"Never judge a book by its cover." We've all encountered that expression. We've all probably come across it the same way, too. At a young age, some cardigan-wrapt and condescending geriatric has peered down their nose at us, and reeled it off with the sort of pride you can only get by imparting borrowed wisdom to a clueless child. See? You're nodding your head. And yet, how many times have we all looked at a bunch of screenshots of a new game, and found ourselves reaching for the black cap and gabble before we've even had a chance to snort in derision?
Sometimes, it pays to listen to our elders. In my day, they'd say, you'd look a bit closer before dismissing something like Rise To Honour. And they're right. On the surface, it is plainly the sort of game that we've all been guilty of ignoring at one time or another. It's a third-person PS2 title with a button-mashing combat system, some shoot-'em-up sections, some fairly middle of the road visuals, and a boatload of motion capture. Even the sight of Jet Li's name on the box and his face on the main character doesn't inspire that much excitement at a glance, particularly given that his rather puffy cheeks make him look a bit like Halloween serial killer Michael Myers.
But, little did we all know, there's a lot of interesting stuff lurking beneath the surface of this one. It may for all intents and purposes be "a scrolling beat-'em-up", but it's been kitted out to look and function like a Jet Li movie, albeit only a Hollywood one, with virtually no load delays, DVD-style "Chapters", and, on the content front, an endless procession of inventive fight sequences, shoot-'em-up sections and cut-scenes following Kit (Li) as he clobbers his way around Hong Kong, and subsequently through the mean streets of, um, San Francisco. It even has optional English and Cantonese dialogue and subtitles.
When you first pick it up, Rise To Honour is fast-paced, fluid, exciting and a little bit different. It catches your attention. You're fighting your way through hordes of enemies, but instead of the traditional 'one kick, two kick, three kick, four' you've seen in countless other button-mashers, Kit's limbs are flailing around all over the place as he reels off a seamless array of lightning punches, kicks, ducks, weaves, and some truly audacious manoeuvres that owe an awful lot to Cory Yuen's choreography. Were it not for your thumbs mashing at the control pad in your lap, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd accidentally popped Romeo Must Die in the DVD tray - as the camera cuts away to frame someone's head smashing into a wall, or Kit takes on three or four enemies at once and topples every last one without so much as a mild scrape.
Grabbed by the Honour
At this stage it helps that the control system makes light of Kit's exhausting antics. It actually handles a lot like Rare's Grabbed by the Ghoulies in that you control Kit's movement with the left analogue stick, and use the right thumb stick to lash out, tugging on the trigger buttons now and then to block, throw, counter, and smash enemies against walls or through tables. Speaking of which, the scenery regularly plays an active role, searing an enemy's backside when you toss him on a grill - and it's always nice to sling wooden chairs around at the sort of pace you only ever get in Matrix movies...
It's not all mash, run, mash, run, either - the combat system also relies heavily on the block and counter functions. When faced with multiple adversaries, Kit can just take them on by wiggling the stick and sending a precise blow thundering towards each, but a lot of the time this quickly results in a pummelling as other enemies gang up and knock him down. The trick, it seems, is to hold R1 to block and then launch into combos by tapping L1 and the right analogue stick in the direction of incoming attacks. For a while it's worth it just for the sight of Kit interrupting an attack with a well placed foot to the Adam's apple.
Rise To Honour is by no means a one-trick pony, either; breaking up the Final Fight style antics are shoot-'em-up levels, stealth missions, and a good deal of running around on foot leaping acrobatically over crates and other obstacles. These sections are among the game's most cinematic, as you race Kit headlong towards the camera pursued by a machine gun toting helicopter, quickly tapping the R1 button whenever prompted so that he can leap over an obstacle. It may be extremely basic and require very little skill to make progress, but it's faintly exhilarating, and adds some variety.
