in the backgrounds to pick out references instead of focusing on the action. Due to the onscreen action, most of the character models are smaller and not as detailed as in other 2D shooters, but they animate extremely well, something that is further made more satisfying due to the use of ragdoll physics in every single kill. The developers even go overboard with the ragdoll physics with a mini-game where the players collect pachinko coins and drop ragdoll models into a playfield to try and score points. Even while still alive, the characters look smooth even while transitioning from the foreground or background and there are also subtle animations such as a common enemy fist pumping after killing one of the players.

Even though BB&B loses a lot of the spoken dialog seen in Eat Lead, there is still a helping of cheesy one-liners delivered by Will Arnett to maintain authentic Matt Hazard audio. The action does drown out a lot of the game’s tunes, which is a bit of a downer as I found this title’s soundtrack to be much more memorable than the repetitiveness found in Eat Lead. Otherwise, you have your traditional gunfire and explosions, rounded out by splashing of blood and guts littering the floors. Even if a few of the one-liners can get really repetitive, a lot of them are context appropriate such as coming off of a continue, being low on health and the characters even have some banter specific to some of the major enemies they encounter in the game. When everything is said and done, although the developer could have taken some more liberties with the presentation to provide a more authentic fictional gaming timeline, what players get is still pretty well done.

Finally, I find it a bit odd that other items of cultural relevance have made their way into BB&B, most notably movie references. The pirate-themed stage was originally developed to be filled with scantily-clad pirate women, but the timeline had this title to be released during the infamous Congressional hearings in the “Ëœ90s and the pirates were reverted back to males. However, the developer didn’t have time to reanimate the characters, so the pirates wield pistols in a limp-wristed fashion with mannerisms straight from Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie trilogy. I also got a kick out of the J5 boss, a dead ringer for Johnny Five from the Short Circuit series of movies. These didn’t take away from the experience in the slightest and I found them quite humorous, so, hopefully, we can see this series continue with a little more effort under its belt. With its finger on the pulse of popular culture, the Matt Hazard series could really go somewhere and I’m sure there are some retro buff out there that want to identify with the character, but first, we just have to get a solid game out of the franchise. BB&B is a good start, but, for everyone, it definitely won’t be worth the $15 asking price.

The Scores
Story/Modes: ENJOYABLE
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control and Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: BELOW AVERAGE
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal Factor: ENJOYABLE
Miscellaneous: GOOD
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary

Matt Hazard is a character everyone wants to give a chance, but his games thus far don’t give players to many reasons to do so. Blood Bath & Beyond is a step in the right direction, but it’s too shallow with a few nagging gameplay issues to readily recommend it at $15. It’s balancing won’t do the title any favors as the difficulty gets pumped up fast, which is a plus for those looking for their next run-and-gun challenge, but it will easily turn away those not so in tune with the genre. Still, the title is very serviceable and surpasses Eat Lead in just about every single way. It carries far more humor and action, has an appealing presentation and the video game and culture references coupled with the ability to make fun of itself makes the title a satisfying playthrough, especially with a friend (so you can steal their lives a la Contra, naturally). BB&B falls victim to far less conventions it tries to make fun of than its predecessor; however, when you boil it down, there are better game choices at its price tag, especially when you take its lack of real replayability into account.

Tags: ,