Murphy's Law--the assertion that if something can go wrong, it will--is in full effect in Bad Day LA. Taking place in modern-day Los Angeles, the game sees the city plunge into chaos as it's plagued by terrorist attacks, earthquakes, meteor showers, fires, gang wars, tsunamis, and more. With so many divisive elements, from the crazy homeless protagonist to the regular jabs at Homeland Security, there was great potential for some cutting satire here. Unfortunately, Bad Day LA has all the subtlety of a hammer, and the occasional commentary on the absurdities of modern life is drowned out by a constant barrage of uninspired vulgarity. Even the game's shock value rings hollow, and it doesn't distract from the fact that this third-person action game is short, ugly, and sloppy.
The mayhem kicks off on the Santa Monica freeway, where our hero, Anthony, an antisocial, shopping-cart-pushing homeless man, is relieving himself in the middle of bumper-to-bumper traffic when a jet brimming with a nefarious biological agent crashes into an overpass. Green gas spews everywhere, turning anyone who comes in contact with it into mindless, flesh-starved zombies. All Anthony wants is to save his own sorry hide and get out of the city, but he consistently finds himself forced to assist other citizens as things go from bad to worse.
It's hard not to smile at how ridiculous the situation becomes, but beyond the setup, the writing in Bad Day LA offers little in terms of insight or humor. None of the characters warrant any sympathy, and Anthony himself acts and sounds less like a homeless man given up on society than a self-absorbed, third-rate Chris Tucker caricature. Everyone is drawn with broad strokes, and the game relies on a liberal peppering of profanity, some clumsy racism, and general cruelty to fill the time between levels. Some of the "highlights" include a kid who can't stop throwing up, a Paris Hilton doppelganger, a drop-kicked baby, a group of parents physically abusing their drug-addicted children, a persistent use of the phrase "taco bender" as a racial epithet, and some ham-fisted references to The Wizard of Oz and Heat. Worst of all, the game seems to think it's more clever than it actually is, which defuses any potentially comedic moments.
Beneath Bad Day LA's crass exterior lies a shoddy third-person action game. Each level revolves around a different calamity, and in each you have to perform a number of good deeds before you can move forward. Most of the time, the streets are filled with hysterical civilians, looters, and zombies, and how you interact with the people of Bad Day LA will affect your threat-advisory rating. If you murder innocent civilians, or fail to assist nearby civilians who are in need, your rating goes up, and the world begins to turn on you, with civilians attacking you and cops hunting you down. But if you play the Good Samaritan by applying bandages to wounded civilians, using your fire extinguisher to put out fiery civilians, curing or killing zombies, and attacking looters, terrorists, gang members, and other undesirables, your rating stays low, making for a less antagonistic crowd while slowly replenishing your health at the same time. Though it encourages you to act right, keeping your rating low is not hard, since the ratio of villains to civilians is usually quite high.
There's a good amount of gunplay in Bad Day LA, and you'll pick up plenty of conventional weapons, like a shotgun, an AK-47, a sniper rifle, and a rocket launcher. You'll also find use for a tire iron, Molotov cocktails, an absurd set of nail clippers, and a flamethrower fashioned out of a lighter and a can of hairspray. The flamethrower doesn't show up until later in the game, though you'll be glad when it does, since the other weapons are weak and ineffective by comparison. Even at point-blank range, the shotgun can require three pumps to lay out an enemy, the AK-47 has terrible accuracy and chews through the relatively scarce ammunition, and the sniper rifle never produces one-shot kills. The amount of damage your weapons do at any given time seems arbitrary, which can make the unsatisfying gunplay downright frustrating. You also gain sidekicks that are intended to help you out, though they seem to disappear at random and rarely have much impact anyway.
There are a few on-rails missions thrown in to mix things up a bit, but aside from these diversions, which offer their own set of frustrations, there is a crushing monotony to the mission structure in Bad Day LA. Virtually every mission demands that you kill a number of bad guys or rescue a number of good guys. Whenever the missions get more complicated than that, the game stumbles, because it often doesn't give adequate information about what, exactly, is going on. This can be especially frustrating during the few boss fights. Usually, you can ask friendly civilians for directions to your next objective. This causes an arrow to appear above your head, which is helpful, though the arrow fades quickly. While the game gives the initial impression that you're in a wide-open world to be explored, you'll quickly find that most levels are extremely linear in design, and most attempts to explore off the beaten path will lead you to an invisible barrier or a dead end. The game just doesn't have much to offer, and you'll probably be relieved when you reach its anticlimactic finish after just a few hours of play.
That is, if you can even get the game to run. We were unable to get past the main menu on one of our test systems, and while it ran relatively smoothly on another PC, the whole game felt cheap and shoddy. The game automatically reloads when you die, though it doesn't always load the most recent save. There are no real options for tweaking controls or graphics quality, the latter of which seems pretty well inexcusable for a PC game at this point. While the game sports an interesting visual style that evokes a sort of paranoid, hand-drawn atmosphere, it gets lost in repetitive character models, stiff animations, boxy environments, and unconvincing effects. There's also a general bugginess to the game--a smoking car chassis will fly into the air several seconds after it explodes, and civilians covered in fire will occasionally walk around as though it's 72 degrees. As unpleasant as the visuals can be, the sound in Bad Day LA seems unfinished. It's not uncommon to find yourself running around in absolute silence, though that may be preferable to any of the sound that the game has on offer. The voice acting is stifled and repetitive, the handful of different background tunes loop too quickly, and the sound effects feel flat.
That Bad Day LA is such a spectacular failure in almost every facet of its execution is really sad, since in concept it had so much potential. Even fans of American McGee's past work should give the game a wide berth. Apparently Murphy's Law isn't in effect just for the characters in Bad Day LA, but for the game itself.