At some point in the last few years, the movie tie-in quietly died. Once the keystone of the AAA games market, today you'd be hard pressed to find a game on the shelves to coincide with most blockbusters. Few will mourn the passing of this particular gaming genus, as the movie tie-in was always a notoriously wretched breed.
As if to illustrate the point here's The Expendables 2, a shoddy twin-stick co-op shooter based on Stallone's latest Age Concern infomercial that would struggle to stand alongside the crude side-scrollers that bore Sly's face thirty years ago, let alone the current crop of military muscle games. It's perhaps appropriate that a film that shamelessly looks back to the gory glory days of action movies should be one of the few to inspire a game tie-in, but that doesn't mean the end result is any more satisfying.
This is one of those games where so much is wrong that it's hard to know where to start, a feat made all the more startling by the fact that absolutely nothing being attempted here is even remotely ambitious. You move, you shoot. The template is decades old, tried and tested. It should be bread and butter. There's literally no excuse for getting it this wrong.
There are four playable characters in all: Barney, Gunner, Yang and Caesar. That's STALLONE! LUNDGREN! LI! CREWS! for those reading along with the trailer. Of those, only Dolph Lundgren and Terry Crews have taken the time to pop into a recording booth and drop some pithy quips and exhortations to, once again, get the hell out of here. Stallone is replaced by a decent impersonator; Jet Li is voiced by some Chinese guy who sounds nothing like Jet Li, but presumably nobody is supposed to notice.
"These are weary shrugs rather than fleshed-out gameplay features, and none of it is enough to distract from the stultifying monotony of trudging through twenty plus levels of insipid, muddled gunfights."
Right off the bat, the character models look crude, and they look cruder still once they begin to waddle into action like Karloff's Mummy. The camera jerks along in distracting hops and often leaves one or more characters stuck off-screen. This is a particular problem when playing with others - either online or local - and the game resorts to some of the most egregious invisible walls in recent memory just to keep the action flowing, if that's the right word for such juddering progress.
The game's biggest flaw is one that cuts right to the heart of its failure as a shooter. There's just no weight to the game, no sense of impact or tactile sense of the hundreds of rounds you spit into the screen. Most of the time, you actually have no visual feedback as to where you're shooting. You just direct your bullets vaguely in the direction of the stiff military mannequins milling around you, and eventually they fall over. Some are up high, others are right next to you, but there's no practical way to direct your shots. The whole screen simply becomes a weird formless soup of ineffectual bullet hits, and provided you keep moving and shooting, the job of actually killing the bad guys seems to take care of itself.
There are deeper tactics available, but even here the game offers yet more half-finished ideas and bizarre design decisions. Each character has their own explosive weapon - grenades, smoke bombs, C4 and so on. To earn these, you need to fill a meter by killing bad guys or grabbing star icons. When the meter is full, you'll have three explosives at your disposal, as well as a signature finishing move. A signature finishing move that only works on one enemy, and immediately reduces your meter to zero, taking all your explosives with it.
That's the game's big payoff for consistent slaughter. Not a massive devastating screen-clearing attack, but a feeble pre-animated finishing move that depletes the enemy forces by precisely one soldier. You can kill them just as easily with one of the floaty melee attacks that seemingly swoosh right through bad guys but make them fall over all the same. Even more ridiculous, trigger these signature moves during a co-op match and everyone has to watch, as the camera automatically zooms in on them.
Variety comes from sporadic on-rails turret sections, where you guide a twitchy crosshair over stick men and fire yet more weightless rounds into the ether, and very occasional objectives where one character might have to set charges or otherwise open the way ahead. There's apparently a combo multiplier at work, but I never worked out which of the numbers in the corner of the screen it was, or what difference it made. These are weary shrugs rather than fleshed-out gameplay features, and none of it is enough to distract from the stultifying monotony of trudging through twenty plus levels of insipid, muddled gunfights.
There's a perfunctory attempt at including character progression, as XP is traded in for miniscule improvements in health, accuracy, damage and so on. The amount required for each upgrade is high enough to feel like a grind, but the impact of your choices so negligible that you quickly stop caring. Luckily for the reviewer in a hurry, there's the option to automatically max out any or all of the characters via paid DLC, so I can confirm that a maxed-out Sylvester Stallone is only marginally better at killing than the standard model and is definitely not worth the extra investment of time and/or money.
For a genre aimed at satisfying such simple base gaming urges, this persistent technical and conceptual woolliness proves to be an insurmountable hurdle. If pushed for something positive to say, you could offer up that the explosions are reasonably beefy. Given that the gameworld is so stiff and rigid, that's hardly enough to tip the balance.
Characters float and judder, getting stuck on scenery all the time. Bullets seem to evaporate, and any attempt at accuracy is stymied by a game engine that constantly seems to begrudge even the basic effort of lethargically stirring its uninspired ingredients together. There's simply no way that anyone could look at this limping runt of a game and think it was up to release standard. From the core mechanics to the underlying structure the whole thing feels scrappy and half-finished, more befitting a first year student project rather than a commercial release connected to a major studio movie.
And this farcical parody of shoot 'em-up design is in pursuit of that simplest of goals, just moving and shooting, something that any game should be able to manage. Apparently not. Leave such lofty expectations to more ambitious games. Archaic and lethargic, The Expendables 2 seems far more likely to break a hip than a sweat.
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