Dead Horse Review: MadWorld (Wii)

Pros: + Great art style  + Great soundtrack  + Satisfying combat mixed up with different weapons  + Wild boss fights  + Hard mode doesn’t skimp on difficulty  + Hilarious dialogue  + Stage challenges and combos add replay value

Cons: – Bland multiplayer  – No leaderboards  – Commentary dialogue repeats a lot  – Occasional visual repetition  – Very short  – Camera is a nuisance

Tired of minigame compilations and shameless ports? Platinum Games has your back. Welcome to MadWorld, the gloriously over-the-top, “ultra ultra violent” beat-’em-up for Wii. What it lacks in color, MadWorld more than makes up for in style, both in its striking art design and hilariously gratuitous use of blood, which gives the likes of No More Heroes and Mortal Kombat a run for their money.

You’re Jack, a former marine-turned mercenary, trapped in Varrigan City. Jack is having a bad day, with more than a few thugs to tear his way through on his way to the top of the Death Watch rankings.

What’s Death Watch? It’s a game show where the only real prizes are killing and surviving–you can pick one or the other, or both. A terrorist group has taken control of Varrigan City, sealing off all exits and releasing a virus into the population. Everyone in the city will die unless they kill everyone else in their way to win an antivirus. Needless to say, a lot of people die in the ensuing chaos, and Jack makes the death toll even higher as he searches for the mayor’s daughter.

The story is ridiculous, but you never get the feeling it’s taking itself seriously. After all, this is a game where you use zombies as golf balls and spank a vampire dominatrix through a cathedral window. Even when it’s getting “serious,” something cheesy or self-aware will happen, like a character chiming in with, “Okay, I get it,” before another character can monologue. It’s obvious the story is here only as fluff to offer a quasi-plausible backdrop the gameplay and humor.

The story plays out primarily through comic book style cutscenes that focus more on sliding panels with expressive art than character models interacting with one another. You’ll still see Jack vocalize his lines, but the majority of supporting characters pop in or slide through in square panels.

This isn’t the full extent of the comic book presentation of the game. The roar of Jack’s chainsaw (by the way, he has a chainsaw arm) is visually represented onscreen, along with the various sound effects of the mayhem you unleash. Power struggles with bosses are initiated through anime-like two-panel cutaways that show a dramatic staredown between the two characters, and the camera angle emphasizes the struggle in a similar fashion.

Everything moves smoothly, and there’s an impressive level of variety in the presentation, especially considering the limited color palette. Given the Wii’s hardware limitations, going with a less realistic look was a wise choice, though the black-and-white-and-red-all-over could have gotten boring quickly. Luckily, the folks at Platinum Games knew exactly what they were doing and managed to give most of the stages a unique look and feel. From the rooftops of Chinatown (or “Asiantown”) to ruined castles, most of the stages manage to stand out–though there is a little repetition in the middle.

MadWorld is built on a violence-as-humor concept, kind of like Kill Bill meets Tom and Jerry, so you’re left with campy gags and copious amounts of blood. And there are plenty of both to go around. Dominatrixes show up to seemingly (and comically) kill off supporting characters, only to have them show up later and do it all again. Signs that warn against head injury by impalement on them are used for–what else?–impaling goons’ heads.

It’s on tricks like impaling your enemies’ heads (which only disorients them, oddly enough) and slamming trash cans over them that most of MadWorld’s action is built. At its core, the combat is made up of very simple mechanics: You can use your fists or your chainsaw, each of which has light and heavy attacks; use your chainsaw too much and it’ll run out of gas and have to slowly refill before it’s available again. Again, very simple.

How did Platinum Games fix that? You could say it’s due to the ability to obtain extra weapons in each level, with varying degrees of durability and power, but that wouldn’t be fair. Yes, you can get other weapons that are better suited for certain enemies (a giant magnet for robots, a spear for pesky biker ninjas, and so on), and yes, you can use stylish finishers both with those alternate weapons and without. But the lion’s share of the combat is based around building up your “combo” with a given target.

You can take out a goon with your bare hands, but it’s not very stylish, so you’ll get a low score. Or you can slam a tire around your target’s torso, impale his head on three signs and throw him into a dumpster-guillotine for a much higher score. Factor in bonuses and penalties from things like first strikes and time efficiency, and you have a surprising level of sophistication.

