Fed up of being abducted and probed in indecent ways, the cows of Earth are rising up to take on the aliens. They’re Militant, Armed and Domesticated (the M.A.D. of the title, if you were wondering), and they’ve got a taste for alien meat.
I’m a little smitten by this setup. It only needs a few sentences to understand, and it immediately gets us rooting for the cows. Go get ‘em chaps. Unfortunately, it’s about the most noteworthy thing about the game, which is less MAD and more mid. There’s nothing wrong with M.A.D. Cows, but we’d struggle to produce much of a list of what’s right with it either.
M.A.D. Cows is fifteen levels of action-platforming, and we finished it in an hour on a Boxing Day morning. We can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t finish it in hour in one sitting, as it’s one of the most unchallenging and friction-free experiences you could possibly find. There’s a positive in there, of course: it doesn’t infuriate or outstay its welcome. But there’s a negative there too, as it fails to mount a challenge, offer a unique idea or stay in the memory for longer than a Christmas cracker joke.
Each level is a short experience where the M.A.D. Cow is given an objective to complete. These objectives fall into two buckets: kill a set type of enemy, or collect a number of animal chums. They end up being much the same, as you need to kill the enemies to reach your friends, so it mostly devolves to canvassing the entirety of the level until you have amassed enough to tag the white flag at the end of the level.
M.A.D. Cows, like so many action-platformers before it, loves some keys and locks. Or, in its case, coloured levers and corresponding lasers. Wander into a lever and it automatically triggers, giving you access to a part of the level that was lasered off previously. It’s about as complex as a level goes, gating you from one path by tucking a lever down another path, and it’s as fine as it is familiar. We’ve played roughly three-hundred games that do the same.
Enemies dot the level, but they’re not exactly threatening. Most stride back and forth, and will fire at you if they happen to be looking at you at the time, so the most appropriate response is to approach them when they’re not looking. Pump them with lead, and they’re down. Some enemies are a little more aware and will turn and lock eyes with you as soon as you appear (a UFO enemy being the prime example), but – even then – they can only fire at you if you’re level with them. So, firing from slightly above or below means you’re safe.
Your greatest enemy will be your impatience. It was for us at least. We got cocky and found ourselves sprinting through levels, mostly because we could. But we’d get caught out by the sudden appearance of an enemy, particularly the big ones who knock two hearts off rather than the conventional one. Actually, we take that back: what killed us most was explosions. Whoever designed M.A.D. Cows must have a mean streak, as the very same containers that hold hearts are the ones that explode when you hit them. If we got a bit loose with our aiming, we were perfectly capable of suiciding on an explosive life container. That got us more than our impatience, although they’re closely related.
But all that happens on death is that you reset to the start of the level (we may have mentioned that they are short) and it takes five minutes to return to where you were. So, it’s not much of a punishment, and you can continue with breezing through the game.
Upgrades or a progression system of any kind would have added some spice, but M.A.D. Cows thinks that you’ll be just fine with a jump and a gun. It’s certainly more than enough to complete the game with: you’re not exactly underpowered. But we would have been up for a gradient where the game got harder as we did. Instead, it opts for levels that are microscopically harder than the previous ones.
Fair play, M.A.D. Cows does have a gun vendor robot, so you can spend the coins that you stash from crates and walking about the level. A rapid shot, double shot and whacking great RPG are available for increasing amounts of coins, and they do add fun. The easy-to-defeat enemies become even more so, as you mush them with the RPG, and there are chuckles to be had in obliterating any opposition before they’ve even walked onto the screen. But they’re not exactly helping with the whole ‘when does this game get difficult?’ problem.
In a way, M.A.D. Cows reminded us of those moments when you return to old areas in a platformer or roleplaying game. You’ve done all the side quests and gained weapons and heart containers that make you vastly overpowered. The result is that you wipe the floor with enemies that might have once challenged you. M.A.D. Cows feels like that from level one to level fifteen.
There needed to be some ideas, some flare, to make this slimline and difficulty-free game worth playing. But M.A.D. Cows, outside of its bovines-versus-aliens schtick, doesn’t bring anything that we haven’t seen countless times before. Sure, it plays well enough and we didn’t encounter a single bug, but is that the new bar that we expect games to clear? Can’t we expect a little more?
For a brainless hour or so, M.A.D. Cows might be worth your £4.19. But you deserve better. There are much better cuts of beef out there.