I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed GI Joe the movie. After suffering through the likes of Star Trek, Transformers 2, Wolverine and the remainder of the summer’s watered down, retro-exploitation drivel I didn’t think another dumb 80’s toy movie would make much difference. GI Joe bucked the 80’s remake trend by being nothing but a dumb toy movie and reveled in it, forgoing any pretense and concentrating on being a pure, unabashedly campy action flick. The writers understood that their source material didn’t have any real gravity to it so they focused on what it was about—backyard action figure antics that made you feel like a kid again. Video games have been trying to capture that feeling for decades, but does GI Joe fare as well on the DS? After playing through GI Joe on DS, I’ve found that the game also tries to recreate some 80’s nostalgia, but the comparisons only hurt the game and the execution has some serious issues.
The game picks up roughly where the film ends, but making sense of the story is a chore. The plot is presented entirely by text boxes displayed next to poorly digitized, incredibly low-resolution stills of the film’s actors. I understand that they are trying to make connections to the movie and emphasize the celebrity-acted characters, but these dialogue boxes pop up right in the middle of the action and bring the pace to a screeching halt. When I’m blasting away at Cobra goons it doesn’t matter how much I like Dennis Quaid as an actor, I don’t want his scowling, pixilated face popping up and annoying me.
Speaking of action, this is where that nostalgia I mentioned comes in. In a word, imagine Gauntlet. Really, imagine the old top-down, arcade Gauntlet but played solo and in the universe of GI Joe. Now imagine your controls are rather awkward and the levels possess a number of irritating bugs and glitches. This is essentially how GI Joe is set up on the DS. You control one of six Joes—Duke, Ripcord, Scarlett, Heavy Duty, Shipwreck and my personal favorite Snake Eyes—and blast your way Ikari Warriors-style through a series of highly linear levels. I enjoyed the character diversity because they really do play differently; Ripcord and Heavy Duty take a shock and awe approach that uses liberal amounts of lead, while Snake Eyes and Scarlett require more accuracy but have more precise, lethal weapons.
Each character also has a special ability that is charged by collecting badges from slain enemies (don’t ask me why), ranging from momentary invulnerability to a berserk guns-blazing phalanx. Charging this emergency power is no problem considering every level is packed to the rivets with Cobra thugs. You’ll easily waste 500 or more mooks in a single level, and with enemy spawners the stream of baddies doesn’t stop until you want it to. Occasionally you’ll hop into a tank or fight a boss, but the majority of the incredibly brief adventure is spent gunning down waves of Cobra and blowing up spawners. All told this wouldn’t have made for a bad game, after all it’s the same formula that made Gauntlet successful, but GI Joe suffers from a serious case of licensed game syndrome that spoils an otherwise entertaining game.
Technical issues plague the game. The levels and many of the elements are rendered in 3D and displayed completely top-down, but enemies, projectiles and the Joes are all sprites. Needless to say this produces some depth perception problems, and also leads to numerous clipping snags on the environment, enemies and structures. On more than one occasion I had to restart a level after getting stuck on part of the scenery, and enemies often get trapped in places where you can’t see or hit them easily. It doesn’t help that all aiming is handled with D-pad movement, without any assist from a lock-on. Most of the time you’ll be spraying lead in the general direction of an enemy, swiveling awkwardly left and right—it’s a good the levels are so saturated with enemies and that you have an infinite number of clips because surgical accuracy is impossible to pull off. This mechanic also makes it difficult to aim and shoot while moving, and standing still to aim is a bad idea with so many goons and bullets zeroing in on you.
These issues are unfortunate because most of them could be cleaned up with a month or two of solid playtesting and a few control tweaks. I feel sorry for the team that developed this game because they had something promising but obviously very little time to flesh out the gameplay. The core idea is good and the gameplay works well to an extent, but the clunky, Gameboy Advance-era graphics, mediocre music and host of technical bugs drag the whole thing down. Coupled with the very brief length of the game, these problems make GI Joe Rise of Cobra the very definition of a movie cash-in: rushed, short, and saddled with needless, pace-breaking plot references.