A wronged cop, out to avenge the death of a loved one, wanted by both sides of the law and tooled to the teeth with pistols, shotguns and a penchant for the explosive. Armed with the ability to dive about in slow motion to easily target enemies and avoid their fire, constantly doing what the other guy wouldn't, dressed sharply and always gravely spoken. That's Jack Slate, disgraced former K9 squadman in Grant City.
Let's just say Dead to Rights has a lot in common with Max Payne on a superficial level.
Dead to Rights is very similar to games that have come before, it's true, but few games boast a combat system quite as endearing. Jack is controlled from a third person perspective using a Halo-esque combination of both analogue sticks (left for movement, right for camera), he can sidle along walls and peer/fire round corners (ala Solid Snake), he can crouch behind objects and pop up to take a shot (ala Time Crisis I suppose) and he can dive around whilst firing, either in slow motion "bullet time" or not, very much like Remedy's iconic videogame creation.
The object of the game is to find out who capped your Dad. After discovering his bloody corpse in a playable prologue section (which doubles up as a helpful combat tutorial), there follows another bloody pursuit through a nightclub and the surrounding streets, followed by a detour to Death Row and much more besides. It's all rather like a very modernised version of Final Fight, as enemies waltz up to you with their unblemished energy bars waiting eagerly and objects of scenery augment the violence...
But the greatness is in what Jack can do with his guns and his limbs. Instead of a frustrating do-your-own-damn-targeting system when Jack is armed, Namco has opted for a lock-on system with an optional manual aim (for targeting barrels and the like). The targeting system (right trigger) locks onto enemies in no discernible order, and you can cycle by releasing the trigger and clamping it down again - much like Grand Theft Auto, for those of you who've played that (chortle). Once targeted, an aiming reticule appears over an enemy - when it goes green you can be assured of a clean shot, a few of which will turn it blue (along with the associated henchman, inmate, cop, city worker, or whathaveyou). With reloading and weapon switching mostly automatic, it's just a case of gliding through the air, seeking cover and popping a lot of caps.
Handily, you can also pick up fire extinguishers and gas canisters, target an enemy and chuck those their way - adjusting your lock-on aim whilst they swoop towards their target and blowing them up like a remote satchel charge. A tremendous effect if pulled off correctly, and a delightfully inelegant way of clearing troublesome pockets of resistance!
Of course you can't always rely on a firearm - you won't find much in the slammer for instance - and if you blitz through swathes of henchmen wasting as much ammo as we do, then you'll need to learn a thing or two about hand-to-hand combat as well. This too is quite basic, with punch, kick, throw and block commands. Like many other similar titles, if you perform a couple of kicks or punches in quick succession you get a nice-looking combo, but as you'll be on the receiving end of much the same, it's more of a question of gripping the block command and waiting for an opening, or making use of your special moves. To start with, you have a handy backfist move - tap punch and kick together, and Jack swings his fist round, clothes-lining anybody unfortunate enough to be standing behind him.
Getting hold of a gun again is crucial to success though, which is one reason Namco has laid such significance on the act of disarmament. As you work your way through DTR you unlock a series of disarm moves, which start off with the basic act of swinging the gun out of the enemy's hand - reports suggest that you'll need to play through a good couple of times to unlock them all.
Not content with merely shooting or decking bad guys though, Jack also has his trusty mutt sidekick Shadow to prey on the unlucky. Once Shadow's stamina is pepped up he can be used to attack an enemy whilst Jack concentrates on more pressing issues.
Split me baby one more time
And really, much of Dead to Rights so far seems to be window-dressing for the simple, neat and quite varied combat mechanic. The early sections leading up to and including the prison involve an awful lot of shooting and fighting interspersed with some in-game cut scenes (featuring much hard talk for a man with "K9" written on his back), and it can become a mite repetitive - even on Rookie skill level, there are tons of enemies, and if you venture into the harder levels it's utter chaos. Rookie seems to be a way of guaranteeing your own power bar's safety rather than an escape from legions of crims.
That said, there are some nice diversions to keep your mind ticking over. Although the drably decorated prison sections can get a bit boring - what with all the running around similar corridors trying to amass smokes to pay off one of your fellow inmates - the inclusion of mini-games is a nice touch, and you can replay these at any time from the main menu. These trivial diversions allow you to partake of Britney's Dance Beat-style rhythm action, Track & Field style boxing, arm wrestling and weight-lifting games and several others (and we're only about two hours in).
To take the weight-lifting as an example, the idea is to keep a cursor in the "hot zone" of a bar along the middle of the screen, by tapping rhythmically to keep it from slipping back to the start. If you can keep it there, another power bar will gradually fill up, and once full you tap B and Jack hauls the weights up to the next position. Let it slip too much and down he goes, etc. This goes on through three weight categories, after which you earn the ciggies.
We're not ones to be swayed by such juvenile activities, but, well, actually we are. These are nicely implemented for the most part, and provide welcome relief. There is a sense that they're there just to distract you from the repetition, but at this early stage that seems a little harsh to say. We'll see.
What we can see now though is very nice. It looks an awful lot like Max Payne in places, with relatively detailed environments but an emphasis on frame rate and enemy numbers rather than visual spectacle. The CG cut sequences are very nice though, particularly the opening scene-setter, which makes Jack look like MacGuyver with an attitude.
Applying the Buff
Dead to Rights is shaping up nicely. As has been heavily publicised, Namco is going to great lengths to try and spruce the game up ahead of its European release. Whereas the US version picked up respectable reviews, the many additions and tweaks to the formula between then and now should help ease its acceptance even further. We're not sure how it will stand up to extended play, but it has the same sort of endearing gameplay as Buffy, and we did enjoy that.
In fact, our biggest problem so far has been negotiating pitch black holes in the ground during the prison escape sequence. Hopefully these Tomb Raider antics will soon be over - we can't wait to kill with sharply dressed impunity once again.