The early to mid 2000s were a weird time in the shooter realm. Remedy gave us the wonderful classic Max Payne in 2001, the shooter that popularized bullet time and action movie stunts, a tribute to John Woo. Yet it wasn’t until 2003 when the sequels to The Matrix hit did it really kick off a brief “bullet time shooter” boom.
Remedy would return with a sequel that year with Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. Then two Matrix game tie-ins: Enter the Matrix that takes place inbetween The Matrix Reloaded, and Path of Neo, sort of a loose retelling of the film trilogy from Neo’s perspective. After that, Monolith’s classic F.E.A.R. in 2005. But then Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare happened and the trend died as quickly as it came.
Those are most well-known examples, though. A lot of Eastern European game developers took a crack at bullet time, including today’s entry.
El Matador was one of a handful of games that saw how big bullet time was and tried to make a decent Max Payne clone out of it. Developed by Plastic Reality Technologies and published by Cenega not long after 1C Company bought them, this game came and went, much akin to other budget games. Thrown into the pit of obscurity to be talked about from people like me.
I’ve owned this game for many years, even writing about grabbing it in an old I Bought Stuff entry from 2012, complete with an interesting story inside the box. In what is a trend I need to inevitably break, it took me a very, very long time to actually get around and write about El Matador. Better late than never, I suppose.
You play as Victor Corbett, a cop for the DEA who after their success solving a hostage situation gets called down to Colombia to help their police forces take down a drug empire. After defeating one of the drug lords, he eventually gets the title of “El Matador,” which is generally accepted among the squad for reasons not completely explained. Corbett eventually goes from place to place, killing drug barons and helping out his squad to end the drug threat.
El Matador falls into the standard third person shooter elements at the time. Hold a gun, left click fires, right click zooms in (or scopes in with the appropriate weapon). Shoot dudes until they die, try not to get shot too much yourself, and don’t die. Pretty simple stuff.
Victor gets a bunch of weapons throughout, which are common for a Max Payne clone. From the common pistols and submachine guns to gimmick weapons like sniper rifles and rocket launchers. Since he’s meant to be a cop, he’ll usually start missions with the assault rifle, which ended up being my preferred weapon throughout most of the game. It’s a shame, because in Max Payne he slowly built up his arsenal, forcing you to rely on pistols and shotguns until you get the bigger, better guns later on down the line. I rarely had to use my pistols or submachine guns unless I was completely out of ammo in those other weapons.
Since bullet time is a core mechanic, Tab activates the slow motion while Shift does a shootdodge. Killing enemies refills the bar even while in bullet time, and Victor reloads weapons instantaneously while in bullet time, meaning certain weapons become literal bullet hoses. This made certain parts of the game a bit easier, though not by much.
While ostensibly similar to Max Payne, El Matador does try to change things up a bit. In several stages, Victor must work with other cops to go through each area, sometimes even waiting on another policeman to complete an objective. I don’t know if the original design for the game was meant to be more like a tactical shooter, but it ended up being more of a hindrance than a help. Hell, one time the friendly AI was blocking the doorway, which was the only way for me to get to the boss of the stage, and there was no way to get him to move from that spot. I had to load from a quicksave and beat him to the doorway to prevent it from happening again.
I could see what they were trying to do, add a bit of variety to the combat and a pinch of authenticity, but they got in the way more often than not. There’s a reason Max Payne worked alone 90% of the time.
There are some things about the story that are… quite bizarre to me. One of the members of this drug empire is named Helmut Koch, who is a Neo-Nazi with a World War II gun collection and a bunch of white women fighting in skintight leather suits. It was a shocking twist in the story that I genuinely wasn’t expecting, especially for a game like this which had more straightforward villains. Thankfully Victor does the right thing and kills the fascist dickhead before it can spread, but it still felt a bit off-kilter to me.
The last part of the game has the typical double-crossing plot of one of the main characters defecting to the drug cartel, eventually putting another supporting character against Victor in a boss fight, but it’s a little bit confusing. It’s not hinted at in any way, and it’s also not clear who the boss of the cartel even was. It felt like they wrote themselves into a corner, and thought this was the way to end the game proper.
Despite the corny plot, the game itself plays fine. Unfortunately, El Matador is a tough and ridiculously punishing game. There’s no difficulty levels, unheard of for games like these by 2006, making some parts of the game incredibly difficult to get through. Finding armor and health is critical, otherwise Victor will go from DEA to DOA in mere seconds. There were several moments when an enemy would waltz up and take me from full health and armor to near dying, which was quite frustrating. The game is not stingy on health and armor, but much like many games of the era, prepare to quicksave often.
This was prevalent very late in the game, where I literally had to cheese a boss by using bullet time and a lot of luck, which took me a handful of tries. I’m so conditioned to modern games giving me checkpoints every few steps that I forgot to quicksave, requiring me to restart large portions of the stage I just did.
El Matador has an ending that’s left rather ambiguous, but it does try to give an epilogue full of text that would leave it open for a potential sequel. Sadly that never happened, as this would be Plastic Reality’s third and final game. The studio shut down not long after, though some members of the development team would later join 2K Czech and work on the amazing Mafia II, so it didn’t end up being all bad for everyone involved.
Playing El Matador and going through the various levels reminded me oddly of Max Payne 3. While it has a different plot and premise, the idea of “cop goes through dingy South American locales to stop a villain from doing illegal acts” is similar enough that is basically Max Payne 3 before Max Payne 3 was a thing. And in 2006, when Max Payne’s future seemed uncertain, this was a good enough substitute.
I live in the United States, but I do get curious about foreign versions of games, especially versions edited for the German market. I remember reading a YouTube comment around 2008 from someone who actually lived in Germany and summarized the plot of this game being drastically changed for that market.
In the German version, Victor is a gangster himself who works as a double agent for the police while also stopping the drug cartel. Presumably Helmut Koch and his Nazi regime didn’t make the cut. While that version was only sold in Germany, there was a limited run of the original unedited version for people who attended the Leipzig Games Convention in 2006 — though not to be confused with the current Gamescom, which also takes place in Germany. It would be interesting to see a comparison of all the changes between the two versions, I always find that stuff fascinating when I look at Cutting Room Floor articles.
Even though Max Payne 3 now exists and is a good swan song to the bullet time shooter genre, El Matador is still a solid game made in those days where everybody was throwing bullet time into everything whether or not it benefited from it, like previous Secret Area entry Alpha Prime. If you want to play it yourself, you’re in luck: It’s on Steam for the reasonable price of $4, and in spite of the game’s punishing difficulty, I’d say it’s worth that price. Hell, I paid 75¢ for it in 2012, and I definitely got my money’s worth.
I seriously need to look more into these Max Payne knockoffs, I’m sure there was more than just El Matador out there…