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Capsule of Curiosities: Jan-Feb 2009 Retrospective

2009 was a high watermark for the industry, packed with high profile exclusives for each system and the rise of numerous IPs that would dominate the coming decade. However, more important to this column (as well as my heart), is the glut of one-off B-list releases doomed to a state of oblivion ten years later, in dire need of being pulled from the ether. Games carried upon release by nothing beyond an idea so bizarre, pumping millions of dollars into it would have been a death wish. So instead we got ramshackle experiments and vanity projects that have only grown in farcical status as the years have advanced and products have become more self-serious. We’ll be digging up the artifacts most inherent to 2009 in their own articles, for now let’s allow ourselves to sort through the discarded fossils, abandoned in piles and lost to the passage of time.

 

50 Cent: Blood on the Sand:

Courtesy of Amazon

“Shockingly adequate” was the reception 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand was greeted with, destined to face a low bar of expectations due to every single contextual nuance of its release. A sequel to the entirely awful 50 Cent: Bulletproof, Blood on the Sand takes Curtis Jackson and company to a wholly ambiguous middle eastern country to stir some trouble. The crew tear the tattered land to shreds for the sake of a noble cause, to retrieve the diamond skull stolen from Fif, and in the meanwhile casually put an end to a terrorist conglomerate.

 

In an age where every third-person shooter out was plundering the mechanics of Gears of War for their own convenience, Blood on the Sand perhaps does it the most shamelessly and directly. It makes for about as tight of a shooter as one relying on executive input from 50 Cent’s seven year old son could be. Blood on the Sand is mostly a stunningly standard title. Barring the remarkable taunt collection (equipped with stat system) and a score from Swizz Beatz, Blood on the Sand mostly feels like G-Unit walked into the average Rebellion title (maybe the former is an element of overlap).

 

The crew’s incredibly mercenary voice acting only enhances matters further. Blood on the Sand is a comedic masterpiece wrapped in a just competent enough cover shooter to pass muster. Timed challenges issued during combat and the importance of collecting posters of yourself throughout the campaign truly spells out how arcadey of an experience Blood on the Sand is. The outright encouragement to toss out any concept of restraint and enjoy 50 Cent’s power fantasy at face value makes matters contagiously asinine. There’s nothing special in Blood on the Sand’s playing experience beyond the mere audacity of its existence. There appears to be underlying acknowledgement of how inane a product Blood on the Sand is compared to the stone-faced stupidity of 50 Cent Bulletproof. Developers for Blood on the Sand have fully dedicated themselves to making a decent title out of licensing’s nadir.

 

The game steps away from its Gears of War shadowing in two respects, bookending vehicle chases and numerous helicopter encounters (50’s son can be thanked for the latter). These are the weakest moments of the game by far. Chases are expectedly clunky, running at an appallingly lumbering speed, but this hollow variety is easy and flashy enough to make for more begrudging amusement. The input of 50’s son, meanwhile, produces the most irritating segments of the game, helicopters that dodge RPG rounds from a distance and make for the most nondescript sections of a game that doesn’t even bother to give its Middle Eastern territory a name.

 

And then you’re killing grunts again while 50 screams profanity in your ear to canned G-Unit song loops and all has transcended. Blood on the Sand is the best thing 50 Cent has had his name on since 2003, sublime shovelware to be gawked at for its adequacy and appreciated for its brazen cult of personality. Your enjoyment of it rests entirely on your attitude towards “50 Cent third-person shooter”, if the idea amuses you ever so slightly, it’s everything you could ask for and more.

 

Quality: 6/10

Amusement: 9/10

 

Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard

It was a self-fulfilling prophecy of densely meta proportions; Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard found itself reserved to the bargain bins nigh immediately, residing in Metascore purgatory, albeit cleaning up shop at the 2009 Spike Video Game Awards. Before they became Alvin and the Chipmunks costars, Will Arnett and Neil Patrick Harris lent their prestige to a game with visible contempt for its industry, its characters, and possibly the product itself. You play as the titular Matt Hazard (voiced by Arnett), a past his prime action star stuck in development hell for too long, desperate for a next-generation comeback. This is his grand return, intercepted by Wallace Wellesley (Mr. Harris), the nebbish game corp CEO plotting extensively to kill and replace him in-game.

 

Eat Lead is not a very good game. The line between satire and the developer’s limitations is frequently blurred. Gunplay is stilted, hitboxes are limited to a headshot or everything else, and enemy spawn points are bizarrely unfair, though the surrounding title is easy enough to diminish its impact. Matt Hazard is a copy of a copy, a parody of Duke Nukem’s rickety transition from boilerplate platforming protagonist to FPS jester to laughingstock. In advance of Duke Nukem Forever’s release, it was easy to tell players to wait for the real deal, but after Forever somehow turned out measurably worse than Eat Lead, the latter has retained some unlikely charm.

