Version tested: Wii
Jack has just torn the head clean off a man dressed as a minotaur, when yet another steroid-pumped goon wanders into shot. Perfect timing! In one graceful movement I slam the beast's still-warm horned skull down onto the unfortunate man's shoulders. It connects with such force that, as I step back to admire my handiwork, it remains lodged in place. If Xzibit were here perhaps he'd quip: "Yo Dawg! We heard you like head so we put a new head in your head." Instead, as MadWorld's two commentators come from the Wrestlemania tradition of television commentary, we're treated to the cruder line: "You've got one minute left: which is precisely the amount of time your wife spent f***ing you on your honeymoon."
Next, I grab a signpost and spear the brute's second-hand face with it. As he stumbles about, understandably disorientated from his improbable wounds, I rev the chainsaw attachment on Jack's right arm and, encouraged by the FINISHER! icon flashing on screen, slice him vertically in two with a deft flick of the Wiimote. His torso flaps open like a peeled banana as a crimson puddle bubbles about my feet. Jack's ratings soar.
Gamers who have been clamouring for adult content for Nintendo's Wii are to be sorely disappointed. MadWorld is as juvenile a videogame as Barbie's Horse Adventures. Of course, juvenile doesn't necessarily mean that it's in any way suitable for children. Quite the opposite, in fact. After all, Barbie never got to dip her pony into a flaming oil drum before ramming it onto a spiked wall. Eyes first. Repeatedly.
As manna for Daily Mail Outrage, MadWorld is the choicest morsel yet delivered by gaming in 2009. Of course, the idiosyncratic black and white visuals, interrupted only by the odd splash of yellow comic book onomatopoeia and spattering of bright red blood, bespeak the game's graphical pedigree. This is what Clover Studios did next, the latest addition to Atsushi Inaba's stylised family of games that includes Viewtiful Joe, Okami and Godhand.
But on the other side of MadWorld's family tree sit Manhunt and Smash TV. This is snuff videogaming, the latest in a short but controversial line of games about a character killing other characters in gruesome ways for the viewing pleasure of an in-game television audience. This is a supremely violent videogame but it's the kind of violence in which you catapult a zombie into the light side of the moon, or in which a sumo wrestler leaps up to grab a helicopter from the sky before trying to impale you on its blades: more Powerpuff Girls than sick filth.
Jack, MadWorld's gravel-voiced antihero, is the latest star of Death Watch, a television show filmed entirely by the CCTV cameras of Jefferson Island. This totalitarian future city has been cordoned off and turned into a bloody television set, its residents fighting each other to death for viewing figure glory. Jack ostensibly works for a TV producer, Agent XIII, chasing a grim career trajectory by touring the various areas of the city, facing off against the other show's stars (the game's bosses) and climbing the rankings. But writer Yasumi Matsuno (best known for his games Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story) builds upon this vanilla premise in interesting ways and it's not long before the story becomes a compelling proposition.
Even if it doesn't grab you, the story provides a solid and traditional structure for the game, each district in the city offering up three stages, each with its own rival TV character to defeat. In every level you have to pass a specified score threshold before the boss is drawn out, a target which can be met through a variety of different point-collecting. Firstly, there are the grunts that roam each area. You can take them down with a few punches to the head or, if you prefer, by slicing at them with your chainsaw arm. However, to score the high points you'll need to get more creative, linking together attacks before you finally snuff them out.
This is achieved by making use of the various items and safety hazards littered about each level. For example, you might pull a tyre over an enemy's torso, trapping his arms, before slicing at him with twin blades to chop those arms off. Then you can grab what's left of his body and throw him into a trash cart, the force of which causes the lid to slam down on his waist, chopping him in half. Each step in the sequence acts as a multiplier, and the more steps of violence you can introduce, the higher the points you'll net for the kill.
The complex controls, which make use of every button on the Wiimote and nunchuk, are in practice intuitive. The A button is used to throw punches and grab enemies while special attacks are triggered by moving the controllers in motions that mimic the on-screen violence. As such you'll be swinging the Wiimote around your head to throw enemies into jet engines, or pulling the Wiimote and nunchuk apart from one another to break a grunt's neck. There's a lot going on but the action is never anything but instinctive.
The second way in which you accrue points is via Bloodbath Challenges, mini-games that interrupt each level at set score thresholds. These take the form of timed challenges in which you must, for example, throw as many enemies onto a giant dartboard as possible within 30 seconds, or knock zombie heads through rings in the sky using a golf club. The points you earn in these spot challenges are added to your overall total, so a high score here will shorten the amount of time before the level boss appears.
Boss battles switch between freeform fighting and structured quick-time event-style sections, in which you have to make controller gestures within short time periods. It's a game design crutch often frowned upon in Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games but, thanks to the gesture controls, it's sensible and compelling here. Your real-life movements mimic the action of, for example, unscrewing a bolt from a giant Frankenstein's head or throwing an eight-foot Nazi into a turbine, so what might feel dull and lifeless on the other consoles is engaging and relevant on this, adding weight to the argument that MadWorld could only really work on Nintendo's console.
The first few stages are a breeze. Enemies attack very little, instead acting more like tokens that must be inserted into the level's sideshow attractions for visual payoff. In this way, the game can at times feel like little more than a giant funfair ride, all spectacle over true substance. Indeed, the first playthrough is fuelled entirely by the delicious promise of what visual horrors are going to be serve up next: a voyeuristic hunger that apes the in-game television audience feel.
But soon enough the difficulty scales dramatically and by the time you reach the Austrian-themed Mad Castle area of the city, careful use of Jack's offensive abilities must be balanced with defensive actions if you're to have any hope of progressing. Bosses start to regenerate their health midway through battle and any bad habits you've picked up in shaking the controllers and hoping for the best (the Wii's version of button mashing?) must be exorcised and replaced with a more thoughtful approach.
It's at this point that the game will lose a chunk of its audience, revealing as it does the unforgiving and orthodox Japanese systems that underpin the experience. Sink 30 minutes into earning enough points to tempt out the boss only to lose all of your lives to him and you'll have nothing to show for your investment: the game doesn't even record the futile time spent to your save file. The funfair ride turns into a precision sport and where any fuzziness in the controls went undetected before, now it stings and irritates. The lack of a block button becomes infuriating; dodging is your only evasive move and the unwieldy camera and ineffective sometimes-broken target lock-on mechanism threatens to ruin the entire experience.
For the skilled player, the heavy emphasis on score attack - your performance in each level is rated for kill efficiency - means that MadWorld is not so much about the destination as it is about the multiplier-winning journey. But even here, under prolonged scrutiny, the systems waver. You're free to summon a stage's boss at any point after you pass the score threshold, but you're also free to continue infighting right up to the time limit. This means that the game rewards those who slog at it, rather than those who are quick and effective, which makes the score-chasing unsatisfying hard work. Perseverance, then, is rewarded only in terms of the story and the set-pieces: over the long haul, the systems fail to deliver.
Still, as a piece of violent spectacle MadWorld is unrivalled. The creativity of PlatinumGames in providing ever more unlikely and delicious ways to kill and maim Jack's antagonists boggles and delights the mind at some deep, base level. And so, no matter how much the schoolboy-humour commentary grates, no matter how repetitive the bits in between the set-pieces start to feel and no matter how frustrating the later levels become, MadWorld provides a rush of blood to the head almost as often as it provides a rush of blood to the pavement.
7 / 10