As do the shoot-'em-up sections, which initially seem quite hard if you just gun through them without pausing, but actually prove quite enjoyable and simplistic if you stick to cover points when machine guns are wheeled out, and cap the ranks of basic enemies one by one with your unlimited stocks of 9mm ammo. Yep, Rise To Honour is clearly worth more than a passing glance.
However, after about an hour's play, it first started to dawn on us that for all its motion capture technology, cinematic overtures, melodramatic Cantonese dialogue and authentic Hollywood martial arts framing, Rise To Honour was actually rather shoddy, rather limited, and - as we were soon to learn - rather unbalanced and frustrating, despite an abundance of save checkpoints that mark your progress at every opportunity.
It's at about this point, as you race down alleyway after cover point infested narrow alleyway, that you start to tire of being endlessly shoe-horned along, watching cars crumple into just the right position to box you in, and having to dispatch whatever quantity and quality of enemies the game has decided to lay on for each particular sequence. The shoot-'em-up controls start to grate - you have to hold R1 to hide and R2 to shoot, but you can't duck out Kill.switch-style from behind cover, and when you do want to fire you have to point the right analogue stick in the direction of an enemy who subsequently lights up with a circular target. And although you can do Max Payne-style slow motion dives, which increase your firing rate and help take care of tougher sections, there's almost no point since you can only really dive one way, and you stand more chance of winding up in the path of a machine gun this way, too. Standout sections like a nail gun showdown and a Hard Boiled inspired hospital shootout are more like blips on the way downhill than 'highlights'.
The combat too is actually dreadfully limited. At first you don't really mind that you only seem to know a handful of moves, and that enemies respawn with increasing regularity, because you're still getting off on watching your hands do what Jet Li has always done with such ridiculous precision on the big screen. But after a while the number of enemies in any given scene shoots up, you'll often walk into a new area with almost no health left, and you'll start to realise that the combat system really isn't going to evolve or change throughout your entire eight-hour adventure.
The game does a good job staving off the sort of bloody-minded design that stopped us making progress in the likes of Ninja Gaiden, allowing you to restart sections with full health even if you were down to a sliver the first time, but it doesn't offset the pain with the same incentives as a game like that. Here you're still relying on the same four wiggling combos - and particularly the ever-useful counter-attacks - even after six or seven hours and the best part of 60 chapters. Combos don't actually amount to any real benefit, weapons you can pick up are better off thrown than wielded, and while you can activate adrenalin mode occasionally to unleash a particularly ferocious flurry of attacks, the fact remains that what we've got is basically stick-wiggling instead of button-mashing.
The potential to deliver some exotic boss encounters is also thrown out of the window - most of these guys are inconsistent in their approach, prove inexplicably immune in all but the most fleeting of circumstances, or have some miraculous grappling attack that circumvents your counter approach completely. After a while Rise To Honour is either repetitive, too hard, or - like the stealth levels - faintly ridiculous. Did we mention the stealth levels? You'll love 'em. Kit, without question the most dangerous and untouchable man on the planet, sometimes has to dodge round weedy looking guards or wind up staring down the barrel of a Game Over screen at first sight.
Rise To Honour's biggest problem, though, is that Jet Li is simply too good at what he does. You can't hope to actually harness his technique in a videogame - he's ten times quicker with his feet than most people are with their thumbs - so what Team Triad has done is show him doing all the astonishing martial artistry and left you waggling the stick a little bit here and there. Really though, even that would probably be fine to a certain extent, if only there were a few more moves to learn, and a bit more imagination than room after room of contrived fight sequences against hordes of identikit enemies.
But, sadly, that's all we've got. There's nothing particularly offensive about it all, and it's a sign of how good quality motion capture can be put to good use in a videogame, but there's not enough game here to back up the cinematography, and it's too painfully repetitive once you get the hang of it. Fortunately, judging by Jet Li's comments in one of the unlockable videos on the disc, this won't be the last time he dons the ping pong ball suit and does motion capture for a game - we just hope that next time the developer will be able to keep up.