 

The jokes range from easy puns to low-effort high-concept genre excursions (in about a 60:40 ratio) and though it never becomes more fun to play than it is to watch, there’s a sort of virtue in blasting 16-bit off brand Wolfenstein soldiers (who can only side-scroll in a 3D world) with Soak’Em military water rifles. Enduring battles against mock-JRPG bosses (text boxes included) and “Sting Sniperscope” cushions the blow of gameplay this stilted (albeit just barely), and for all the game’s flaws it doesn’t feel especially dated. The clumsy Vicious Engine is pushed to its limits, while the basics of post-2006 cover shooting are replicated and even aided with a point-to-advance cover system that lends some faint degree of grace to movement. Credit to the basement level expectations of “comedy” games perhaps, but ten years down the line I continue to have a decent time with Eat Lead.

Quality: 5/10

Amusement: 7/10

 

The House of the Dead: Overkill

Courtesy of Amazon

Motion control’s introduction to the seventh-generation was a landmark innovation, newly present immersion realized to its full potential by third party developers… mostly through light-gun games. The Guncom and Stunner Light Gun had long been collecting dust by the time the Wiimote touched down in millions of households, but carried the burden of being additional peripherals for their consoles. The Wiimote debuted with the implicit ability to bring across arcade cabinet experiences (a double-edged capability) with the addition of an on-screen reticle and only optional, further ridiculous peripherals.

 

What better excuse, then, for Sega to release the first console exclusive entry in the House of the Dead franchise, The House of the Dead: Overkill. In content and execution, Overkill is the most elaborate House of the Dead by far, even if it leans a bit too heavily into Z-grade presentation for its own sake. The wink-wink pseudo-grindhouse fetish act done by Robert Rodriguez and Tarantino at his worst has always rung hollow to me, and Overkill is effectively a one-to-one translation of it, but underneath the film-grain facsimile and self-indulgent bantering is a lot of rail shooter setpieces that retain the puppet show lunacy House of the Dead always had.

 

Overkill is content to offer more of it, with carnivals and strip clubs as the background canvas instead of the Venetian Gothic architecture of House of the Dead 2 or nu-metal concept art of 3 and 4. It’s relatively admirable that Overkill would return to a sense of defined style lost since House of the Dead’s original sequel. As obvious as the blithering profanity Overkill’s protagonists speak in is, it’s mostly House of the Dead coming full circle as a franchise embracing its tendency for iconically terrible voice acting, just lacking the delusional charm stone-faced precursors had.

 

Overkill is a pandering crowd-pleasing swing for the internet’s affection, designing a title for which a RiffTrax commentary track would be a mere redundancy. Though Overkill pulls off the shocking feat of being less subtle than its predecessors, it’s a mechanically solid light-gun shooter with more observable effort put into its design from top-to-bottom than the bulk of its peers. All in all, it’s one of the better ways to bring House of the Dead into your household.

 

Quality: 7/10

Amusement: 7/10

 

Deadly Creatures

To counteract my lament at motion control capabilities mostly leading to their own brand of homogeneity amongst games, let’s discuss Deadly Creatures. A brawler, platformer, stealthy insect simulator, a refinement of Mister Mosquito, putting you in control of tarantula and scorpion alike. Motion controls are the standard affair (perhaps to the game’s benefit), but it’s hard to find a true comparison point for the rest of the game. Ground level environment design turning shoes and bike spokes to towering architecture and a gas station to a labyrinth is novel throughout the game’s length. Combat is realized to a peculiarly detailed extent, and it unfolds more fluidly than the traditional third-party waggle fest matters that could often be expected from the Wii.

 

Entirely different movesets for the respective scorpion and tarantula keep matters varied, while mini-boss encounters with lizards and a praying mantis feel shockingly tense. This can primarily be credited to the measured control system, as well as the uncomfortably vivid sound effects accompanying gameplay. Deadly Creatures is a pricklier affair than much of the content marketed for Wii owners. A tale of treasure hunting and deceit between human characters (played by Dennis Hopper and Billy Bob Thornton) controls the journey your creatures take, though thankfully through in-game eavesdropping instead of canned cutscenes.

 

The game spins a tale so far removed from the phoned-in shovelware the Wii swiftly became an unearned home for. It was often tough to find a truly idiosyncratic title for the Wii beyond the vessel of its control, but Deadly Creatures is yet to be followed-up in any respect to this day. Though things wrap with an astonishingly chintzy FMV a mere eight hours in, the preceding journey is more than unique enough to make unearthing the title worthwhile.

 

Quality: 8/10

Amusement: 8/10

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