May 222009

While many publishers have largely decided to approach the Wii by speeding up their casual-game assembly lines, Sega has started to position itself as a go-to source for more adult fare on the friendly little console. This is the strategy behind the upcoming first-person shooter The Conduit, as well as the already-released games MadWorld and House of the Dead: Overkill. MadWorld was blessed with a striking cel-shaded art style and gameplay that had the potential to use the Wii remote in really interesting ways. So it’s perhaps surprising that Overkill, a light-gun game that holds the Guinness record for most swearing in a video game, turned out to be so much better. There is a phrase in the previous sentence that tells you why that happened.

Of course, spewing F-bombs in a game is not a guarantee that it will become a great experience, but that’s not the point. Overkill‘s amazing proliferation of profanity is important as an indicator of what the developers were trying to do and how they succeeded. The entire design of the game is meant to evoke memories of the bloody, profane, and ridiculous B-movies of yesteryear. And it does, from the moment you see an ammo-draped stripper dancing behind the credits. The soundtrack, dialogue, and obvious continuity (and projection) errors are all reminiscent of the bad old movies, as are the posters that designate each of the playable chapters. Even the bosses serve as a sort of parade of monster archetypes from these flicks. Of course, this is all unbelievably crass, and you’ll only like the game if you can find it at least as hilarious as it is revolting.

The game fits its target well because the on-rails light-gun game is a second-tier entertainment these days anyway, long surpassed by the greater freedom afforded in first person shooters. Overkill embraces this heritage, relying on its scoring system to enhance the replay value (although the “director’s cut” expands the game also). The Wii’s graphical limitations aside, the enemy models are noticeably ugly and low on polygons, and while this may not have been intentional it slots into the overall aesthetic anyway.

This isn’t to say that Overkill doesn’t have any brains (the zombies mutants need something to eat, after all). It’s certainly aware of how crass it is, to the point where one of the characters (who previously unleashed a hilariously chauvinistic tirade against the game’s female protagonist) offers a cursory feminist critique of the game in the closing scene. One could also read a little commentary on the history of the genre into the episode that takes place in a carnival. Light-gun games are, after all, the progeny of midway amusements, by way of the arcade, something you can also find in the carnival episode. Overkill keeps its commentary light, however, mainly aiming to evoke our memories of films we’d be embarrassed to admit having watched. The game knows that we know those movies were terrible in every way, and if it’s trying to make a point beyond that, it isn’t trying too hard.

MadWorld evokes memories of a particular movie: The Running Man. A whole city has been transformed into a bloody amusement called DeathWatch for… somebody, and the protagonist, Jack, must kill his way through the other competitors in order to stop the evildoers who arranged the whole mess. Like Overkill, MadWorld aims to get laughs out of the absurdity of its violence and an accompanying commentary track. MadWorld, unfortunately, never really gets going and even if it did it hasn’t got a coherent destination.

The key problem with the gameplay is pacing. Overkill has a tremendous advantage in that its on-rails structure means that the developers can completely control the tension and the player’s viewpoint at all times. This has its downside — once a player has “learned” a particular area it can get boring — but it also keeps the action going almost constantly. MadWorld, however, is a series of open areas in which the player can roam freely. This allows him to control his experience to some degree, but it also means that the player can feel somewhat directionless. Local shortages of enemies force the player to move, but in many levels enemies and interesting locations are clustered rather than evenly spaced. As a result, the player sometimes wanders aimlessly and can stumble into stretches where there just isn’t enough to do. The scoring system exacerbates this problem by generally keeping players in these arenas for too long, allowing even its over-the-top violent antics to become repetitive and tiresome.

That explains how MadWorld falters as a game, but it also collapses as an idea. The cheesy visuals of Overkill contribute to its overall aesthetic intentions, and the black-white-and-red cel shading of MadWorld seems like it will do the same, targeting violent comics. But while Overkill dispenses with reality almost immediately and starts taking its story in more and more bizarre directions, MadWorld keeps itself firmly under the top, embracing lengthy cutscenes where people look shocked or frightened in freeze frame as various characters painstakingly explain the history of DeathWatch and the ordinary, workaday motives of the rich men who have organized it. Oh, they did it to make money, who could have guessed.

MadWorld doesn’t even surpass its inspiration. Decades have passed, so now we have a lot more blood and dismemberment, but do we have a lightning-slinging opera singer wearing technicolor armor? MadWorld eschews incongruous beasts like Dynamo, instead giving us exactly what we expect from a game like this. The bosses always are and appear every bit as dangerous as Jack himself, and most of them are huge, violent monsters who can happily survive having an arm chainsawed off. It’s surprisingly conventional, and even a little cowardly.

This extends to the concept of DeathWatch itself. The Running Man has a virtue in that it points the finger at its own audience: a totalitarian government organized the events, but the people watching, cheering, and wagering on the murderous game show were very clearly us. The rising popularity of MMA and the recalibration of football broadcasts as celebrations of the hard hit are evidence that the thirst for violent sport is as great now as ever. The target is there, and MadWorld‘s bloody excess and sportscaster-like commentators are like a loaded gun aimed right at it, so it is almost infuriating that the game never pulls the trigger. The Running Man at least afforded the possibility of an uncomfortable moment, when the viewer attempted to reject the idea that he was like the spectators in the film and then realized he’d just spent 90 minutes cheering on bloody murder too. MadWorld goes to some effort to assure its player that ordinary people are victims, only the jaded rich think murder is sport, something about pharmaceutical companies, blah blah blah. The reality Jack is every bit as brutal and disgusting as the thugs and aristocrats he’s opposing, and he is us. You could do something powerful with that, if you were so inclined. MadWorld‘s developers apparently weren’t.

House of the Dead: Overkill succeeds because it takes its every weakness and makes it serve the overall aesthetic. It’s a relatively ugly game built on an unpopular mechanic that’s linear by its very nature, and it works magnificently because of the B-movie horror context. MadWorld has every advantage over the other game when it comes to artistic style and gameplay mechanics, but like its directionless players it simply loses its way. It’s not just that it doesn’t commit; the game doesn’t even seem to know what it could commit to. Overkill seemingly aims lower than MadWorld, but because it is built into a coherent aesthetic experience, it hits higher.

  One Response to “Go for the Overkill”

  1. I really enjoyed this post. It would've been fantastic for MadWorld to provide that kind of social commentary, and you're right to say that it could've, but I never expected it to do so. In fact, I was hoping for something closer to the absurdity of Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden etc., but it even failed to deliver in that regard because of its pretentious, unimportant plot.

    Some more of my thoughts here:

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