It’s been said that only seven stories really exist and that anyone who wasn’t around for those first few fireside chats is only retooling someone else’s idea. Some people bristle at the thought, saying that the parameters behind the theory are too vague or otherwise unsound.
Others embrace the idea, which is why every few years we get a new Batman origin story or another Fast & Furious without a sequel number at the end. Platinum Games, developers of Madworld for the Wii, fall squarely into the latter camp. Nominally an open-world gorefest for the same crowd that thinks the Halloween and Friday the 13th remakes were a good idea, Madworld’s chief claim to insanity is an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. It’s safe to say we’ve seen it all before.
Madworld takes the “Choose Your Own Adventure” approach to exposition, confident that the sources from which it steals its inspiration are ubiquitous enough to allow it to defy a linear approach in its own storytelling. Jack, a bald, hulking brute (Hellboy) with a chainsaw-enhanced prosthetic arm (Evil Dead), is dropped for no particular reason into Varrigan City, a once-powerful metropolis reduced to a prison colony/gang enclave (Escape From New York) wired with cameras and turned into a post-apocalyptic bloodsport arena for the folks watching at home (The Running Man).
Presented entirely in black and white with the occasional splash of red (Sin City), Madworld’s action revolves around Jack’s ascent through the DeathWatch ranks (Smash TV). DeathWatch matches are scored more on quality than quantity, and Madworld’s levels are designed to provide creative killers with ample opportunities to maximize their bloodletting. Everything from custom-built torture rooms to all the improvised implements of death scattered around a near-future metropolis are usable in Jack’s campaign to set the games industry’s reputation back 20 years.
This is, of course, the game’s selling point. The sheer amount of gristle which such a set-up inevitably entails (Mortal Kombat) is a rare thing on the Wii, a console devoted in theory to innovation but in practice to soccer moms and cellphone game enthusiasts. Madworld plays this to its advantage, attempting to capitalize on an anemic market and set itself up as an example of what the Wii can do with mature themes and stylistic choices.
But being shocking for its own sake isn’t enough. Dane Cook isn’t funny, and Madworld is little more than a Bart Simpson in a world of Milhouses. It wants desperately to stand out in a crowd dominated by mediocrity, but it lacks the creativity to do so in any way other than the most juvenile.
Jack himself is Snake Plissken by way of Vin Diesel, silent, surly, and un-upgradeable save for cutscenes and found weapons. In an age in which even Mario regularly flies around in a bee suit, taking an unchanged character from start to finish gets a little repetitive.
The environmental kills should offset the singularity of the killer, but while the themes of Varrigan City change—a little Chinatown here, a little Vegas there—the methods the environments lend to his work do not. The last few dozen of Jack’s victims bear little real difference to the first few dozen, and after a while grinding up an endless tide of Mad Max extras becomes just another grind.
Ultimately, Madworld is an American-flavored response (from a Japanese developer) to last year’s No More Heroes. It simply replaces Japanese-pop props—a cel-shaded, lightsaber-wielding teenager and the limitless legions of suit-clad assassins he pops like blood- and yen-filled piñatas—with its own testosterone-fueled stand-ins.
However, where No More Heroes was as much a self-aware send-up of ultra-violence as it was an example of it, Madworld contains no such sapience. It can be fun for a little while, but it eventually finds itself wallowing in its own shallow carnage in the hopes that a thin lair of blood and entrails will keep the public nice and shocked long enough to hide its own inadequacies.