Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia really wishes it was born in the '80s. It's got its heart in the right place, aiming to capture the kitschy vibe of such zombie-murdering classics as Zombies Ate My Neighbors and creating a gameplay design that feels like a 3D mash-up of Gauntlet or Ikari Warriors. When you throw in four-player co-op play, a bunch of goofy competitive multiplayer modes, a lengthy campaign, and a ridiculous number of monsters to kill, the recipe for some good old-fashioned fun would seem to be in place. But Monster Madness botches the execution. This includes a counterintuitive control scheme, oddly balanced difficulty, obnoxiously repetitive combat, and a nearly useless camera in co-op mode. Eventually such problems become too numerous and too annoying to tolerate, turning what could have been a simple monster-killing romp into a scattered, clumsy mess.
Monster Madness revolves around a quartet of teenage stereotypes (the geek, the bro, the goth chick, the cheerleader) who find themselves in the midst of an invasion from a greatest-hits collection of the monster world. For some reason, ghouls, ghosts, goblins, skeletons, mummies, werewolves, gremlins, vampires, martians, UFOs, harpies, banshees, leprechauns, jack-o-lanterns, chupacabras, evil trees, demons, medusas, imps, evil clowns, spiders, gargoyles, swamp monsters, the grim reaper, zombies, zombie dogs, zombie pirates, zombie samurais, zombie Indians, zombie grannies, zombie tanks, and exploding zombies, among others, are attacking suburbia. And the four hapless kids are the only ones around to do anything about it. Armed with melee weapons, such as axes or plungers, they dive headfirst into this monster-killing adventure, cracking bad jokes and pining for one another all along the way.
The story is more of an excuse to get you killing monsters than anything else, though it's also an excuse to insert as much awful comedy as possible into the proceedings. Occasionally, the game elicits a chuckle or snicker, but for the most part, the script isn't all that funny. Part of this has to do with the jokes, which often rely too heavily on slightly obscure and rather lame pop- and nerd-culture references. The other part has to do with the voice acting, which is largely flat and unremarkable. Even in the rare instances where enthusiasm is mustered for a line or two, none of the actors seem to have much in the way of comic timing. The game often has characters repeating the same tired lines again and again, as well.
Monster Madness comes encumbered with a gameplay design that is best described as cluttered. You begin the game with just a simple melee weapon, but over time, you can buy and build a whole mess of new weapons with the help of a friendly mechanic named Larry Tools, who pops up in various level areas. Your weapons include everything from nail guns, shot guns, and tazers to rocket launchers, CD launchers, and laser cannons. As nice as the weapon variety is, you actually need very few of the weapons, save for very specific situations. You'll often find that it's more useful to upgrade a few key weapons as opposed to buying everything that comes your way, especially because you'll often need to switch between certain weapons quickly. If you've got a bunch of useless junk cluttering up your inventory, it makes the scrolling process much more difficult. Fortunately, you can hotkey a few weapons if necessary.
Combat might have been enjoyable if the controls were not so wonky. The control scheme on the PC is manageable only because you can configure it as needed. On the Xbox 360, you have no such luck. Attack buttons are mapped to the triggers, weapon scrolling is mapped to the bumpers, and to jump--of all things--you have to click in the right stick. Considering how much time you spend with your thumb on the right stick, that might sound like a good idea, but the stick button often seems unresponsive. That becomes a spectacular frustration during the few bouts of platforming the game tosses at you, which is made even more insane by the fact that the A and B buttons are just redundant weapon scrolling options. Melee attacks are easy enough because all you have to do is hammer on the attack button while enemies happen to be near you, but if you're still using melee attacks past the third or fourth stage, you're doing something wrong. Weapons combat is OK, except that aiming tends to be a bit of a chore. There's no target-locking feature, and moving the aiming reticle seems a bit slow (and there's no mouse sensitivity adjuster in the PC version). It's not that big of a deal when you're just blasting away at big groupings of larger baddies, but any time you've got quick, nimble enemies in front of you, hitting them is a severe pain.
Scratch that; the whole game is just a severe pain, especially if you're one of the unlucky folk who happens to play the game all by your lonesome. This is one of those games that thinks being really hard equates to being really fun. On the default difficulty level, the game becomes frustrating only a few stages in because the number of enemies you're fending off happens to be massive and because the game's checkpoint system is abysmal. You'll have to do multiple sequences all in one line without getting killed, or you'll have to do them all over again. These are five-to-10-minute chunks of the game too, and you'll be doing them several times each because of one crazy onslaught of enemies or another. Boss fights are even more infuriating. If you set the game to the easiest difficulty, it's more playable. It might be a little too easy, but you can get through it without wanting to take a sledgehammer to the game.
