By Mike Suskie
In this desensitised gaming community, it’s weird to think that there are still plenty of individuals out there who would be disgusted and offended by the act of slicing a man in half with a chainsaw. If you decide to play MadWorld (and I strongly encourage you to do so), be sure that none of these people are around to see it. Not because the act of slicing a man in half with a chainsaw is a common occurrence – though it is – but because the acts of violence MadWorld encourages players to perform are so over-the-top in nature that slicing a man in half with a chainsaw is viewed as relatively tame in comparison, and is scored as such.
Manhunt did something like this a number of years ago, and that game’s sad irony was that its ugly exterior and self-serious underlying themes were meant to decry the very sort of entertainment it presented to us; it baited gamers with the promise of grisly violence and then shamed them for enjoying it. MadWorld does nothing of the sort. It knows that we gamers are bloodthirsty, sick-minded individuals who enjoy excessive gore as a visual payoff, and rather than condemn such gameplay, it pats us on the back and drops us into a game world where the violent, brutal possibilities are infinite. This is a game that awards you extra points for impaling a man with a street sign and holding his twitching body up to the blades of an industrial strength fan, just for the spectacle of the thing. No social commentary, no agenda – if the infectious hip-hop soundtrack and hilarious commentary by John Di Maggio and Greg Proops didn’t make it abundantly clear, MadWorld is meant only to entertain. It’s the purest kind of fun there is.
The setting is Jefferson Island as a New York look-alike, except this alternate reality has the city being taken over by a group of terrorists who transform the entire island into the stage for a TV show called DeathWatch, in which contestants murder each other for fame, fortune and an escape route. The city’s redesigned exterior makes painting the landscape red a user-friendly ordeal: hooks and fans adorn the walls, spikes and explosive barrels line the streets, and all it takes is a strategically placed furnace or meat grinder to boost protagonist Jack’s point tally to the sky. One particularly brilliant context-specific scenario has the player using a catapult to launch foes face-first into the blade of a statue’s sword, at which point one of the commentators describes Jack’s location as “the playground of death.” And really, that’s the perfect descriptor. Each level is its own jungle gym of violence, blood and mischief, nearly as open-ended in its methods of mayhem as your mind allows it to be.
MadWorld’s brilliance is that its missions are entirely open-ended in design, with certain events opening only when players rack up a set number of points by bloodily disposing of their indefinitely respawning adversaries. As such, you’ve got to be looking for ways to have fun, and when the twisted locales grow increasingly more varied as the game progress, it’s never hard. The wonderful sci-fi themed Area 66 explores what happens when an enemy is thrown into an airlock, or under a tractor beam, or beneath the engine of a rocket; a later casino level has players using bumpers to bounce their opponents around like pinballs, to decapitating them and gleefully watching their heads roll around a roulette table. Even the early levels give you the opportunity to hold an enemy up to a moving train and watch as his flesh is ground away, and if that’s not first-class, grade-A entertainment, I don’t know what is.
There are bosses in MadWorld, and they are extraordinary, though they hardly take center stage. Far more appealing are the frequent Bloodbath Challenges, which act as diversions from the “normal” gameplay to briefly delve into the sort of violence that, if anything, is too over-the-top to be a common occurrence at all. The first, and still my favorite, has players tossing helpless foes into the vacuum of a jet engine, for no other reason than “because that’s awesome.” Any of the numerous examples – batting men into giant dart boards, golfing with zombie heads – sound laughably gratuitous when taken out of context, until you realize that there’s no context to begin with. MadWorld is simply a celebration of the violence our gaming culture not only tolerates, but has come to appreciate and enjoy. At that, it trumps everything else.
What’s commendable about MadWorld is that, as a Wii exclusive, it’s treated with the level of commitment that we usually only see from the big boys at Nintendo. The game’s control scheme is dependent on the Wii remote, employing buttons when necessary but demanding a swing of the controller to accompany many of MadWorld’s most vital actions. Hold down the B-trigger to fire up Jack’s rechargeable, arm-mounted chainsaw, then give the remote a good horizontal swipe to cut an enemy across the waist, or a vertical chop to slice him down the middle. With each successful swing of the weapon, the roar of the chainsaw travels from the TV screen to the palm of your hand, in one of the few genuinely creative uses of the remote’s speaker I have yet to witness.
Some would say MadWorld is overly reliant on quick-time events, though I’m convinced that Wii is still the one console where such a tactic is acceptable. The reason Wii uses a motion sensor in the first place is to envelope the player, to truly get them involved in the experience, and few games do this better than MadWorld. I say this because MadWorld marks the first time I’ve ever thrown my Wii controller. After scoffing at the frequent warnings about wearing the included wrist strap, I was thrust into a “power struggle” in which a particularly nasty boss had me pinned down, and my only means of escape was to shake the remote and nunchuk like a madman until – without warning – I was prompted to thrust them away from one another. My controller went flying, and while no damage was done, it only comes to show what kind of effect MadWorld has on you. I was so engrossed in the on-screen action that maintaining a firm grip on the controller was not exactly a top priority.
I was hoping to bring up the game’s gorgeous visual style at some point, but honestly, it’s a complete non-factor for me. For sure, the stark black and white color scheme (with more than a mere smattering of red) is new to the video game medium, and I cannot overstate just how well this stylized approach compensates for the Wii’s technological inferiority. But perhaps it’s a testament to how intense and involving MadWorld is that, for the majority of the game, I paid no attention to the game’s visual style. Hell, I couldn’t even be bothered to hold on to my controller while playing MadWorld; certainly something as insignificant as artistic brilliance wasn’t going to divert my eye.