Version tested: Xbox 360
With its unpretentious action and wilfully dumb storyline, Renegade Ops is a shameless throwback. It's also ridiculously enjoyable and strangely refreshing. Strange, because it wasn't so long ago that Live Arcade was awash with top-down twin-stick shooters and the resulting overkill extinguished community passion for the genre in just a few months.
So why does Renegade Ops soar where the virtually identical Assault Heroes was merely functional? A large part of its success is down to the fact that developer Avalanche (of Just Cause fame) understands the tactile feedback necessary to make an action game sing. It also walks the fine line between knowingly cheesy retro affectation and just being stupid.
That latter point is perfectly illustrated by the opening cut-scene. The villainous Inferno detonates a nuclear bomb in a city then holds the world to ransom. The faux-UN of the game squabbles and capitulates, but that clearly won't do. Bryant, a mutton-chopped military hero who looks like Groundskeeper Willy but talks like Shaft, throws his medals to the ground and sets off to solve the problem his own way. This, inevitably, means pitting a tiny squad of quirky renegades against Inferno's vast army of henchmen.
It's a set-up that could easily have been ripped from the attract sequence of a 1987 arcade cabinet, and the bold comic-strip style visuals sell it well. It manages to be both parody and affectionate homage, and thus establishes the shameless tone that will see the game through its nine lengthy, explosion-drenched stages.
There are four wonderfully clichéd characters to choose from, including the obligatory Feisty Punk Chick and Large Black Man With The Biggest Gun, though beyond the selection screen you only ever see their vehicles. The point of difference comes in their special attack, with options including an EMP pulse, air strike or powerful cannon. This supplements the standard machine gun attack, plus a trio of secondary weapons: rail gun, rocket launcher or flamethrower.
Whichever vehicle you choose, you'll speed around lavishly detailed maps leaving plumes of dust in your wake. Collisions with smaller structures - shacks, huts and the like - send your vehicle smashing straight through, with the building collapsing behind you, while civilian cars detonate as you rampage over them. Oil barrels explode, of course, as do the numerous enemies that roar into view to try to stop you reaching your objectives.
Written down, there's nothing there that stands out, but with controller in hand Avalanche's muscular execution makes it hugely enjoyable. From the rapid staccato of your initial gun up to the heavy budda-budda-budda pulse of its upgraded shots, the game feels right. There's weight and power, but also agility and nimble movement. Simply moving and shooting form an immediately pleasurable input-and-response feedback loop, so while it's possible to get a little tangled in the physics, it's a game where the basic core mechanics are enjoyable in their own right.
Avalanche has paid attention to the little things elsewhere, as well. The maps are packed with detail and are open-world, to boot. Freed from the linear thrust of traditional shooters, Renegade Ops lets you criss-cross the map as you head to primary and optional secondary objectives, finding your own routes away from the dirt tracks. There are bonus points for any impressive stunts you manage along the way, and this feeds into an intricate yet simple score mechanism that rewards lengthy damage streaks with ever-increasing multipliers.
You can also unlock upgrades for your vehicle, with each character boasting their own skill tree (two strands are identical across all characters, one is unique to their special attack). While you can unlock all the upgrade options, you can only have a limited number activated at any time: two to begin with, rising to four later on. More health or more firepower? More combat perks or better defensive options? These questions actually matter, and swapping out your upgrades has an immediate impact on how you play.
There are sly strategic elements laced into the game elsewhere, as well. Health and secondary ammo pick-ups can still be grabbed even if you don't need them, as your gluttony bestows another lump of "maxed out" bonus points. But the open-world nature of the game makes that a decision with some tactical depth, at least in the later levels. Do you go for the higher score, or save the health for later? Extra lives are scarce in Renegade Ops, maybe one hidden icon per stage, and with checkpoint-free missions made up of numerous objectives, the threat of defeat is not to be taken lightly.
The lack of checkpoints is one of a handful of criticisms that make it through Renegade Ops' bullish defences, especially when an ill-timed collapsing bridge sequence in the fifth stage can gobble up your lives in quick succession. It's also a shame that the game uses a crude time limit mechanism to force you back on track, activated when your destructive dawdling distracts you from primary objectives for too long. The time limit isn't too annoying - a generous three minutes which is more than enough to get the job done - it's just that exploring, chasing secondary objectives and blowing stuff up is so instinctively fun that it feels churlish for the game to forcibly drag you away from its own simple pleasures.
Also detracting from the overall experience is the fact that the four vehicles don't really stand out that much from each other and, special attacks aside, never really offer four distinct ways of playing. For a game heavily based around four-player co-op, there's no pressing reason for everyone to specialise in a different vehicle. It's also a shame that after eight free-roaming stages, the final level encloses you in linear corridors with only one route forwards. What should have been the explosive cherry on top becomes a rather rote and disappointing grind through a clichéd enemy base.
These are ultimately minor grievances in a game that otherwise does everything you'd want from a budget shoot-'em-up. In an age where self-consciously clever design can become an end in itself, there's something reassuring about a game that opts to be so deliciously old-fashioned, yet offers a deceptive amount of depth via well balanced upgrades and a robust scoring system. A bit more variety in terms of vehicles and environments would have made Renegade Ops even stronger as a co-op experience, but itchy trigger fingers will be well served by this unabashed celebration of classic action beats.
8 / 10