How is it possible that we're already into our fourth iteration of the Dead to Rights franchise? This is a series that started in 2002 with a middling Xbox and PlayStation 2 game. From there we got a much-maligned sequel and a mediocre PlayStation Portable game. And now, eight years after the original release, Namco is STILL trying to sell the world on this cop and dog duo. Yet despite having better graphics and a vastly improved combat system, Dead to Rights: Retribution fails to hold up next to the other big dogs in the action genre.
I'm not saying that Dead to Rights can't work; I would be ready and willing to see a full reboot of this disappointing franchise. I've loved the idea of teaming up with a dog ever since I first played Shadow Dancer in the arcade. I'm also a big fan of the Max Payne approach to the action. Yet somehow every time Namco puts these two great gameplay ideas together we are subjected to outdated graphics, disappointingly linear stories and character arcs you can see coming a mile away. Sadly, Namco's newest entry in the series is more of the same.
You play Jack Slate, the mad-as-hell action star of the first three games. This is the kind of guy who likes to get things done his way, even if that means shooting his way through a high-rise to save a few innocent people. This is a guy who isn't afraid to put his life (and his badge) on the line; he's the action hero you pay to see in a crowded movie theater. In this installment Jack hasn't gone to therapy or started taking mood stabilizers. Instead he has a new reason to be pissed off: city gangs have killed his father and he wants revenge!
Unfortunately the narrative doesn't get much deeper than this tired old crime story cliche. As you fight your way through the dark, rainy city getting revenge and finishing your father's mission, you discover that there's a much more sinister force in control. Sadly none of these plot elements will come as a surprise, mostly because the game is cribbing off of every crime movie you've ever seen. Sometimes it feels like the story is only there to give you a reason to take a tour through the most depressing tourist traps in the big city.
As I mentioned before, Dead to Rights has always been a game franchise built around the idea that you're a cop with an attack dog. It's sort of the dark and dreary version of Turner & Hooch starring Tom Hanks (or K-9, if you're more of a James Belushi fan). For most of the game you will play as Jack Slate, however there are times when you take over control of your four-legged friend. When you're playing as Jack you can point Shadow in the direction you want him to attack. Better yet, you can have him pick up dropped guns and ammo and bring it back to you. Most of the game's big action sequences and puzzles (if you can call them that) revolve around properly using your companion dog.
When you're not worrying about Shadow, you're probably using one of the game's many weapons or going one-on-one with the violent gang members. The game's gunplay is what you would expect. You can hide behind cars and boxes, a la Gears of War. Your ultimate goal is to rack up as many headshots as you can, because shooting them anywhere else will require a lot of bullets. The levels are linear enough to keep the battles intense, even if all you're doing is ducking behind objects and waiting for the right time to get a headshot. It's not original in any way, but the gunplay gets the job done.
Thankfully the hand-to-hand combat is more interesting. The game gives you two different attack buttons, which you can use to string together lengthy combos. There's also a block button, as well as button combinations that allow you to grab your enemies, hold them as hostages, or throw them off a ledge. On top of these attacks, you will also have a chance to finish them off in extremely graphic style. As your enemy starts to lose the fight, a picture will pop up prompting you to execute the bad guy. This will trigger a lengthy fatality that will usually result in you kicking them up in the air and filling the guy with bullets. Think of them as slightly more acceptable versions of the Manhunt finishing moves. The problem is that there aren't that many fatalities and they last far too long. I found myself wishing I could skip past these clips, yet they go on and on and on. They may seem cool at first, but I assure you that by the end of the game you will loathe this addition.
That's kind of the problem I have with everything in Dead to Rights: Redemption. The game starts out promising enough, but by the time the credits roll I found myself hating even the things I used to like. Early in the game I didn't have a problem with the loose controls and inaccurate weapon aiming, yet by the end of the game I couldn't stand these things. I didn't mind the terrible acting and overly dramatic atmosphere, but I quickly grew sick of the hammy over-acting and the rain. The game has this weird extreme intensity that is perfectly geared for a 15 year old boy. Yet why would that 15 year old bother with this game when there are dozens of better looking and playing games on the market? The game's relentless bad attitude ultimately turned me off of this promising action game.
Beyond the generic action game premise and over-the-top violence, I had a real problem with the inconsistent graphics. Not to be too blunt, but Dead to Rights: Retribution isn't a very good looking game. A lot of the time it feels like the developers (the same people who turned Reservoir Dogs from one of the greatest crime movies of all time to one of the PlayStation 2's most mediocre action games) masked the game's imperfections under a blanket of night. The character models are downright cheesy, the level designs are uninspired and there's a constant string of animation and clipping problems. The poor visuals aren't the main reason this game disappoints, but it certainly doesn't help matters.
At the end of the game I was left wondering why Namco didn't go the extra step and try to reboot this franchise. There's nothing about this game that we didn't see the first three times. Instead of giving us the high-intensity action game we've come to expect in a world of Modern Warfare and Bad Company, Dead to Rights: Retribution plays it safe and delivers a slightly updated version of what we've seen before. With so many bigger, better action games on the market, it's hard to recommend a game like this. Not even the dog can help Dead to Rights feel relevant in 2010.
Dead to Rights: Retribution doesn't try to reinvent the wheel; instead it's perfectly fine wallowing in the franchise's past successes. With disappointing visuals, a lame story and an endlessly dreary backdrop, there's very little to like about this fourth Dead to Rights game. If Namco doesn't reboot this franchise soon Jack and his dog Shadow may become completely irrelevant. Perhaps we're already too late!