30 March 2009

MadWorld: Sega Does What Suda Don't. (And Sony.)

After a two-level session of MadWorld this morning, two things struck me:

1. MadWorld is a better action game than God of War.
2. MadWorld is No More Heroes Done Right.

I noticed the first point immediately when I *tried* to play God of War first. To begin with, the overabundance of transparent walls blocking my every path was annoying the hell outta me, and secondly, my lack of familiarity with Sony's obstinate insistence on unique button symbols sent me into a brain-flipping frenzy every time a quick-time sequence was initiated. Not only was I forcing myself to play a game other than the new game MadWorld, I had to force my brain to think that 'X' was the bottom button, and not the left. I had to do this using an inherently incorrect algebraic equation:

A = X, X = Square

Or for those brought up in the backwards land of Nintendo, the equation would look something like this:

B = A, Y = X; therefore, B = X, Y = Square

Can we get the Big Three into a room and get them to agree on the placement of the 'X' button please? Like the good old days post-World War II?

Nintendo, Microsoft & Sony meet to decide the fate of the 'X' button.

But at the end of the day, all I could think was that I was forcing myself to play God of War even though all I really wanted to do was play MadWorld. Partly because MadWorld was 'the new game', but mostly because it is a better action game. I say "better action game" because God of War does many things that MadWorld doesn't. God of War is a blockbuster action/puzzle/platformer in the vein of 'epic' Hollywood films like Gladiator, while MadWorld is an indie love-letter to Streets of Rage and Sin City. That is to say it is raw arcade-y action minus the puzzles, trinkets and lever-pulling. You'd think by now I should have mentioned God of War in the title, and not No More Heroes.

MadWorld pulled me away from THIS.

But you'd be wrong. I haven't forgotten my second point: No More Heroes could have been the sytlised, raw action parody that MadWorld is, but was lumbered with its drab and sluggish overworld, replete with mini-games and annoying transparent walls (I understand that this too was a parody, but what's the point of a parody if you can't have any fun with it?). What MadWorld essentially gives me is what I wished No More Heroes was. And that is, just the action bits. Crunch-crunch-crunch - that's how an action game should feel. Come to think of it, even God Hand does a better No More Heroes impression than No More Heroes does.

It's as if PlatinumGames got together down at the local pub [instead of staying home to play WoW in their nerd lairs] to discuss what was wrong with No More Heroes. And to recap their conversation, they said something to the effect of "right -- we need a bolder presentation, more contextual controls, more action set-pieces, more intentional level design, and for the love of God, NO OVERWORLD!" Then they went back to the office and made MadWorld. That's almost certainly not what happened, but it's a nice story, anyway.

What's black and white and red all over? MadWorld, that's what.

Now, to hone in on the specific elements of that fictional pub conversation, the presentation is probably MadWorld's strongest suit. Its Sin City black-and-white-and-red-all-over palette is confident and makes it stand out in the sea of 'mature' titles. The pulp comic and arcade stylings frame the action in a comedic light, which can be your only defence when the ESRB and family groups come knocking at your door, crying for blood. No More Heroes attempted this and failed - it wasn't contextual enough for the BBFC - and so the European version was neutered blood-wise [though rumours suggested that could have had more to do with the release of Manhunt 2 than anything else].

The controls are more contextual than NMH as well. They 'make more sense' if you will, and the result is something far more tactile: hit the 'A' button for jabs and punches, hold 'A' to hold enemies and items, swing the remote for a more powerful punch from your mechanised arm, hold 'B' to retract your chainsaw from said arm, and swing while holding 'B'. There are a few spur-of-the-moment prompts (let's call them 'quick-time events' for lack of a better term) for split-second decisions that also make a lot of sense. Thrusting forward with the Wii remote during a 'B' finish to carve your punk-ass foe like a Christmas Turkey just feels right. And the icing on the cake: a quick shake of the nunchuk headbutts the captive in your thrall. Probably my only qualm is the way the game prioritises picking up punks to picking up items. Sure, those priorities make sense from a survival perspective, but it doesn't do the scoreboard any favours. Something both games lack: a rotatable camera. Hopefully Suda addresses this in his next outing.

Lamp post in head = Contextual Violence.

The items are MadWorld's sticking point. After a quick tutorial at the start, it becomes immediately apparent where each item sits in the Circle of Death. Tires and oil drums immobilise, signposts skewer, and 'rosebushes' hang 'em out to dry. These are the bread and butter of MadWorld, but plenty other environmental disasters are interspersed to spice up the carnage. Being a Gameshow of Death, every level is lovingly crafted for that express purpose. In No More Heroes, one gets the feeling that the levels are just 'there', cobbled together for the express purpose of housing enemies. Again, MadWorld trumps in concept and context.

Which is a shame, because the concepts are remarkably similar. In both games, you essentially face off against the World's Greatest Merchants of Death to improve your ranking as a Merchant of Death. There's a lot more to both, of course, but that's the crux of it from a gameplay perspective. But the narrative informs MadWorld's mechanics in a far clearer fashion. In a plotline reminiscent of Batman: No Man's Land, the city of MadWorld has been sealed off from the outside world. A criminal organisation turns the city into a perverse gameshow for its wealthy clientele, and its citizens must kill or be killed for money. The last man standing is the winner. The sealed-off city serves the arcade-style gameplay, framing each level as a battleground. You kill enough people in one area, you progress to the next area, unlock new challenges and so forth. Your score is your cash, and you earn more for more creative kills. And so the Mighty Chainsaw becomes a last resort, and the imperative is to use as many items and hazards as possible in the most creative ways possible. The overworld of No More Heroes is at odds with the rest of the game. That Suda 51 repletes his overworld with invisible walls only speaks to the conflict in design. The inanity of mowing lawns and collecting coconuts for cash is frustrating when you know you should be mowing down suits with swords and collecting assassins' heads for trophies. Can you see the contrast here? Both are brawlers at their core: in one you raise money for the opportunity to fight; in the other you fight for money. MadWorld cuts out the middle man and the result is a tighter gameplay narrative.

No More Heroes is its own worst enemy.

Don't get me wrong, No More Heroes is a good game, and full respect for getting the action-satire ball rolling on Wii. But it gets in the way of its own fun! MadWorld is recognisable as the evolutionary next step: it trims the fat, leaving only the meaty gameplay. It's what No More Heroes should have been.

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