Edgar Wright's "Shaun of the Dead" is an example of a great parody that not only pokes fun at genre conventions, but masters them. Although it attempts to genuinely scare the audience, the film never forgets its comedic intent. However, when parodies fail to rise above the farces they make fun of, the result is usually disastrous (look at "Scary Movie" and "Disaster Movie").
So what does any of this have to do with D3Publisher's upcoming shooter, Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard? Unfortunately, this supposed "comedy shooter" is less "Shaun of the Dead" and more "Disaster Movie." Although it attempts to make fun of the shooter genre (and the industry as a whole), uninspired and mediocre gameplay mechanics hinder it from garnering the respect a proper parody needs. The poorly developed story elements also need serious reworking. The game's greatest asset, its unique premise, is stunted by generic game design -- and that's a pity.
In the universe of Eat Lead, Matt Hazard is a legendary gaming icon, having starred in some quintessential games from the 8-bit era. However, after being thrust into a consistent stream of mediocre games from his overzealous publisher, Hazard found himself out of a job ... and out of the industry. That is, until he was offered a comeback to the gaming scene in a new 3D game made for modern consoles. Eat Lead would be that game.
Matt Hazard's character seems to closely mirror Duke Nukem's rise and fall in the real-world gaming scene. The premise is quite refreshing, and the history of this character is already well documented through fake documentaries (embedded), websites and blogs. A lot of effort has been put into creating the world of Matt Hazard, and it shows.
Unfortunately, the same kind of care and effort isn't evident in the actual game itself. The originality of the game's unique premise isn't translated very well into the gameplay experience. In almost every way, Eat Lead is a generic third-person shooter. You've played this game before, in Gears of War, Army of Two, or Uncharted. The cover-based stop-'n-pop gameplay of Eat Lead was fun -- until it became overused by developers everywhere. Hey, isn't that what you're trying to make fun of, Hazard?
Perhaps the use of such a familiar gameplay engine is commentary on the state of the industry today. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear the game is that smart. When asked if Eat Lead would feature any other kinds of gameplay, we were politely told "no." The game could have easily changed into a FPS game for one level, a cart racing game another, if only simply to emphasize the ridiculous nature of Matt Hazard's fictional career. This is a missed opportunity. Instead, it appears players will have to go through series of generic enemies in generic levels with an overused gameplay mechanic.
The Eat Lead demonstration focused largely on the game's ability to "download" new enemies into levels. For example, while going through an industrial complex, zombies from one of Matt Hazard's previous horror games will show up. Revolver-wielding cowboys may be downloaded in, from Hazard's previous western game. Somehow, this is Eat Lead's big "innovation." To us, it just looked like a cheap way of having random enemy spawns.
According to a Vicious Cycle rep, variety in the game will come from the weapons each of these themed enemies drop. For example, you may have a sci-fi weapon in the old west level. That seems like too timid of a gameplay mechanic for a title which is meant to be making fun of gaming and its tired conventions. Instead, Eat Lead plays it so safe, it becomes boring. From the looks of things, Eat Lead is the same thing it's attempting to parody: an uninspired shooter that does nothing to advance the genre forward.
Hopefully, our assessment of Eat Lead is wrong. We'd love to see Matt Hazard's misadventure translate well in the final game. However, we're not confident the game can change much before its upcoming Q1 2009 release. Until then, we're going to have a lot of fun reading and watching the marketing campaign for this game because it does something the game wasn't able to make us do: laugh.