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."