Sometimes, you just want to shoot terrorists until they're dead. And not in a careful and methodical way where you inch along a grassy field towards a ridge where you use your IR goggles to locate them, so you can fire your SXHXZZZZ-XIII (DU) through their left eyeball at a range of forty kilometres. No - instead you want to run right up to the blighters and tw** them with your big old samurai sword. Take that! And that! And that!
Or at least that's what Electronic Arts seems to be hoping with this, its game-of-the-movie-of-the-toy-franchise-of-the-US-military-except-not. Appropriately enough, EA has taken retro shooters for its inspiration, leading to a game which recalls - but doesn't recreate - the 80s videogames that paralleled GI Joe's commercial height. In play, it immediately brings to mind the lessons of LEGO Star Wars, but applied to a more shooty game - that is, shared-screen co-op with simple enough gameplay to work cross-generationally.
"With GI Joe having 45 years of history, we know there's some people who got into GI Joe before videogames were even around," says associate producer Nick Pavlich. "There may be an opportunity for the dad who wants to share GI Joe for the first time with their son, just like I was excited to share Star Wars with my brother. We wanted to make it accessible for anyone to play this game, and have a fun experience." While proverbial run-and-gun gameplay allows granddad and the pre-teen to play together, EA's also trying to offer enough subtlety to satisfy the sort of person who reads specialist videogame sites (hi there!). For example, there's a cover system, plus a splash of destructible scenery so you can remove said cover.
Still, it's very 80s in vibe, recalling a third-person Contra (or, depending on your locale, Gryzor or Probotector) as characters run around, unleashing non-violent death with flashy stars flying everywhere. "When I was growing up, especially when I was playing with the Joe figures, I was playing games like Contra, like Smash TV," says Pavlich when I mention this. "We actually have a nod to Contra. On the very first level of Contra, you end up against that wall - that boss wall. But the first arctic mission you play in the game facing a very similar wall - kind of a remake of that idea."
"We wanted to bring a little back of the classic arcade shooter-type game," says senior product manager Jason Enos. "It's a style of gameplay which isn't seen very often any more, and the generation which are playing videogames may not have even seen it. At least for us, being GI Joe fans, it's kind of a trip down memory lane, because it's the fusion of the classic shooter game with GI Joe... but brought to next-gen sensibilities." In other words, it doesn't punish like those 80s game did. "Contra - I love it. It's a fantastic game, but one bullet and you're dead," says Enos. "It doesn't work any more, especially with the new generation of game players. We do have health-bar elements, and the graphics are moved to 3D rather than side-scrolling."
There are also multiple characters. There are twelve in the game, each with their own unique primary and secondary attacks, divided into three rough archetypes - Commandos, Heavies and Combat Soldiers, who are melee specialists, ranged specialists and hybrid classes respectively. They feed into teamwork-focused design, like a damage bonus for concentrating attacks and juggling enemies between you, and a boss character with a weak point at the rear that is best exposed by one player creating a distraction. Even the shared-screen camera option - as opposed to a split-screen one - is trying to enhance the co-operative feeling. "Dividing the screen makes you feel as if you're off doing your own thing, not working as a team," says Pavlich. "We wanted to reinforce the idea they were working through the game together rather than being locked in on their own."
You don't start with all twelve characters, however; you open them up via the battlepoint economy system. It's another system to reward serious play, offering points for mission success, and accepting them in exchange for character unlocks, new missions, video, and other assorted content. In a nod to the toys that have character information on the back of each box, there are also character bios left around the level to introduce new stuff and offer hints on how to deal with whatever big nasty thing Cobra - the game's terrorist organisation - is going to throw at you next.
There are also some secret rooms and limited multi-pathing in the game, with different character types allowing you to unlock different doors (ala LEGO Star Wars). Thankfully, there are areas in each map where you can swap out the character you're controlling - if only to bring in a new one you've just unlocked. EA is talking about a small strategic element of choosing the right characters for each level, and you'll have to hope so, because if that doesn't happen, everyone's just going to pick the ever-popular mute ninja Snake Eyes.
Rather than merely recapitulate the plot of the forthcoming film, which is basically the origin of the multinational, multicultural, probably LGBT-friendly GI Joe anti-terrorist organisation (kind of a Rainbow Alliance Six), the game is primarily set after it, with the organisation in place and in action. Each of the game's zones forms its own plot, complete with its own characters, and the twenty missions take you from desert, to arctic, indoors and outdoors and through doors. Also, into the doors of vehicles.
"One of the great things about being more than the movie, not only will you see vehicles in the game which are straight out of the movie, but we're able to bring in vehicles which are only in the toy line," says Pavlich. "In fact, we have some vehicles which are from the 'classic' toy line which aren't being revisited in the new toyline. We're really weaving all that together. The classic Cobra vehicle is the Hiss tank - it isn't going to be in the film at all. If we were the traditional movie game, it'd be such a missed opportunity not to have that, because fans would be, 'But that's the classic thing!' We really wanted to cover all the different bases." So no Hissy fits, yes? There's also the Accelerator Suit, which is a major device in the film, allowing you to perform superhuman acts of soldiering. As the developer tongue-in-cheekly puts it, it's basically the game's equivalent of a Mario power-up, but Mario doesn't get wrist-rockets. More's the pity.
Not having had a chance to play it, my main reservation from seeing GI Joe in action is the camera, which looks a bit confused when it gets up-close behind the players, although it appears to work fine when you're advancing on the enemies - even adding a sense of epic scale to the proceedings. One reason LEGO Star Wars' shared camera worked was because characters are primarily based on close-combat weapons, like lightsabers. When it's primarily guns instead, you suspect aiming off-camera will be somewhat tricky. So while clearly designed for two people sitting on a sofa and talking nonsense at one another, it does make you wonder whether they're considering any form of online-co-op.
And they are. Well, considering it, anyway. "A lot of movie games, the development cycle is 6-8 months," says Pavlich. "By the time this comes out, it'll be nearer 18 months of development. We wanted to make sure the same-screen co-op with a buddy was perfected. If it wasn't working well, everything else fails. We still have time in the schedule to evaluate what we could do with online, to see if it's something that we could get done for some of the platforms. It's something we're looking at."
I leave GI Joe behind with mixed impressions. I do admire what EA's trying to do, and working on this preview brought to mind Smash TV, LEGO Star Wars and even the divine idiot that is Earth Defence Force 2017. It makes me feel more excited than I actually am. The thing that links those games together is that I'd only ever truly rave about them after I've played them. In these things, it almost doesn't matter if the theory is strong or not; you can only even slightly tell when you play the thing. So until we get a chance to take GI Joe out of its plastic wrapper, crouch on the Eurogamer carpet and play with Duke, Scarlet and all the rest, I'm going to avoid anything like predictions. Good luck, EA, and soldier on.
GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra is due out for Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Wii, DS and mobiles around the same time as the film, which debuts on 7th August.