Version tested: Xbox 360
Jack Slate is a cop on the edge. With a name like that, he probably doesn't have much choice. Early in Dead to Rights: Retribution, which reboots a faintly remembered franchise from 2003, he's investigating a typically grimy locale with his dad, Frank, an equally hard-boiled detective of the old school.
The grizzled duo confronts a couple of henchmen, but just as dad is on the verge of talking them into surrender, bullets fly and the perps go down. It's an overly enthusiastic SWAT team, led by Frank's former partner. “This is not how we do things!” Frank barks. “We arrest people. We bring them in and we question them!”
Trouble is, to get to this point you'll have carved a bloody swathe through dozens of identical henchmen; snapping necks, kicking heads and putting bullets in faces at point blank range. Quite why it's suddenly important to follow due procedure for these randomly selected bad guys is never explained.
Does it matter? Probably not. Action games, much like their direct-to-DVD movie counterparts, rarely operate in the realm of narrative logic. As long as you can get right back to the ol' ultra-violence, it's easy to gloss over such idiocies. Or at least it should be. The fact that I couldn't let go of this daft inconsistency says more about the gameplay's inability to keep me distracted than it does about the lax storytelling.
The problems with Dead to Rights can be found neatly encapsulated in its own self-promotional waffle. This is, apparently, a "hybrid tactical shooter and arcade brawler", in which you navigate linear urban environments, wiping out the bad guys with melee fighting and slo-mo gunplay. While Heston Blumenthal may produce culinary magic by combining unlikely tastes, here it results in an undercooked oxymoron, the incompatibilities from the ingredients cancelling out whatever tasty strengths they may have offered.
When you're trying to shoot tactically, you're forced to trade blows with bludgeoning opponents from all sides. When you're trying to perfect combos to take down a gang of unarmed thugs, you're being shot by gun-toting enemies and off-screen snipers. With one button pressed into service for everything from taking cover to dashing across open ground to disarming an enemy, the opportunities for the context-sensitive controls to leave you in the lurch are awkwardly multiplied. Throw in a fondness for suddenly spawning enemies to catch you in cheap crossfires, and a camera which flicks distractingly from one angle to another as it tries to keep you framed with limited success, and the key elements of both shooter and brawler are poorly served.
What ideas Retribution introduces to its dormant heritage can easily be traced back to recent high-profile hits rather than any fresh thinking. Just as the original games cribbed from Max Payne, this time it's hard to ignore the debt owed to Batman: Arkham Asylum.
The flow-based fighting aims for the same bullseye as Rocksteady's comic-book smash, but fumbles the execution. Response is stiff, reactions gluey, so rather than grace and speed it's easier to fall back on blunt force to bash your way through. Similarly, the occasional detours into stealth gameplay draw directly from Batman's "detective vision". In these sections you control Shadow, Jack's enormous canine companion, and infiltrate enemy areas to find keycards or disable defences.
Hunkering close to the ground allows Shadow to not only see enemies though brick walls, but also view their heartbeats. This made sense for the Caped Crusader, but here it feels random, pointless and - let's face it - more than a little silly. Dogs with x-ray vision sit clumsily alongside the gritty noir tone established elsewhere.
Shadow almost proves his worth in the normal gameplay, as a prod up on the d-pad sends him into the fray to tackle a stubborn foe or retrieve a discarded weapon. This is squad play at its most basic, but by making the sidekick an attack dog, the simplistic nature of the thing is at least partially excused.
Less easy to forgive is Shadow's non-existent AI. The shaggy dope requires an infuriating amount of micromanagement, given his inexplicable habit of standing in the open, taking constant fire from mounted machine guns or snipers, forcing you to dash into harm's way to revive him after each suicidal bout of inaction. Equally annoying are the times when you set him on an enemy, only for him to leave them alive. Getting blasted in the back by someone your virtual partner was supposed to have handled is the very definition of a cheap shot.
Thankfully, gunplay works best out of all the gameplay elements crudely stitched together here, though even then it's never anything more than an adequate cover-based shooter to add to the Gears of War wannabes pile. Headshots are frustratingly inconsistent, but the variety of weaponry keeps things just the right side of interesting. This isn't a game where you need to cling to a favoured weapon; when a gun runs dry, Jack simply discards it, forcing you to grapple with bad guys to restock your arsenal.
Praise is at least due for the commendably smart enemies, who almost compensate for Shadow's drooling ineptitude. They'll seek cover, fall back and regroup, and will even pick up and re-use whatever weapons are left lying around. The same is true for friendly AI characters, on the few occasions they're part of the mix.
Mostly, however, Dead to Rights: Retribution is one of those games that should be far more entertaining than it actually is. The violence is ludicrously overplayed, with the obligatory gory slow-motion takedowns and burst-melon head explosions, and this is bolstered by wet, sickly bone-crunching sound effects and a relentlessly mean-spirited tone. A bombastic Danny Elfman-style soundtrack strives to give these grisly events an epic feel, but only serves to illustrate how pompously overblown the whole thing is.
Jack Slate is certainly one of the least enjoyable action heroes to come along for some time, appearing in the effectively acted cut-scenes as little more than an angry muscle on legs who treats everyone around him (apart from his beloved dog) like dirt. He's a horrible prick, but the game seems unironically in love with his B-movie posturing, never missing an opportunity for him to spit the same repeated quips over and over.
"You have the right to remain...SILENT!" is a good one. "Stop f***ing firing at me!" is hilariously petulant, but appropriately honest given that this is probably what you'll be thinking as well. My favourite beefcake bon mot is when he randomly bellows “MOTHERF***ER!” at nobody in particular, presumably just to remind you that you're playing a mature game for grown-up adults.
Punch, shoot, swear. This is one of those games that reveal everything they have to offer by the end of the third level, and then just keep going, making enemies tougher to beat but never really varying the things you need to do along the way. What should have been an unpretentious fast-food morsel of a game instead becomes a bloated, indigestible monster burger, weighed down with ten flabbily paced levels, unbalanced boss fights and slack checkpoints that force you to replay just enough of the mindlessly bruising action to break your spirit.
The game at least has the good grace to cram pretty much everything of value into one solo play-through, which suggests that it was never intended to be anything more than a boozy weekend rental, much like the meat-headed movies it aspires to. Taken on those terms, Dead to Rights is a lot like its belligerent hero, getting the job done in the crudest manner possible, leaving behind nothing more memorable than a sticky adolescent mess of blood, bullets and profanity.
5 / 10