Eat Lead's subtitle is "The Return of Matt Hazard" - which may leave more observant game fans scratching their heads a little. The point, you see, is that Matt Hazard was never actually gone. Or here, for that matter. He's a fictional action game hero making a "return" so heavily laden with gaming in-jokes that they threaten to overwhelm even Matt's implausibly meaty shoulders.
It's the kind of idea that has almost certainly been labelled "quirky" in at least a dozen executive meetings - but for publishers D3, Eat Lead is actually far more than a quirky little sideline. Having developed a reputation for importing budget Japanese titles into Europe, D3 is determined to reinvent itself as a publisher of original IP, and Eat Lead is one of its first significant efforts.
In essence, it's a Gears of War clone. Matt - a strapping stereotype in combat boots who wouldn't look out of place trading rolled-towel swats with the Gears of War boys in a locker-room, which is presumably the point - rolls and ducks from cover to cover, spraying bullets over counters and around corners, or dodging out to take more accurate (but more risky) aimed shots.
A couple of features stand out. Most notable is the ability to "point and run" - targeting a piece of cover, and then pressing a single button to sprint over and dive behind it. In practice, this does look like it'll make diving from cover to cover a bit more intuitive. The game also makes use of destructible cover - not exactly the innovation it used to be, given how commonplace it is now, but mixing things up by destroying areas of cover in combat is always a welcome addition.
The team is also promising a fairly comprehensive hand-to-hand fighting system by the time Eat Lead actually appears (early next year on PS3 and Xbox 360, by the way). At present, there's some rather clunky melee combat in there, but with several months left in development we'll be interested to note how that turns out in the final game.
At this point in time, though, much of the focus doesn't seem to be on the bones of how the game plays. Frankly, "Gears of War Lite" is as honest an assessment as we can offer right now, and you can take that as being as positive or as negative as you like. Instead, D3 is very, very keen to tell us all how funny the whole thing is.
In fairness, Eat Lead does seem to capture the tone of gamer in-jokes fairly accurately. The entertainingly preposterous idea is that Matt Hazard is a real person with a life outside the videogames in which he stars. Having enjoyed fame and fortune with his earlier titles (first as an increasingly detailed sprite, before eventually making the move into 3D), he's been put out to pasture after the failure of some awful spin-off games (like "Hazmatt Kart").
When his publisher, MarathonSoft, is taken over by a mysterious chap who's apparently a huge hardcore gamer, Matt is offered a chance to resurrect his career - but soon finds himself trapped in the new, next-generation game he's meant to be starring in, with his only link to the real world being "QA", a tester at MarathonSoft who speaks to him from outside the gameworld. Obviously, his only way out is to actually beat the game.
The structure is, essentially, an excuse for the developers to break the fourth wall on a regular basis - with Matt directly commenting in "gamer" terms on what's happening around him - and to plunder videogames' history for references, in-jokes and characters. For instance, the weapons we saw in action were fairly standard fare, but we're promised a whole host of weapons and power-ups that will be familiar nods to famous weapons from other games.
Bosses, too, will often be nods to other games. The developers hinted strongly that one of the bosses will be a familiar-looking JRPG character with a huge sword and long hair - while another will be an Italian "carpenter" with an impressive moustache. Right.
More than just gags, however, the setting also lets the team play with how the world around you is structured. One of the key concepts is that an outside force is "hacking" the gameworld as you play - so entire sections of levels change on the fly, and enemies from Matt's old games are warped into the most incongruous locations to face him.
In one example which we saw, the grubby back yard of a nightclub morphed into a Wild West high noon showdown in front of Matt's eyes. That was fairly impressive - we're less sure about the game using this "hacking" as an excuse to pop enemies into the world all around you. At least Doom III had the decency to wait until your back was turned before making ten demons leap out of a wardrobe.
Graphically, the whole affair isn't looking much more than competent at the moment. There are some quite nice touches - destroyed cover which disappears in a shower of digital effects, for example, or "code" flying off enemies as you shoot them, rather than blood. However, the engine itself is an in-house developed technology, D3 claims - and it does show. Eat Lead is disappointingly bland-looking at present. While it may improve markedly in the next six months, if it doesn't it'll join Haze and several others in the growing pile of games marked "why didn't you just license Unreal?"
There's clearly a lot of work left to do on Eat Lead, but the central concept - gamer in-jokes galore and Gears of War-style action (albeit in single-player only - the game sports no multiplayer) - will probably be enough to put this game on many people's radars. The whole thing does have a slightly worrying Last Action Hero feel to it, and we're not convinced that Matt Hazard is the next gaming icon in the making - but if this pops out at a quiet time in next year's release calendar, it looks like it could be a decent blast to liven up a dull weekend.
Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard is due out for PS3 and 360 in Q1 2009.