Back in 1979, a group of college students from Detroit had a dream. That dream was to make movies. They had a little experience shooting Super 8 shorts for fun and had even shown a couple at the local cinema before the features; they figured it wouldn't be too great a leap to make the real deal. So, after raising around $80,000 from local businessmen, mainly dentists of all people, they headed off into the woods to make Evil Dead and, in the process, wrote their own entry into the movie folklore history book.
The plot was simple but effective. A group of college kids take a ride to a cabin in the woods where they find a tape recording left by some mysteriously long gone professor of something or other very creepy. They play the tape, of course, and to their horror it turns out to be an ancient demon summoning incantation, rousing the dark forces in the forest. Before long the demons attack, one by one the youngsters are possessed by the evil spirits and they turn against one another. Naturally, the only way to kill the possessed is to fully dismember them, which happens quite a lot until only one man is left standing, sort of, and the credits roll.
Evil Dead was and still is good clean gory scary fun, and although it did only mild trade in its country of origin, it was a massive hit in Japan and Europe, mainly due to the growing popularity of video. The biggest impact the film had anywhere, though, was in the UK, where it was the first and consequently last film ever to be released on both the big screen and the small screen at the same time. It was also given a huge boost of publicity by the fact that the British Board of Film Classification tried to ban it and failed miserably mainly because, even though it was very gory, they missed the real point. Evil Dead, you see, never took itself seriously; the tongue was always firmly in the cheek, and for the first time in years, audiences mixed laughter in amongst their screams.
In 1986 we were treated to a second instalment, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. With a bit more experience and a lot more cash, the boys Raimi and Campbell made a much faster roller coaster of a movie that, while still being pretty gory, was even funnier. People comment on how it's a remake of the original and to some extent it is, but I prefer to read it as a re-imagining of Ash's story because he really goes to hell and back in this picture. He lops off his girlfriend's head with a spade, cuts the rest up with a chainsaw, gets dragged through the forest by a giant demon force, gets attacked by a she-witch hag and even gets possessed himself for some time before finally the evil takes his own hand. What do you do when your hand is possessed by the evil forces of darkness? Why, cut it off with a chainsaw and attach that chainsaw to your new stumpy wrist instead, of course. What follows is more hack and slash comedy gore ending with Ash, with the help of another soon to be dead cast member, opening a portal in time to send the evil packing for good. Thing is, Ash can't turn it off and so he gets sucked in too, back to the Middle Ages.
This is where Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness picks up the story; Ash battling the deadites again while also battling his own inner demon until he splits in two. Hilariously, good Ash blows Evil Ash away with his trusty shotgun, but Evil Ash comes back from the dead, and naturally brings an army of undead skeletal warriors with him to take vengeance. Carnage erupts, good eventually triumphs over evil and Ash uses the power of the Necronomicon to travel forwards in time to the present day. At least, he does in the US theatrical release; I'd hate to have to tell you what happens to him the longer European version.
Back to Ash's present day hometown of Dearborn and where Evil Dead: A Fistful of Boomstick kicks off. The opening cut-scene, which is surprisingly good, has Ash in a Dearborn bar waxing lyrical with the barman about his reluctant heroics when something on the TV stops him mid-sentence. It seems scientists, and chat-show hosts, will never learn. Our hero watches that old demon summoning incantation get read aloud by some mad professor on a crazy occult cable show and it's back to the drawing board. Ash steps outside, past Sam Raimi's classic '73 Oldsmobile - a very cool in joke for the fans there - and the deadite carnage commences.
Hold on though, now is that stomach churning moment where the actual game starts and, consequently, the moment of truth. Question is, it going to be any good or have I wasted my money again? Is this game going to rot in the corner with all the other turgid film licenses, or is it going to surprise us all by not being awful?
Well remarkably this game is far from awful, it's actually rather good. It plays like a kind of high speed and simplified Resident Evil, and is better for it. Essentially, it all revolves around your 'to do' list and completing each item on it. Be warned though, that it's never as simple as it first seems because new items are added through the course of the level. Let me explain by talking you through a chunk at the start of the first level.
Initially your 'to do' list says 'get inside the TV station' and 'find more weapons', so you head off merrily down the street armed with just a trusty spade. Around the first corner, past the optimistic copper who gets wasted, you bump into a lumberjack outside a locked lumberyard. He tells you that the boss has the key and consequently finding him is added to your list. Around the next corner is a police roadblock and an officer there tells you that no one's getting through without police ID, although Ash has a pretty good crack at getting past anyway. When he gives up, getting a police ID is added to your ever expanding list and you are left with nowhere to go except down the street to an overturned lumber truck. In front of the truck are three undead cops feasting on the lumberyard boss, who I can only assume was driving it. Knock the cops silly with your spade and one of them will drop his ID; list updated, item completed. Similarly, if you examine the lumberyard boss's corpse, you get the lumberyard key. List updated, item completed again.
With the lumberyard key you can head back there, fight your way past some more deadites and find the chainsaw. Now you're talking. Then, go back to the police barricade and show the copper your newly discovered police ID. This time he'll let you through and on to the next bit.
