Version tested: PSP
The PSP is in a curious situation. Perhaps a victim of its own multi-functional design, the handheld has clocked up impressive sales in the face of daunting competition from the DS, yet in 2008 it seemed like the games were drying up. "Make more games!" said Sony to its third-party developers, before sheepishly muttering, "Oh, and maybe we should do the same."
Not that there haven't been games, and games based on popular PlayStation properties. This time last year, for example, there was God of War: Chains of Olympus, which made Kristan go all 8/10. Resistance is the next big franchise to get the shrinky-dink treatment and, once again, the result manages to sweeten the compromises of the port with satisfying action and impressive production values.
Set after the first game, and therefore presumably running alongside the events of its PS3 big brother Resistance 2, Retribution's story follows disgraced British squaddie James Grayson as he gets dropped into a new theatre of war in mainland Europe. Having been forced to kill his own brother in one of the Chimera conversion centres, Grayson went AWOL and began waging his own war against the baddies, free from interference from the military brass. Finally captured and sentenced to death, he's offered a last-minute reprieve if he agrees to help The Maquis, a French resistance group, repel the invaders.
It's a convoluted back-story, and one that unfortunately skips past what sounds like the most exciting part - Grayson's rogue one-man crusade - in favour of objective-led missions handed down by bossy-boots military men. The narrative isn't helped by some awkward dialogue, delivered in a variety of distracting British accents. Grayson himself is a surly and fairly unpleasant man to follow around, and sounds a lot like Ray Winstone by way of a racist minicab driver.
None of this really matters once you're shooting at stuff, however, and the game wisely gets to the shooty bits once the obligatory story cut-scenes have done their thing. The game has switched from first-person to third-person, but since Sony Bend studio has spent the past decade making the daft-but-awesome Syphon Filter series, including two solid PSP versions, it's a wise choice.
Bend (named after its Oregon base - also home to the world's first pregnant man, fact fans!) has proven experience in squeezing the most from the PSP hardware and it pays off in spades here. Retribution looks great, with the sort of attention to detail and solid 3D environments that are often fudged for handheld audiences. Control, another area where ambitious PSP games suffer, is also handled with thought and care. The left stick moves Grayson, the face buttons control your aim. Right shoulder button shoots, and left activates whatever secondary fire your current weapon has.
The d-pad is called upon to flesh out these basics, with right cycling through your arsenal and left reloading. Targeting is automatic, using a broad rectangular reticule. You lock on to any enemies inside this area, meaning that the gameplay can retain the fast run-and-gun feel of the PS3 series without tripping over the limits of the PSP controls. It can feel a little frustrating at first, having this crucial element of shooter control taken away from you, but for those who like to do things manually, tapping up on the d-pad puts you into a slower but more accurate zoomed-in viewpoint or, when wielding the Fareye sniper rifle, the scope view.
Compensating for the assisted aiming is a solid and intuitive cover system, evolved from the one developed for Syphon Filter. Approach any wall or object and Grayson immediately takes cover, without being glued to the item in question. You're then free to sidle left to right, while the fire button pops you out to shoot. The structure of the game is fairly rigid - you're essentially moving through a series of staged encounters in arena-like rooms and corridors - but given the style of game being attempted, the trade-off is acceptable.
Unfortunately, having come up with a control scheme that makes fast, frantic run-and-gun action workable on the PSP controls, Sony Bend then take two steps back with a new enemy type that leaves your fingers tied in knots whenever they appear. They're "boilers", female Chimera with grotesque distended heads. Let them get too close and they detonate their skulls, taking off huge chunks of health. To stop them you must shoot them in the face, but since the auto-aiming isn't up to the job, you need to quickly tap up and then use the face buttons to find your target. Boilers move fast, however, and the time between spotting them and plucking bits of bone from your lacerated flesh is tight. The game is generous with health packs, but moments like this undo a lot of the good work that the otherwise thoughtful design has done.
Also deserving criticism is the wonky save system which doesn't seem to allow for the fact that Retribution is a portable game. Checkpoints are actually reasonable and fair, but the game doesn't save at each one. Switching off having reached the first big boss battle, I found that I had to replay a sizeable chunk of the level again the next time I played. With no option to save at will, it's a bizarre restriction for a game that will likely be played on buses and trains, or in lunch-breaks.
Rounding out Retribution is a solid multiplayer option, which offers everything you'd expect from a console release, even if it can't repeat the innovative and addictive co-op play of Resistance 2. All the usual modes are included, but most interesting is Assimilation, which succeeds by marrying traditional multiplayer action with a concept that ties directly into the game's story. It gives the team playing the aliens a wonderfully unfair advantage - any human players killed are converted to their side. If you're the last human remaining, it's about as tense and horrific as online gaming gets - a truly claustrophobic and panic-inducing experience that will hopefully be teased out in future instalments of the main series.
Much like Resistance 2, Retribution is more than the sum of its parts. The single-player campaign may be linear and stagey, but it's also effortlessly fun and incredibly polished. The multiplayer doesn't contain many surprises, but it does a better job of matching the online modes of "proper" consoles better than most rivals in its genre. Annoyances are minor and fleeting in nature, and the game punches above its weight with a substantial and coherent feel that too many handheld offerings lack. The PSP has been starved of beefy first-party games for so long that something this confident was always going to look special. Retribution isn't quite the saviour the PSP needs, but it's close enough to come highly recommended.
8 / 10