I never thought a PSP third person shooter would have my favourite feature of the year so far. Screw Okami's paintbrush, Final Fantasy XII's gambits and Supreme Commander's scale. Screw Rainbow Six Vegas's co-op and Godhand's difficulty. But what's weird is this feature doesn't even appear on the eight point list on the back of the box. Bullet point number four comes close with "Super cool beats - Experience a super hot Mexican underground through bleeding-edge, hip-hop music tracks from Control Machete, Molotov and Delinquent Habit", but that misses the most important part- what the music does. Or rather what it doesn't. Let me explain.
Chili Con Carnage is a PSP third-person shooter and re-imagining of Total Overdose, 2005's bizarre Tex-Mex Max Payne. The setting's the same; a brightly coloured comedy B-movie vision of Mexico where your character quips "You've eaten your last burrito, pal!" before blasting open a dude's skull from 100 paces. It's a fun and totally unique combination of slapstick, stereotypes and style, and whether you love or hate the braindead humour it's never shoved in your face in a way that could mean it makes or wrecks the game. Then again we've never been to Mexico, so there's every chance this is really a gritty simulation and Mexicans really do spend all their time shooting each other with guns hidden in guitar cases and backflipping off walls.
As for the plot, the powerful and heart-wrenching narrative kicks off when freewheeling loose cannon Ramiro 'Ram' Cruz gives his father a box of kittens as a birthday present, only for a combine harvester to crash through the wall and crush both the old man and his kittens. From there Ram starts his high-octane, gun slinging quest for revenge. Ram's high-octane, gun slinging quest for revenge is finished by level three, but fortunately for us he immediately spots a nearby piece of paper that tells him there's a reward available for blowing up (it's creepily specific about this) a nearby crime boss. It's all light stuff to keep you smiling and shooting, which is great because we like smiling and, most importantly, Chili Con Carnage's shooting is pretty good.
It's all about combos, in the same way a Tony Hawk's game is all about combos. There are dozens of actions within the game's limited control scheme that are worth points, from headshots to shootdodging to sending someone flying with the grenade launcher, and it doesn't take much ingenuity to combine them into completely mental stunts. Surviving levels is rarely much of a challenge, the real game's in seeing how much of a score you can rack up with the limited amount of bad guys in your way.
An example of how Chili Con Carnage plays is you ignoring the wannabe desperado shooting at you, getting into a nearby car, driving it at him and then leaping out at the last minute to perform a point blank diving headshot. Things are made a little more complex by little additions like hats. Blow off a bad guy's headgear and as it floats back down you can catch it on your own head for crazy points. Having the player notice they're fighting someone with a sombrero and giddily change their plan to factor it in is genius, and the hat system would be my second favourite feature of the year if Total Overdose didn't already have it too.
Having to kill in the most awesomely convoluted ways might sound like it'd slow things down to a more tactical level as you orchestrate everything perfectly, but the game never slows down from a breakneck pace because sprinting forward is the way to the highest scores. When you first do something worthy of points a little meter pops up and starts running out, and you can top it up by performing even more 'spicy moves'. Keep it going for long enough by chaining together mad kills (and juggling chickens with your pistol if you're out of enemies) and you get that Holy Grail of scoring points, multipliers.
And this, at last, is where my favourite feature comes in. Levels play out in silence until you do something cool, and then the music starts alongside that multiplier meter. But not quite the whole piece of music. You might get a slightly muted backbeat or guitar line at first, but if you keep causing cinematic carnage the song completes, gaining lyrics, volume and a crisp tone. It makes you feel like it's the soundtrack to you, not the game, and it adds weight and soul to the points to make sure you know they're the real focus of play. And you know what happens the second the meter runs out? There's the noise of a needle coming off vinyl and the music stops. It's agonizing. It's that moment in every sitcom ever where someone does something stupid and the music stops while everyone looks over. Usually the only reason the meter will run out is if there are no bad guys to at least headshot, so you're left standing, alone, with maybe a low wind sound effect to keep you company. It's the perfect way of saying 'You messed up' without having to punish you. And if you're into the music at all, then after being on the receiving end of some heavy silence a few times has you caring about keeping the meter running even if you don't care about getting each level's gold medal. It's making sure players play the game the right way. It's perfect.
The combo system is also the only reason Chili Con Carnage can be partly forgiven for its occasionally shoddy mechanics. Running up against difficulties locking onto enemies or using a power-up to spawn a 600lb Mexican wrestler only for him to be unable to navigate his way to the bad guys is annoying. But it's not as annoying when you're giddily enjoying your way through a level as when you're just trying to survive it. Then again, these problems also stop the game from being more than casual action. No one's going to want to become masterful and chain whole levels when a programming glitch can spell the end of your combo. I managed to negate some of the anger when this happened by remembering some Spanish swearwords I learnt at school and yelling them at the screen. But this might not work for you if, say, you didn't learn Spanish at school or aren't borderline retarded.
Chili Con Carnage is a fair bit of fun but never amounts to much more. It'll effortlessly hold your attention with endless exploding Hispanics for the whole duration of your bus ride but you'll never find yourself upset that you've reached your stop. Maybe if the developers had taken a risk and gone for more polish in the combo system and great level design instead of loads of game modes this could have been something really interesting. But amigo, if you're content with the game equivalent of a bartender that'll flash you a grin minus a few teeth and slide over a big glass of cheap tequila, Chili Con Carnage will make you one very happy gringo.