Bad, Bath and Beyond
Yearning can do terrible things to a man. One tends, when looking forward to a thing, to focus on all of the good aspects and ignore the bad; this cognitive dissonance can help enhance the experience, but can really turn things sour if they start to go badly wrong. Unfortunately this was the exact position that I was in when the game started.
Seeing the choices of difficulty settings only made me more enthused; ‘Easy’, ‘Normal’ and ‘Hard’ were presented as ‘Wussy’, ‘Damn this is hard’ and ‘Fuck this shit!’ and I immediately felt like I was little-Guy again, playing Doom and Hexen on my parents’ PC. After choosing ‘Damn this is hard’ (wholly without thinking that this may be accurate indeed – more on that later) I was treated to an introductory ‘cut scene’ consisting of text at the bottom of the screen, accompanied by pictures of the speaking characters. Making no apologies, the game highlights this straight away with Matt complaining about how they had voice acting in the last game, only to be told by his supporting character that the text only exposition is the result of bad sales and budget cuts. Beyond this point, I am afraid that the humour soon dries up. It becomes rapidly apparent that this quick exchange is the high point for the game's dialogue; immediately following this, the game's villain appears and begins to talk in the sort of stilted, Russian-speaking-English accent that ceased to be funny in about 1988.
Sadly, this introductory sequence happens to be the entire game's high water mark. Hanging the success of a game on humour and parody alone can work well if you happen to be a tremendous wit; if your humour is puerile then it just makes the sub-standard gameplay stand out even more. Oscar-winning stuff it ain't.
Playing through the game is fairly standard side-scrolling fare - shoot, throw grenades and jump, with the option of knifing someone for a one-hit-kill when you’re standing next to them (although they can also do the same to you, the brutes) . For a little added interest you can shoot into the background by pressing L2, while successive kills will fill a metre that lets you power up your shots and enjoy a few moments' incinvibility. Other weapons beyond your starting pistol are available as pickups but they're all thoroughly run of the mill and the only one really worth mentioning is the flamethrower - this is a good wheeze for a little while until you trigger your 'Hazard time' and the entire 2D shooter game running on cutting-edge hardware grinds down into a choppy mess. Running and shooting is, as we all know, greatly enhanced by a horrible framerate.
Most of the time this isn’t a problem however, as it is a rare thing indeed to live to see your hazard metre fill, mainly due to how unfairly hard the game is, even on Normal. As someone who is very much a child of the 8-/16-bit generation, I am well used to games that are crushingly difficult. Killing the last boss of Terminator for the Sega Megadrive (for example), was comparatively easy considering that even reaching that stage required the sort of effort of willpower and endurance normally associated with turning yourself inside-out by concentrating really hard. I still did it, mind; I was eight – I had nothing better to do.
Now that I’m a little older, I still enjoy games that are mind-scramblingly difficult as long as they maintain some kind of coherent sense of fairness. Games like Demon’s Souls and Bionic Commando: Rearmed keep the difficulty high without being cheap and as a result they’re infinitely replayable. Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond is also hard, but in the worst possible way. Every game designer who thinks that insta-death jumps and weirdly twitchy controls are a recipe for fun should be locked in a room and told that food will only be released once they’ve beaten the mine-cart level from Taz-Mania three times in a row without dying. Perverts.
Lousy respawn points compound the problem. After being caught out by a jump-now-or-die environmental hazard, I re-spawned a little further back on the screen. Your average player would not usually find this too problematic, but when the level is taking place on top of a moving train and the re-spawn puts the player back on top of a carriage which has decoupled from the one in front and is moving off screen the gap between the carriages meant that the only option was to lose a second life in as many seconds. That’s not ‘hard but fair’ - that’s simply terrible design. Having a strictly limited number of continues on any difficulty level other than Easy is another a cause for frustration as in the event of the player’s death a lack of continues results in a return to the start of the level. It’s better than having to restart the entire game, but not by much - there are times when getting halfway through a level will leave the player with one life remaining, seemingly no matter how many times it’s been played through before.
Sometimes though, there are moments that can raise a brief smile. Throughout the game there are occasional points where you can almost see what the designers were aiming for, no matter how far off their attempts were. Each level is thematically based on some popular videogame series or other and occasionally they are done quite nicely. Roaming ‘Big Daddy’-alikes are fought in the Bioshock themed boat level, while the level with the cowboy motif borrows heavily from Team Fortress 2. Regrettably, even the sight of a DeLorean parked in a shed in the background of the western level is not enough to rescue the game from itself. In every case where there’s something that’s been done with a little polish, there’ll immediately be something else that spoils your enjoyment. Bad visual jokes about gay sailors, mincing pirates and Canadian Mounties in inexplicably tight shorts crop up regularly and interrupt any pleasure that may be gained from enjoying the gaming in-jokes that make up the levels.
Largely, the game feels like something put together either by hooting 21-year-old frat boys or a gray, faceless crowd of bloodless, glassy-eyed PR drones who’ve extensively focus-grouped every aspect of the experience to death. Everything seems so disjointed that one gets the impression that in the attempt to combine so many nods and references, the game’s own personality has become lost. Granted, this may be for the best given the woeful script, but it still seems a shame that an idea that could have been done very well has ended up as a dreadful, shoddy mess.
Amazingly (and because I like to end things on a positive note) there may be a particular time, when the stars are aligned and the moon is rising, that the game could be incredible fun; not just in spite of its flaws and appalling humour, but actively because of them. Miracles can indeed happen, and this particular miracle would probably be engendered by getting a chum round, drinking beer and playing the co-op mode while laughing at how terrible everything is and sharing little nudge-nudge-wink-wink moments when one of you spots a reference to Elevator Action. Even this suggestion is to be treated with caution however, as the ability to steal a life from another player in co-op could bring about a violent end to the friendship, while if you’re too young to drink you could be square out of luck - then again, if you’re too young to drink, you might actually find it funny.