If you were to ask people that don't normally play video games what most comes to mind regarding them, two things will almost certainly be mentioned: 1) they are overly violent and 2) they are juvenile. Well, Platinum Games' MadWorld certainly wasn't designed to alleviate the effects of this one-sided portrayal of the medium. In fact, it revels in these themes with non-stop, over-the-top bloodbaths, sex jokes, and ridiculously unrealistic scenarios. It's also a stylish and fresh modern take on arcade brawlers popular in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and was designed around the weaknesses and strengths of the Wii console.
Platinum Games may be a newly formed developer but its designers are no strangers to the beat-'em-up genre. At Clover Studio, they created God Hand for the PlayStation 2, a title that gathered a cult following of fans praising its challenging gameplay and quirky characters. Many critics, however, found its difficulty overbearing, and its rigid, tank-like controls an antiquated throwback to early 3D games of the 32-bit era. It looks like the developer took the criticisms to heart as MadWorld has both a more manageable difficulty level and smoother controls.
Character movement is handled via the analog stick, and attacks by a combination of Wii remote button mashing and motion controls. Swinging and slashing the remote makes the game feel closer in some ways to other hack-and-slash titles on the system like No More Heroes and Soul Calibur: Legends than God Hand or other non-Wii games in the genre. Finishing moves are especially satisfying. Whether it's from pulling the nunchuk and remote in opposite directions to rip an opponent in half or swinging a bat to launch enemies into an oncoming train or decapitating garbage can, there's no shortage of creative and gruesome ways unleash carnage. In general, I think Wii movement controls tread a fine line between being gimmicky and genuinely gameplay-enhancing but in MadWorld's case it's mostly the latter, thankfully. The controls are a large part of why it gives such a tactile satisfaction to the player.
The action isn't just about mindless slashing, though. While it lacks the variety or depth of moves you can acquire in God Hand (or most modern games in the genre), there's still a decent number of ways to take on opponents using environmental hazards, and there's a scoring system in place. Higher scores are gained through combos - e.g. instead of just pounding a guy to death with punches, you'll gain more points if you trap him with a tire, impale him with a post, and then bash him against a spiked wall. Taking out multiple enemies with a single move is also rewarded, making placement strategy important. Racking up higher-scoring kills will make the boss fights appear sooner, as a set number of points is required to unlock them. The camera system can make such strategizing frustrating, though, as often you'll get put in an awkward position for viewing enemies, and your only option is to use the C button to re-center. The game could have benefited from an option for more freeform camera panning.
Those with a sick sense of humor and a love for old-school beat-'em-ups will feel right at home.
Now, you may be wondering why your character would feel the need to roam through environments full of spiked walls and other nasty traps to begin with. Well, it's because the game takes place in a Running Man-style contest where people struggle for survival while being filmed for the twisted pleasure of TV viewers. It's not a new premise for video games, but MadWorld ups the ante for doing justice to the theme. In comparison, the arcade classic Smash TV had impressive voice commentary for its time but was limited to a very small number of sentences. MadWorld has a lot more commentary, banter so crass it made me reflect on how much the industry has changed. In the heyday of Nintendo/Sega rivalry, neither company likely would have approved this game for release based on foul language alone. Now we have a Sega-published game licensed by Nintendo where anal sex jokes and extreme expletives abound. In most games the barrage of crudeness would seem forced and unnecessary, but it manages to work here given the premise. The commentators' jokes can be adolescent, and they're not always original, but the excellent voice acting and chemistry of Greg Proops and John DiMaggio are what make them entertaining. Unfortunately, the same lines of dialogue often get repeated multiple times in a level which detracts from the immersion a bit.
Another downside to the commentary is that it becomes almost audio overload when combined with screams of combat and the vocals in the background music. I adjusted to it after a little while but, for those that can't, at least there's the option of changing the volume of each track layer. The soundtrack is a fusion of hip hop with other genres like rock and traditional Asian tunes. It can get repetitious at times but, for the most part, it fits well.
Blending of different cultural influences is also what makes its visual presentation so striking. It's made to look like you're playing inside a Western-style comic book ( particularly the dark, seedy kind best known by Sin City), yet its Japanese origins still show through in anime character designs. The atmosphere has shades of Clover Studio's mystical Okami at times as well. The Wii may be an underpowered piece of hardware but when a game is focused as much on stellar art direction as this, it's hard to notice or complain. The boldest thing about MadWorld's appearance is that it's almost entirely in black-and-white, something virtually unheard of in post-1970s console games, and usually only seen today in a very small number of indie PC titles (Vigil: Blood Bitterness is probably the most similar one stylistically). The monochromatic environments are contrasted by the splatter of bright red blood; and there's certainly plenty of it.
If you are turned off by excessive cartoon violence, MadWorld isn't for you. This isn't the game to plug in if you want a deep, intellectual experience or wholesome family fun. If you're a teenage male or one at heart, this is probably your gaming dream theme complete with chainsaw massacres, ninjas, aliens, and scantily-clad succubus ass spanking. Those with a sick sense of humor and a love for old-school beat-'em-ups will feel right at home. It's also a testament to the triumph of a unique art approach over polygon processing power alone. The camera system is a bit too restrictive and some voice tracks repeat more often than would be ideal, but these aren't game breaking issues. Depending on one's perspective, its theme being a hybrid of virtually every video game stereotype may well be its biggest flaw, but that doesn't stop the game from delivering one of the most deviously intense action rushes this generation.