Hot Shots! It took us a while to realise it, but it’s precisely what it feels like to sit down with Versus Evil’s UnMetal. Other publications will bang on about this being a parody of Metal Gear Solid, but we know the truth. UnMetal feels like a movie tie-in of the Charlie Sheen and Jim Abrahams classic Hot Shots: Part Deux, and we’ve rarely wanted something so much in our lives.
Let’s make something clear from the start: just as comedy trailers can often ruin comedy movies, reading a review of UnMetal may have the same effect. Skip to the end of the review, know that UnMetal has a well-earned 4.5/5 and strongly consider buying it. But please don’t read what we’ve written, as the joy of UnMetal is its surprise. If you’re still here, we’ll try not to ruin too many of the good bits.
UnMetal somehow manages to be both utterly familiar and unlike anything you’ve played before. In the familiar corner is the gameplay and graphics: UnMetal is NES-era Metal Gear Solid, channeling the gameplay and depth of PS1-era Metal Gear Solid. It’s a stealth-adventure game, where you’re moving from location to location while avoiding patrolling guards, lasers, thermal detectors, mechs and landmines. It’s that old chestnut of waiting in cover, throwing a rock (a coin in UnMetal’s case), watching as a guard bends over to pick it up, and then knocking them out with a well-timed button-press. And yes, there are cardboard boxes.
What makes UnMetal unique in the ‘games that are actually funny’ space is that it plays really, really well. We’d struggle to list more than five games that manage to both parody a genre and actually be a serviceable example of it, but UnMetal nails it with a ‘hoo-rah’. This is a superb stealth game, and everything feels astonishingly on-point. Sure, soldiers are dumb and couldn’t spot a ninja if they were giving them a piggy-back, but the rules are consistent, the controls feel tight, and every level layout has several potential gameplans.
The levels are so inventive, too, teasing the familiar gameplay into fantastic directions. One level is structured around a racetrack, and a platoon of enemies are doing circuits around it. So, you’re nobbling troops and tucking them into buildings before the joggers come back around. It’s such a simple idea: a patrol route writ large, as an unkillable horde of soldiers, like the Resident Evil Nemesis in tracky bottoms, make their way round the level.
It’s so dense too. Virtually every screen has a character to talk to, a new item hidden in a crate, or a stealth-puzzle to solve. We’ll get onto the writing and the sense of surprise it generates later on, but it all amounts to a gift that keeps on giving. Who knows what’ll be waiting for you when you turn the corner.
The gameplay isn’t perfect, just as it wasn’t perfect in early-era Metal Gear Solid. Gunplay is a little clumsy, as you are firing on a grid, and the rules of what you can or can’t shoot over is complicated. Switching from item to item, done by a tap of the Y button and then searching through dozens of items, gets a bit wearing too.
And sometimes UnMetal writes cheques that its body can’t cash, as an outlandish scenario turns out to be, well, UnFun. A screen full of landmines and a metal detector in your hand sounds great, but it’s laborious, slow and punishing when it needn’t have been. There’s a brilliant moment where the main character boasts about how quickly they can do something, which then turns into an actual time limit for your main character. But it turns sour as you’re wading through sheep (don’t ask) and having to replay cutscenes as you fail and replay for the umpteenth time (UnMetal keeps falling at this annoying hurdle). It’s rare, but UnMetal feels like a series of comedic skits, and those skits aren’t always perfect for gameplay.
We’re not stealth converts. We tend to dislike the unfairness and vague rules of the genre. But UnMetal was generous and strategic, and we found ourselves becoming fans. For a game that aims to parody games like Metal Gear Solid and Tenchu, that’s quite the achievement. You’ll be fist-pumping as you take down a room full of soldiers, with nary a whisper from any of them.
But while the stealth is familiar, it’s the humour which sets UnMetal apart. Gaming is littered with failed attempts at full-on comedy, but UnMetal seems to find it so easy.
Accepted wisdom is that you should show but not tell, and UnMetal flips it the bird. It’s absolutely stacked with narration. Jesse Fox barely shuts up as you wander about the world, meaning that UnMetal has an unexpected cousin in Bastion’s narration.
But it’s Jesse Fox’s constant chinwagging that is UnMetal’s holy grail. From the very first lines, it’s clear that Jesse Fox is an unreliable narrator. He’s recalling an escape from military prison (for a crime he didn’t commit) to a US military chief, and we’re playing through those recollections. But Jesse is a fantasist, a narcissist, and plenty of other ‘ist’s. His psychotic world is so removed from reality that it becomes a delusional blockbuster. UnMetal becomes a Fast & Furious movie.
The setup works on a micro and macro level. At one point, Jesse comes across some trucks, but refuses to escape in them as they run on diesel and are bad for the environment. In a moonlight escape, he tries to orient by the stars, “but the damned top-down view wouldn’t let me”. He has a knack for exaggerating the obstacles that he comes across, and that means – bad luck for the player – you’re the ones who have to defeat the tentacled beasts and mech monstrosities that his mind manufactures. UnMetal is less about taking down a Russian military installation, and more you-versus-Jesse Fox’s psyche.
UnMetal even hands you the narrative reins occasionally. Jesse will stop wittering for long enough that you get to choose from a list of potential obstacles. How many guards are around the corner? How many tentacles does the boss have? UnMetal gives you the decision, and your choice will, more often than not, determine the difficulty. Two guards rather than three might benefit you, but – perhaps – a higher number of tentacles isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And those sheep that we mentioned? That was definitely a poor choice on our part.
UnMetal has a whacking-great comedic palette to paint from. It can be surrealist, as the entire game structure gets thrown in the bin, or you suddenly start delivering flashbacks to someone new without context of who or why. It can be broad and rude, with toilet humour taken quite literally (you will be saving at urinals). It can be heavy on game referencing, as Metal Gear Solid, Legend of Zelda, Fallout and many others all get a skewering. But it can also be universal in its humour. We’re confident that anyone playing UnMetal would get their ribs tickled – it’s very democratic.
As someone who grew up on Zucker Brother comedies like Airplane and Naked Gun, who adored the Hot Shots movies, UnMetal felt made for me. It captures their freewheeling spirit, their blunderbuss approach to comedy where miraculously most of it finds the target.
Miraculously, it’s also tethered to a perfectly fine, surprisingly taut stealth game that would have been solid without the jokes. As it turns out, come for the humour, stay for the surprisingly tight stealth game.
War: it’s faaaantasic.
You can buy UnMetal from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S