"If in doubt, revenge." Walking around the GDC last year I was half expecting to see a number of placards offering advice like this - like real life tooltips for developers. "If in doubt, revenge." "Game too difficult? Bullet time." "Off a project? Pitch a rally game." Ahem. Fortunately I didn't see any such signs or slogans, thus restoring my faith in humanity, and of the lectures I attended I certainly didn't hear anybody evangelising such nonsense. Although EA did tell us how one of its big flops of 2002 took a mere six months to build…
But some people, somewhere, continue to throw these uninspired combinations of familiar elements together with mixed success. And Dead to Rights is a perfect example. I'm going to roll out some of the clichés now. Say 'when'.
To start with, you're an elite cop in Grant City ("people aren't born here, they're forged out of broken bones and blood money" - Payneful), and after finding your dead Dad on a building site tutorial mission, you vow to get revenge and set off (against the run of the law obviously), guns blazing on the trail of those responsible. Living life to the, um, Max.
You control your man, Jack Slate, from the third person perspective with the left analogue stick, and direct the camera with the right. You can slide along walls and peer round them for stealthy and well-protected kills; you can pop up from behind cover to kill your enemies; you can grab a nearby enemy for a human shield; you can jump into a slow-motion dive giving you more time to think, lock and load; and you go about shooting people using a GTA-style right trigger lock on system (tapping the shoulder button to switch between targets). For the most part it's a game of running and gunning from behind cover and killing lots, and lots, and lots of enemies. An early street level has you slaughtering what seems like 50 men, and it's typical of most locations.
Then every so often you run out of ammo or have your guns stripped for plot reasons and have to duke it out with your fists and feet. This leaves you with a number of options. You can punch, kick and block, double or triple tapping for combinations; you can reach out and disarm an enemy to even things up/re-arm yourself; you can throw your enemies; heck, armed or no, you can even send your trusty canine sidekick Shadow in to help you out.
Throw in a series of fairly bland locations (apart from those I've mentioned, there's a nightclub battle, Matrix style bank scenes, Death Row, sewers, etc) and an overstated plot, which seems to go against the unrelenting flow of death and carnage, and that's the game pretty much sewn up. Your job is to get from one end of the gauntlet to the other, dispatching many men, and to get your revenge.
And fundamentally Dead to Rights can't escape this linearity.
Now to some extent that's a good thing! The combat system is split down the middle between the enjoyable and mostly intelligent gunplay system and the tedious hand-to-hand mechanism. When armed, Jack has a number of weapons to consider - dual pistols, shotguns, etc - and he can augment his one-man-army approach by tossing explosive canisters at enemies and shooting them in mid-air.
On the whole, it'll be a good few hours before you get bored of leaping in and out of cover, with fantasies of the Wild West, The Matrix, and pretty much every James Bond/action film ever made running around inside your head. The lock on system and number of targets gives the game an appreciably different feel to Max Payne, and if you're a fan of shooting, shooting, shooting and shooting, Dead to Rights has a lot to offer.
But even that gets repetitive before the game is over, and you'll drive yourself mad trying to get out of fist fights way before then. The prison sequence epitomises the problem for me. It's probably not the biggest concentration of fistfights and it's punctuated by some mini-games (of which more later) but it does see you fighting a series of goons (some strong, some weak), dishing out karate kicks and roundhouse clobberings as best you can. But the disarm system is irrelevant here, as is human shielding, and left to its ham-fisted devices, the Final Fight-esque basics don't stand up to repetition. Unfortunately, Namco has piled on a lot of repetition.
And coupled with the game's linearity, this leaves you bored and unamused, as you toil between the ethereal walls funnelling you between objectives, getting more and more acquainted with the same set of moves.
Then there are other issues. The graphics, for example, are good and bad in equal measure. When I first started playing, I commented that the whole game looked a bit like a Quake 2 Total Conversion, such is the lack of detail in some places (and I was playing Panzer Dragoon Orta yesterday, which really throws the might of Xbox around). Character models are quite well animated in battle and in death, but they're stodgy, chunky bastards. To go back to the nightclub again - DTR's club now looks worse than Max Payne's did quite some time ago. The light show is pretty weak, and the environment is pretty blocky. There isn't a great deal of destructible scenery in the game either, so you're left with some old-fashioned arenas in every sense of the word.
Then again, the choice of locations isn't very helpful to the graphical cause. It's difficult to forgive Namco for making the endless repeating corridors and ashen doorways of Death Row look about as comforting as a cold shower in February; for failing to give the tunnels beneath anything other than a brown/black palette and for throwing more greys, browns and slushy textures around than a Golgothan [the, er, 'shit demon' from Dogma - Ed]; and for generally trying to fill levels with atmosphere by plunging them into near-darkness.
At its heart, Dead to Rights is a simple game of running, gunning and slapping, dressed up with arbitrary tricks and abilities which make for a slightly more exciting game. It's a bit like being on-foot and tooled to the teeth in Grand Theft Auto, but in a scenario where your character is less of a jerky, hard-to-control klutz who jumps like a silly walks campaigner. But when you run out of ammo, it feels a lot more like GTA, as you struggle to enjoy yourself smacking people around.
Like a bit of blam-blam-blam and like the sound of the combat system? You will probably enjoy Dead to Rights. You won't spend endless hours with it and love no other, but I would strongly advise a rental - because even if you don't buy it, you'll have plenty of fun for the first few hours. But despite throwing in a canine companion, button-tapping mini-games and retweaking difficulty levels and so on between NTSC and PAL, Dead to Rights is fundamentally underwhelming to look at, repetitive to play and riddled with more flaws than bullet holes, and this'll stick like rigour mortis after your fiftieth fistfight.