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Fried Take - "Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard" (2009)

Dead Head Fred is, to date, one of my standards for how comedy should be approached in a video game. The script is expertly crafted, a loving send-up both classic film noir and drive-in monster movies. This is supported by a fantastic art direction, which blends grotesque imagery with the artificial sheen of Eisenhower's idealistic America. Excellent music and a talented cast that includes John C. McGinley ties together the whole package. It's a damn shame that the world wasn't revisited, but unlike so many games, it does stand on its own as a work of art. And yes, I'd defend it as art. Fight me.

So why is the next effort from the same creative team so critically reviled? What went wrong? Or, more accurately, did anything really go wrong? Welcome back to The Bum Rap, and get ready for a loving defense of Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard. Well, sort of.

Regardless, it's Hazard Time.

Yes, that's a water gun that you can kill people with.
As could be expected from a writer who took home a Writer's Guild Award for Dead Head Fred, the script here is absolute, solid gold. Actually, I'd say it's one of the absolute best attempts at comedy put into a game, and you can quote me on that if you want. Where other satirical games take aim at anything and everything, Eat Lead focuses squarely on video games and every aspect of them. Players take the role of wisecrack-spewing, quintessentially 90's badass Matt Hazard, a faded video game star who's made some awful career decisions that has turned him into a relic of yesteryear. He's basically Duke Nukem, but rightfully poked fun at instead of celebrated. Somehow, he gets roped into a trap to bump him off in a cheap marketing stunt that would introduce a new hero to the world.

How is a video game character consciously being "cast" in games? How does one "kill" a video game character? The writer literally gives approximately zero fucks about answering these questions, and instead delivers a self-referential romp of a game that, on the same token, is a pointed satire of the video game industry. Everything from idiotically-garbed JRPG protagonists with several dozen lines of written dialogue per scene to the fact that all video game dancing ever looks like absolute garbage is sent up here. Eat Lead is preoccupied, obsessed even, with pointing out stupid things about video games and laughing at them.

But what makes this game better than every other video game "parody" out there is that the creators obviously have intimate knowledge of gaming. This isn't just, "oh, man, video games give you more than one life, isn't that hilarious?" The whole experience is jam-packed with very specific tropes that only people who really, really love video games like myself will find funny. This isn't a game that your average, surface-level audience will find funny. Its cuts are much deeper than that, and anybody who's played way too many video games in their life will find it riotously funny.

It's the only video game satire, to date, that I feel is 100% geared towards a very specific type of gaming enthusiast.

This might seem like a minor thing, especially when you consider that most celebs doing video game voice work usually sounds like pure ass (with the odd exception of Haley Joel Osment... go figure, right?) But a good percentage of what makes Eat Lead so endearing, so clever, so wickedly funny is Matt Hazard himself. Hazard is played by Will "GOB Bluth" Arnett, who commits to the character so thoroughly that he sells it in totality. Arnett specializes in wry assholes who fancy themselves brilliant but are, in fact, dumb as a post, and that description fits Hazard to a T.

Hazard throws out hammy, cringe-worthy one liners and catchphrases without a hint of conviction or irony. Much like Duke Nukem, he believes that he's one cool dude, and that everybody loves him, and that he's still the relevant, beloved hero that he once was. But unlike Duke, the rest of the world, obviously, disagrees, and that's the basis of much of the humor. This irrelevant relic of a bygone era thrust back into action and forced to both confront his past and navigate a world that's long since passed him by. Arnett gets this. He says and does things that he thinks are clever, and doesn't understand why nobody else thinks he's a riot. We're never led to believe that Hazard has much emotional depth to him, or that he's 100% a cool, lovable guy. He's a complete heel, and Arnett conveys this with the same type of delivery that he's employed for a good portion of his characters.

That isn't to say that the rest of the cast are a bunch of slouches. Olivia Hack (Ty Lee in Avatar The Last Airbender, Cindy Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie) does a bang-up job as QA, the heroine who helps to steer Matt through the various worlds and challenges his archaic behavior in a sharp, sarcastic way. Neil Patrick Harris (!) plays the villain with great gusto, completely nailing the role of a slimy, smarmy CEO. The minor supporting cast is also crucial, as even the smallest characters have one-off, throwaway lines that still elicit genuine laughter.

Every bit of voice acting here is great, and the fact that it's anchored by Will Arnett makes it all the better.

This is as messy and awkward as it looks.
I won't defend Eat Lead as having the most intricate, nuanced gameplay available on the market. It's not the zenith of third-person shooters, and not a good example of that sub-genre is capable of. In many respects, actually, the gameplay is patently bland, and at times, egregiously bad. Difficulty swings wildly between easy in the most mind-numbing way and difficult in the most cheap, frustrating ways. In fact, it would be kind to call this game's rudimentary pop-and-shoot mechanics "dated" and "bland."

So... why don't I necessarily mind the gameplay? Granted, the cheap deaths are a definite minus, and something that have no upswing to them. You're going to die at moments for reasons you don't necessarily know why. Hell, I even died in a cutscene once. But overall? I feel like the gameplay is budget and kitschy in a way that sort of nails a certain kind of atmosphere. Like some of the best B-Movies out there, Eat Lead is crudely put together in such a way that's almost charming, and it's anchored by other, genuinely good elements. While I'm not a fan of the confusing "point and click" cover system, I love the weird shit Matt can take cover behind. And even though I think the shooting could have used a lot of polish, the weapons themselves are varied enough and some of them are event pretty comedic (water guns, for example.)

Again, I'm not saying the gameplay here is anywhere around "great." It's not really even "good." It makes Deadly Premonition look like it has polished, perfect gameplay on par with a AAA title. But it's passable, and what's there is charming in a lot of ways. Even if you do sometimes drop dead for seemingly no reason sometimes.

Now if only the game would stop freezing up.Y-Yeah.

Castle Hazardstein.
Nowadays, it's easier to find well-written comedy games than it used to be. Granted, most games that attempt to be funny still fall flat on their face, and basically only a small percentage of them are good, but still, it's an improvement over past eras that gave us real, erm, gems like Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude and Raze's Hell. But even with more options on the table, it's still rare to see a developer try to put out something that actively pastiches video games in a clever, self-referential manner, and does so consistently. The only pre-Eat Lead example I can think of is Conker's Bad Fur Day, and that's still a stretch. Even in the wake of this game, the only ones I can name off the top of my head are Saints Row IV (which is my golden standard for funny video games, by the way,) and Sunset Overdrive.

Eat Lead went completely balls-out when it came to poking fun at video games. It's unrelenting in its attempts to mock everything about games, game development and the game industry six ways to Sunday, and because of that, it has a fierce commitment that's impossible to deny. From the wildly varying aesthetics to the clever enemy design to the plot itself to the aforementioned great writing, everything about this is one of the only bonafied gaming satires out there, and that's really special to me.

While a couple of games since have sort of attempted what Eat Lead did, it's still unique to the industry, and so clever in its execution that it merits a look based on that alone. Really, that can be said for the entirety of the game. Is it polished? No. Is it perfect? Nah. Should it win any awards on technical achievements? Hell nope. But it is a funny game that's playable enough to get you from point A to point B, and during that trip, you'll be busting a gut as everything you love is sent up in the most dead-on way possible.

Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard is not a perfect game, but it's an excellent example of comedy in gaming done right. And for that, it's worth the 3-5 bucks it can be snagged for now.


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