The more creative you are with your kills, the more points you get. You get more points, you unlock more in every level. Remember the alternate weapons? Well, if you want to use that fancy pair of daggers, you’ll need to rack up a high score. Want an extra life? Better get to it. But you don’t have all the time in the world to do it, and the other enemies aren’t going to stand around as you wail on their buddy. The longer you knock one enemy around, the longer you’re open to attacks, so there’s a level of risk versus reward.

Most stages have hotspots where it’s easier to gain points, and nearly all stages have violent Blood Bath Challenges (minigames that involve killing your enemies in more ridiculous ways than normal) to yield huge amounts of points. You might use a nailed bat to knock stunned enemies into a giant dart board for higher points. Or maybe you’ll shake a bottle of soda and ram it into a poor sap’s mouth, sending him flying at a target painted to look like a shapely woman.

Once you’ve earned enough points, you gain access to the stage’s boss. The bosses are often the high points, and most have interesting mechanics to make them stand out. You’ll find bosses summoning packs of wolves, throwing tornadoes at you, electrifying the floor, attacking on motorcycles–and that’s just a few. Every fight has its own little cues and gimmicks you’ll need to pay attention to in order to excel (or survive, in the case of the brutal hard difficulty).

But MadWorld isn’t without its gripes. As is the case with most Wii action titles, the camera can be a pain. Platinum Games seemed to realize that, and to their credit, they threw players a bone with the ability to lock on to certain enemies and reposition the camera behind Jack with the touch of a button. This doesn’t always help, especially on the infrequent occasions in which you’re completely surrounded, but for the most part does its job.

Strangely, despite the game’s emphasis on high scores, there are no online leaderboards–a simple addition that would have added a bit more competition and maybe made the bare-bones multiplayer a bit more engaging. Yes, there is a split-screen competitive mode, but there’s not a whole lot to do in it. Remember the Blood Bath Challenges? Well, you play as Jack or Kojack (Jack’s none-too-talkative foil; don’t worry about him too much) and compete in the game’s dozen or so minigames, competing for the higher score. It’s not a bad addition, but you won’t spend much time on it.

Finally, though MadWorld’s main game is hugely entertaining, it’s also pretty short. Not for lack of trying to add some extra goodies in, though; the unlockable hard difficulty is intense. How intense? Deaths in the tutorial level are nothing to be ashamed of. Your enemies will fight a more defensive battle, evading your attacks and then laughing just before they tear into you. The AI seems to have been tweaked for this mode, but you also take a lot more damage, so even the weakest of street thugs can take you down in a few hits. While it’s definitely not for everyone, the difficulty of hard mode adds a significant chunk to play time for anyone looking to get more mileage out of MadWorld’s otherwise somewhat lacking package.

If anything in MadWorld comes close to upstaging the visuals, it’s the sound. Sure, the sound effects and most of the voice actors are good, but Greg Proops (comedian and regular Whose Line guest) and John DiMaggio (best known for Futurama’s Bender) steal the show as the game show’s hilarious announcers. You’ll be hearing their commentary a lot, because they have something to say about everything–don’t play a poor game or they’ll get on your case. The only problem is that their commentary will begin to repeat itself within a few levels. It’s still funny, but it can get annoying the sixth time you hear about what somebody does with “happy pills.”

Fortunately, just about every level and fight has its own song. What’d they do for the soundtrack? Rap–lots and lots of rap. And it’s awesome. The music department composed a couple dozen unique tracks, then turned them over to a handful of independent rap artists. It seems like Platinum Games told the artists to just go wild with the tracks, because most of them involve graphic imagery and the idea of (surprise, surprise) violence as comedy. For instance, the theme used for female bosses directly references the song’s usage; “Yo… I’m the female boss!” the singer declares.

Special attention should be called to the group called Ox, who contribute a plurality of songs, from the gleefully ridiculous “Ride!!” to the downbeat, electronic “Soul.” Not to diminish the contributions of the raspy Doujah Raze, for whom “Deathwatch” and “Crazy” are standouts, or the sly Sick YG, whose delirious “Ain’t That Funny” stands out among the Asiantown levels. Despite the soundtrack covering only one mainstream genre, the majority of tracks manage to stand apart, though again, a couple sound pretty similar.

It’s not without its problems, but MadWorld offers an engaging, if short, dose of beat-’em-up action. Loud, stupid and immature, MadWorld is also all kinds of fun. For anyone looking for an escape from the typical “family friendly” experience on Nintendo’s home console, it’s well worth the look. Sure, it’s short, and Platinum Games missed a few opportunities with additional features, but the sheer fun manages to outshine most of its gripes.

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About Aaron Kinney

I don't wanna think anymore.
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