2D, 3D, CG, sprites, voxels, polygons - games may change, but one great big fat constant is that licensed games always stand a good chance of being rubbish. There's just something about the artificiality of the development process, the forced shoehorning of popular properties into the often borrowed framework of a game, that more often than not spawns disaffecting tripe unworthy and unaware of its heritage.
The beginning of the end
As you've probably guessed, Dredd Vs. Death is a perfect example. This is the first result of UK developer Rebellion's purchase of the 2000AD comic catalogue. There's such a wealth of beautifully realised characters, plot, action, suspense, comedy and drama held within this comic book institution that, given the state of technology and prevalence of freeform city-based titles in 2003, surely nothing much could go wrong. Surely.
From the very outset, Dredd Vs. Death is nothing more than a triumph of asinine shootery and cringeworthy product placement (Red Bull and PlayJam adverts show up regularly in the city, and one mission objective even involves arresting a gang for the illegal smuggling of the energy drink). How did this happen? How did such a strong set of characters get reduced to plodding around dull levels, greeting each other with their breathy action flick voices during cut-scenes, firing pointlessly at wave after wave of marauding undead?
Even the story is incredibly forgettable. The Psi Judges of Mega-City One have predicted that a plague will ravage the city, something that seems to go hand in hand with the sudden outbreak of vampires in the city. Judge Dredd - the rock hard, square-jawed, law-enforcing legend - takes it upon himself to launch an investigation into locating the source of all the vampire action. Cue eleven chapters of watered down Halo on a budget.
Actually, no, I can't compare it to Halo. The only parts that really remind me of Halo are the holding-two-guns-at-a-time bit and the recharging shield. The rest is just saddening. You set off as Dredd into the dank streets, issuing the odd warning to common criminals, waiting for them to get on their knees so that you can handcuff them and pass Judgement. Some perps will put up more of a fight than others, but only when you're fired at should deadly force be employed. Assault on an unarmed or unthreatening individual will decrease Dredd's LawMeter, which measures how adept you are at upholding the law and affects your Judge rank at the end of each chapter.
Dredd's deadly force is mostly contained within one weapon - the Lawgiver, a sidearm that contains an entire game's worth of arsenal. With a simple switch of modes it can alter its ammunition from regular bullets to armour-piercing, Hi-Ex (explosives), heat-seeking, bouncing and incendiary rounds. There are of course other weapons, including shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, pistols and gas grenades, but none of these ever come into use quite as much as the Lawgiver's various flavours of assault, all of which come in useful when the vampires arrive.
And once they do, the scene is set for the rest of the entire game. Dredd makes his way through Mega-City One annihilating fast-moving growling things attempting to take chunks out of his face. Whip out the Hi-Ex and a couple of shots send them spiralling into the air and bouncing off the walls. Some seemingly hacked-in ragdoll physics come into play here, with some characters ricocheting all over the place before settling into a resting position.
Nice, er… rain
Rebellion's Asura engine seems to have the potential to render some genuinely impressive visuals, but its deployment in Dredd Vs. Death varies from the impressive to the downright awful. Firstly, the mixture of comic-style textures on the Judges doesn't sit well with the attempt to portray gritty realism in some areas of the city. The city itself is for the most part well constructed with its grimy exteriors and driving rain, and it conveys a proper sense of scale. Some of the interiors, however, lack the detail required to make the scenery particularly believable; at points it's clear that Rebellion were struggling with exactly how they wanted to present Dredd and his environment.
Still, credit where credit's due. The atmosphere does thicken from time to time, particularly in anticipation of Dredd's confrontation with the Dark Judges in the latter stages of the game. What comes before is an utterly forgettable seven levels of mind-numbing sub-Duke Nukem 3D 'action', with Dredd plodding about each level like he's wading through mud. But towards the end of the game, Rebellion suddenly gained the ability to strike genuine fear in my heart as the battle with Judge Mortis, the disease-spreading deathmonger, approached.
The preceding twenty-minute struggle against hordes of shambling zombies built up to this moment - it couldn't come soon enough. "Mortis is in there Dredd, be careful!" warned a fellow Judge, and as the background drones mixed with the wails and moans of the undead, I felt a chill. I turned the corner and there he was - a pathetic-looking six-foot high model standing in the middle of the room emitting puffs of brown smoke in my general direction. His defeat was as mundane as his visage. Actually confronting him would mean mission over, as Dredd isn't allowed to let Mortis' soul escape, and so what's the grand solution? Release some sanitary gas at the other end of the room, forcing Mortis out of the hospital and allowing him to be captured.
Dying a Death
After Mortis comes Judge Fire, then Death, then Fear, then... er, Death again. Each battle is more depressingly anti-climactic than the last, with a couple of final confrontations even yanked out from under the player's feet and portrayed in cut-scenes. And don't even get me started on the final boss battle with Judge Death. The game was all over in about six hours, and I was left with the sinking feeling that Rebellion hadn't even scratched the surface of what their own licence has to offer them.
The clumsy plot was delivered with a total lack of finesse; the characters were brought to life with awkward voices and badly animated, angular frames; there was an almost total lack of the strip's characteristic sardonic wit, and I rarely ever cared about what happened to whom. Probably because nothing does happen to anybody until the very last level.
The arcade and multiplayer portions of Dredd Vs. Death seem to be Rebellion's attempt to rescue the effort. Arcade throws players into a free-for-all battle against respawning AI and challenges them to survive against the clock or kill as many enemies as possible within the time limit. Arcade levels are unlocked by gaining a high ranking in the main story mode, and successes in those unlock cheats for use in the single-player game.
Multiplayer mode features an impressive complement of different modes, many of which are variations on already established FPS game types. Blockwar is a King of the Hill mode, with players attempting to inhabit specific areas for as long as possible. Bounty Hunter puts one player in Dredd's shoes with the rest hunting him down, and the player who manages to kill him fills those shoes, the twist being that players are only able to score as Dredd. There's also Informant mode, straight out of Counter-Strike, with one team of players attempting to escort an unarmed player to a safe house, as well as deathmatch, team deathmatch and even more besides. One particular mode which grabbed my attention was Vampire: each player's health steadily decreases on its own, and can only be replenished by hurting or killing other players. It's an interesting twist that increases the tension and frantic action of an otherwise regular deathmatch game.
Frankly I wasn't expecting the best from Dredd Vs. Death, but what happened once I set the disc in the drive was more disappointing than I could possibly have anticipated. This is a total waste of a fantastic licence - incredibly anti-climactic, a mere six hours long, full of uninspired levels and identikit enemies, and achingly tedious to play. Once finished I had to quickly uninstall it lest I ever accidentally clicked on that hateful icon again.
The multiplayer modes just about rescue Dredd Vs. Death from a total slating, but really - Dredd deserves better than this. Fans of 2000AD are going to hate this even more than the Stallone movie, and mindless shooter fans aren't going to like it much more than that. When you think what could have been, it's almost painful to think about.