Trends in gaming come and go just as they do with everything else. This year it's all about pretty action-adventure games and magic controllers. Last year it was shooting monsters in the face in post-apocalyptic American cities. And for a hundred years before that, it was third-person shooters set in gritty urban environments populated by crime lords, drug dealers and maverick cops-on-the-edge called Jack.
Dead to Rights, published in 2003, was part of that trend. But the game had a unique twist - the maverick cop-on-the-edge was called Clive. No wait, he was called Jack. The twist was Jack had a dog. Alas, this shocking innovation failed to excite critics who weren't ready for such a radical re-imagining of the genre, and it all went a bit 6/10.
Now Blitz Games has picked up the rights to develop the sequel, and they've clearly worked hard to come up with an even more exciting twist. What could this be, you wonder? Have they changed the perspective to first-person? Scrapped the drug dealers? Swapped the dark alleys and damp sewers for somewhere more cheerful, like the Center Parcs Elveden Forest Subtropical Swimming Paradise? No. The twist is that in Dead to Rights: Retribution, you get to be the dog.
The dog in question is Shadow, the Alsatian seen at Jack's side during trickier battles in the previous game. Now he's "an integral part of the story", according to project director Imre Jele. He's a constant companion in the levels where you play as Jack, and there are also sections where you get to control Shadow directly.
"We call them our driving sections," says Jele. "It's a very different kind of gameplay to the sections with Jack, which are all about running down enemies and kicking them in the face. With Shadow, it's more about stealth," he adds, before showing us the different ways Shadow can run down enemies and eat them in the face. We also get to see our fluffy friend knocking bad guys to the floor then savagely tearing out their genitals. It's enough to make even the penis-free amongst us wince. "We call this the Testikill," Jele says proudly. More wincing.
Shadow does have a stealth kill too, to be fair - he sneaks up behind enemies, then jumps up and clamps his mouth over theirs so they suffocate in silence. And die thinking, 'So this is how it ends - my last moments on this mortal plane are to be spent getting off with a dog.' It doesn't sound like Jack would mind too much, though.
"We try to portray the development of the relationship between Jack and Shadow," says Jele. "I'm not going to give away what happens, but Shadow starts out as someone else's dog. Jack gets the dog around the third level. At first they keep their distance, but as the story progresses they learn to trust each other more and more, and they get closer and closer. At one point, they even kiss." What kind of relationship is this, anyway? "Nothing of that nature. It's about camaraderie."
According to Jele, the idea is to exploit humans' natural affection for dogs and our desire to protect them. "We weren't sure whether people would care about Shadow or not. Originally we had a very complicated system in terms of how he interacts with Jack, but then we found that human beings have some innate learned reactions," Jele explains.
"If you hear a dog whimpering, you immediately go, 'Oh, I want to help the doggy,' and we try to trigger those emotions. Someone once described it as, 'I really can't make up my mind whether Shadow is the cutest dog ever, or the vilest.' That's exactly it. In certain situations you're going to go, 'Aww, how cute is that!', and the next moment he's going to tear someone's head off." Or their penis, let's not forget.
Blitz has also tried to give Shadow appeal by making him look like the real thing. "We took a lot of inspiration from actual dogs. We applied a similar facial animation technology to what you'll see used for humans in other games," Jele says. "We had dogs coming into the office and we did a lot of motion-capturing." Did they bite your little white balls off? "No, they did not."
Dead to Rights: Retribution isn't all about the dog, despite what the preceding 700 words may have led you to believe. In fact it's not even the main selling point, according to Jele: "The most important element which is going to make this game stand out in the market is a seamlessly integrated combat system.
"We give the player a whole toolset, and it's up to them to choose what to do with it. You have hand-to-hand fights with takedowns, counters, combos and everything you'd expect from a third-person fighting game. But at the same time we have a third-person shooting game as well, with proper run-and-gun, headshots and all those things."
He's talking about the sections of the game where you play as Jack, of course - Shadow may be able to gnaw off a mansnake quicker than a human can remove the wrapper from a Cheestring, but he still can't hold a gun. In the level being demoed today, Jack is in the middle of a fight between the police and some pesky Triads. He takes cover behind a car and peeks out to fire off a few rounds, then runs straight up to a baddie and starts battering him with some impressive combos.
This demonstrates how easy it is to switch from shooting to hand-to-hand fighting, says Jele. But why bother trying to kill people with high kicks when you've got a gun? "There are situations when the enemy is surrounding you, and the gun is not the best weapon to use. Or if you run out of ammunition, you have to run in and start fighting them."
A quick hands-on play reveals he's right about how simple it is to switch. The controls are intuitive and the fighting moves are powerful, you don't immediately feel impossibly vulnerable if you run out of ammo. It's easy to take out baddie after baddie using just Jack's hands and feet, though Jele says they've lowered the difficulty level specifically for this demo. They want people testing it out not to worry too much about winning each battle and be free to focus on the finer details.
"Basically we said, 'OK, we know how a good third-person shooter works, how a good third-person fighting game works. Let's put them all in the same system, and try to improve single bits here and there.'" And put a dog in?
"And put a dog in! The point is, it's about small refinements. For instance, instead of a jump over cover, if there's an enemy on the other side it becomes a kick over cover; you land with your feet on their face. You know, small additions that are going to make a game better. But really, the true selling-point of this game is going to be the unique and seamless integration of the systems."
And the dog. Whether you're cracking skulls or popping caps, Shadow is there to sick balls at your command. He's dead clever, says Jele, and will adjust his behaviour according to how you're playing. If you're taking cover and sneaking around, he'll do the same; if you're going all-out in full combat he'll run ahead and take down as many baddies as he can. Or you can manually set Shadow on enemies with a single button press.
Anyone would thing you'd been spending a lot of time with Peter Molyneux, Imre. "I'm actually a big fan of Fable II, but obviously our game is very different," he says. "This is an M-rated game so we wanted to go with a more vicious, animalistic portrayal of a dog. Shadow is an attack dog, a fighting machine; he's not a cutesy lapdog."
So what have been your other inspirations? Turner and Hooch? "Haha! Again, I don't think that would be the right inspiration for us. It's not that kind of a relationship." Movie producers might want to take a look at Retribution, though - who wouldn't want to watch a remake where Hooch devours a drug dealer's genitals before getting off with Tom Hanks?
In the meantime, there's Dead to Rights: Retribution. The game's not out till next year so there's still at least six months left for polishing - which has to be a good thing. The visuals aren't too impressive; the colour palette is an awkward blend of murky and gory, the environments are dull and the villains are generic factory-made goons. The whole thing looks a bit dated compared to the pretty action-adventure games that are proving so popular these days.
But who knows? Gritty urban third-person shooters might have fallen out of favour but there's still a market for them, and now there's less competition. Jele's certainly not worried: "We like to say this game puts the boot in reboot. We looked at the original game and said, 'OK, there are some fantastic ideas here. Let's take those but introduce them to a whole new audience,'" he says.
"Obviously gaming as a whole has moved on, and there are a lot of ideas which feel dated today. So we want to make sure we keep the good elements but offload the dated elements, and create a brand new version of the game." One in which you can be the dog, don't forget. Woof.
Dead to Rights: Retribution will be released in early 2010 for PS3 and Xbox 360.