There aren’t a lot of ways to die in Platinum Game’s fighting game MadWorld, but there are a tremendous number of ways to kill. You can immolate or impale your enemies. You can toss them in front of a train or into a meat grinder or a vat of boiling oil. You can hurl them onto spikes or trees with remarkably large thorns. You can shove them to the ground and drive their heads into the atmosphere with a golf club.
It’s a long list.
Presentation: Sloppy Story, Elegant Graphics
As MadWorld begins, we learn that Varrigan City is, for mysterious reasons, cordoned off from the rest of the world. It turns out the city has been turned into a vast arena for a murderous game called DeathWatch in which contestants slaughter one another. The game follows Jack, who claims to be there to win the game’s 100 million dollar prize but appears to have an ulterior motive.
While the story is hackneyed and poorly told, MadWorld is one of the most amazing looking games of all time. That’s right; a game on the famously graphics-poor Wii is visually more impressive than most PS3 and Xbox 360 title. Given the look of a black and white comic book, MadWorld is one of the few games whose look when played equals the quality of the screenshots put out by the publisher’s PR department. Those screenshots look like meticulous line drawings; the game looks like meticulous line drawings come to life. It has the most stunning and artistic visual design of any game since Okami.
The game is not, however, entirely black and white. There are two other colors; yellow, used for comic-book inspired onscreen text like “squiiish,” and red, for the blood that suffuses every inch of the screen as you batter away at your opponents.
Gameplay: Underneath the Gloss, a Workmanlike Game
The game’s visual creativity is almost matched by the creativity of its carnage. Few games have so thoroughly gloried in violence. Players progress through MadWorld by racking up points which are tied to the savagery of a kill. You’ll get a few points for simply slicing your opponent in half with a chainsaw (with a slashing motion of the remote), but more points if before doing that you incapacitate him by plopping a barrel over his head. The more torturous someone’s death, the more points you get; pull a street sign out of the sidewalk and run your victim through, then shove a barrel over his head, then jam a soda bottle down his throat, then drive another street sign through him and then repeatedly shove him into one of the game’s conveniently located spiked walls and you will really rack up the points.
This would be disturbing if it weren’t so ludicrously over the top, but the cartoonish quality of the violence makes it impossible to take seriously. I could never watch a movie like Saw, but I felt nary a twinge as I watched blood cascade from my prey as he was ground into a bloody pulp.
This is entertaining for a while, but in spite of its stunning graphics and imaginative butchery, there’s not really a lot to MadWorld. You will experience a certain juvenile satisfaction the first time you hurl someone onto a spike and hear that satisfying squish, but by the 50th time, it’s a bit ho hum.
Unfortunately, MadWorld relies far too much on looks and outrageousness. Divorced of its unique graphics and over-the-top presentation, this is actually a rather mediocre beat-em-up. The fighting system is fairly primitive, with only a few basic combos and no way to chain attacks from one enemy to the next when you’re surrounded. The game’s targeting system is close to useless.
Taking place in various neighborhoods, MadWorld offers distinct environments like Chinatown or a haunted castle imported from Eastern Europe. The player is required to earn a certain number of points before he can fight that level’s boss. Mainly this involves running around killing thugs while DeathWatch color commentators prattle on in a vaguely humorous manner. At a certain point in each level there is a “Blood Bath Challenge” in which you must try and kill a lot of enemies in a particular way, such as hurling them into a plane’s roaring engine or shoving them into explosive barrels and firing them off like fireworks. Certain victories will unlock special weapons to replace your default chainsaw or items that restore health or lure enemies to a central place where they can be massacred in bulk. On some levels, particularly pernicious bad guys will be set loose who require much more effort to vanquish.
The game’s biggest design flaw is that if you die during a boss battle, you have to replay the entire level before you can re-fight the boss. This was typical of games in the 1990s, but is thankfully rare now. Being forced to replay levels only makes the gameplay seem even more repetitive.
Conclusion: More Style than Substance
I really wanted to like MadWorld, because it looks so amazing. The experience is like meeting a beautiful woman and getting bored by your conversation but hating to walk away because she’s so damn gorgeous. People will date someone really dull for months because of their good looks, and I feel there is a similar mechanic driving the almost universal rave reviews MadWorld has received. It’s not that it’s a bad game it’s just a so-so game dressed up like a great one.
I actually think MadWorld would have worked best with a stronger multiplayer mode. When I started playing, I thought it would be cool to play online multiplayer deathmatch against a dozen people all running around wreaking havoc. But not only is there no online play, there's only one-one-on multiplayer offline play. It's just another area where the game falls short.
One imagines the game’s designers spent a lot of time sitting around making a list of deadly objects like rotating blades, spikes, fireplaces and studded clubs. Playing MadWorld inspired me to make a similar list, one of descriptive phrases; all that glitters is not gold, all sizzle and no steak, flash without substance, sound and fury signifying nothing … it’s a long list.