I'm going to stop there since I think you get the idea; this game is all about 'get this' so you can 'do that'. Mind you let's face it, most action adventure and survival horror games have this same formula so it's no surprise that that's how they decided to play this one. There are two in game aspects of Boomstick, however, that makes it worth a look.
Firstly, it's no secret that the basic game engine is an updated version of the one developed for State of Emergency. That game was famous for being able to handle up to a hundred on screen characters at a time, no mean feat on the PS2, but the game play suffered since the camera control and targeting system were poor. Boomstick addresses both these issues reasonably well.
Essentially, you will always have a weapon in each hand with a button assigned to each (when I say hand I mean that loosely, remember that Ash has one hand and one, err, stump). The left hand is used for ranged weapons like shotguns and pistols, while the right is used mostly for melee weapons. The camera, which is mostly well behaved, is controlled via the right analogue stick, although L1 auto-aims the left hand and spins the camera towards the nearest bad guy. In practice this works well, but I do have to point out that the saving grace of this game is the widescreen mode. This mode squishes the picture in at the sides and, although everyone looks a little taller, you get a noticeably wider scope of vision; what a god send that is. With more to see, combos are much easier to pull off, the action is fast and simple and, yes, you can hack and slash your chainsaw through deadites in one direction while blasting creeps that come at you from another. And trust me that will happen. There are moments in Boomstick where they are coming at you from all angles and you feel like a whirling dervish of mayhem; sawing that ghoul in two, blast that guy, hack him, smack that one, stamp on that one, blast those few bunched together, slice his limb off, etc, etc. Hell, I've even seen Ash impale a deadite on his chainsaw and blast him off it with the shotgun, and it looked so Evil Dead, it really did. In fact, Bruce Campbell sums it up really well in a bonus video that you unlock when you first complete the story mode. He watches Ash blast a deadite over his shoulder (looking uncannily like when Ash does that move in Army of Darkness) and says, "You see? That's good, the shotgun over the shoulder with the little flip in there, now you're talking. A little chainsaw, a little shotgun, that's the essence of Ash."
This is actually the second point; Boomstick owes no small thanks to the exceptional voice acting talents of Mr. Evil Dead himself. Bruce Campbell is literally all over this game, constantly wise cracking through the action and gore. The story mode character interactions too are heavily scripted with some nice dialogue. Ash is essentially an idiot who just won't go down without a fight and Campbell plays him just like that. Have you heard the phrase, "If you can keep your head when all around you are loosing there's, then you probably don't understand the situation"? Well, that's Ash. He never takes this supernatural mumbo jumbo seriously and never stresses over the insurmountable odds he seems to face constantly. Having Bruce on board throughout production is a huge bonus and stamps the Evil Dead seal of approval on the whole package. If only other movie tie-ins had such dedication from the actors in question.
It's bizarre actually; graphically the game is okay but not brilliant, the game engine is smooth but nothing to be blown away by and the story mode is fun while it lasts but ultimately it's still just another door and key game. There's only six levels, which may not seem like much but each level will take you a good hour or so, making the whole story about as long as, say, Devil May Cry. There are other things, like a bonus mission based arcade game unlocked one level at a time as you complete that level in story mode, and also the ability to use spells in the action (which can go hilariously wrong if you don't tap out the right button combination), but ultimately it's all nothing we haven't seen before in one form or another.
So, why do I rate this game so highly? Well, I think it's the package. This game simply oozes Evil Dead charm and as such is a lot of fun to play. Let's not forget that in the States this is a $20 release, and over in the UK it's out for £30 but it's bundled with an Evil Dead II DVD (arguably the best movie of the series). Either way, Boomstick is great value for money. I can just see people over here in the UK buying it, playing it a bit, watching the DVD and then feeling the heavy urge to play it again. Jesus, I know I did. Hey, it'll only take you a weekend to play the story mode through once, but you'll have fun and I bet you go back again for a bit of hack and slash arcade mode fun later. Shameless gore is always a big draw, know what I mean?
Not an Evil Dead fan? Err, do those people exist? Well if they do then they might, I'll admit, not enjoy this game as much as I did and you might want to take that into consideration when looking at my scores, but I genuinely don't believe there are many people out there who don't like these movies (whether they know it yet or not). Who would even consider buying a gore filled, hack and slash zombie video game if they don't like those kind of movies? This rings doubly true for the Evil Dead movies since they're pretty much the best the genre has to offer. You know, It's a testament to the franchise's popularity that this game is here at all. As Bruce puts it, "It's great to see a cheese ball character from 1979 running around some guy's video shelf in 2003." How bizarre this must feel to him.
At this point I have to bring up the subject of Evil Dead: Hail to the King. This game too had the trilogy license but was essentially, err, rubbish. It was fiddly, annoying and quite frankly I threw my pad down in disgust after minutes. The developers made the crucial mistake that has ruined so many movie tie-ins over the years by simply not capturing the spirit of the films. The Evil Dead movies are violent, graphic and gory, but they are simultaneously shamelessly hilarious. They are all cheap, but all the same timelessly watchable. Thankfully, the developers made no where near as many mistakes this time around and Boomstick captures the Evil Dead essence beautifully.
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