What makes that aspect even more frustrating is that the game encourages you to explore the levels as much as possible to find hidden parts for weapons. Larry uses these parts to build your upgraded weapons, and there are tons of them scattered throughout the game. That's all well and good in theory, but if you're being forced to replay big chunks of each level again and again because of the stupid checkpoint system, why would you want to waste your time going back to explore the same areas again only to lose all the items you just picked up? After a while, you'll stop picking up any items you can't just grab easily along your normal path.
Of course, all of this more than likely has to do with the fact that this game feels like it was designed to be played cooperatively with multiple people--not by yourself. If you don't have a group of friends you can bring to your house (the campaign isn't available to play cooperatively online), you're hosed, and you shouldn't play this game at all. If you can get some friends, you might find Monster Madness a more amusing experience, albeit only slightly. The difficulty balance is far better when playing with friends, though combat becomes infinitely clumsier when you've got a bunch of people playing at once. If you're playing with three or four players, the camera zooms back so far that you can barely tell what you're shooting at in most cases. The icons that denote which player is which don't stand out enough amid the chaos, so you tend to lose sight of your character as well. The sweet spot can be found by playing with two players, provided the two of you can stay in the same general vicinity while fighting, but even then, the slow aiming and chaotic battles still present an issue.
The game attempts to break up the long grind of combat with periodic vehicle sequences, and these are far better than any of the standard fighting. You'll pilot ATVs, buggies, tanks, hovercraft, and even the occasional giant mech suit. They're fun to play with, though the steering on most of the vehicles is awful. In co-op mode, things get even crazier and are harder to keep track of if you and your friends end up in vehicles that require you to drive separately.
All of this plays out over a roughly dozen-hour campaign. While longer games are generally welcome in this day and age, this is one that could have used some trimming. Monster Madness has a really poor sense of pacing. It forces you to sit through long bouts of seemingly endless combat, only to then set you forth on an annoying fetch quest, which happens to be peppered with even more combat sequences. Toward the end of the game, it's as if the developers just gave up on any concept of structure and tried to stack as many boss fights or chase sequences as they possibly could without the whole thing toppling over. The final boss goes through more forms than you could possibly ever want to deal with, and before you even get to him, you'll have to go through a painful bout of having to fight nearly every enemy type you've encountered in the game, in groups, in a row. If you were to trim the fat off all the laborious sequences that go on for too long, you'd probably cut a few hours off the game.
Apart from offline co-op play, the game does include competitive multiplayer options. You can play the modes offline, via system link, or online. Online is the best bet because there are maps in the online game that go up to 16 players. On Xbox Live, the multiplayer is an easy, breezy process. If you jump into a ranked match or a player match, you can engage in deathmatch, king of the hill, and capture the flag variants, either in free-for-all or team-based play. There's even a co-op online mode, though it's just a series of monster fights that keeps going until someone dies. Some of the maps are rather cramped, giving off a second-rate Power Stone vibe, but the larger maps are more enjoyable, especially when you actually have a bunch of people playing. Aiming is still a pain, but the camera issues are largely absent. It's not exactly the kind of multiplayer mode that makes the game worth picking up all by itself, but it's a decent distraction. If you happen to end up with the PC version, you're not going to have quite as much fun with it, mind you. There's no server browser, so you'll have to know a host's IP address in order to play. It does have offline play, but the player limit makes that less enjoyable.
Graphically, Monster Madness is kind of strange. You can't call the in-game visuals all that impressive because the character animation and environment designs aren't much to look at, but the game does toss a whole lot of enemies at you at once. Big chunks of the environment are also destructible--or at least moveable. So while you're blowing up zombie hordes, there are tables, chairs, and other bric-a-brac scattered throughout the level that are also blowing all over the place. The frame rate generally handles this OK when you're playing on your own, but as you add more players to the mix, it tends to chug up badly. These issues plague both versions of the game, which look nearly identical across the board. The saving grace is the game's art style, which mixes comic book-styled cutscenes with some bizarre and occasionally amusing interpretations of all the various monster bad guys. Some of them are lame, but there are a few amusing twists on some old favorites here.
Apart from the shoddy voice acting, the audio is hit and miss. The soundtrack mixes enough pipe organs into the usual orchestral soundtracks to let you know that, yes, this game is creepy, kooky, spooky, and altogether ooky. Most of the sound effects involve a lot of repeated monster moans and explosion sounds, most of which at least partially drown out the bad dialogue. However, some of it is mixed so ridiculously high that you couldn't drown it out if your life depended on it.
All told, Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia feels like a wasted opportunity. The premise is cool, and the combat seems like it has potential. However, the controls and lousy co-op camera muck the whole thing up so that nearly all the fun is sucked out of it, regardless of how many people play. Plus, as mildly amusing as the online multiplayer can be, it's absolutely criminal that this game doesn't include some form of online campaign mode. Though considering how unwieldy and awkward everything else in the game is, maybe that wouldn't have helped all that much.