Another somewhat beloved series gets a reload, this time with a little bit of camp and a whole lot of cliché. Vice cop Jack Slate delivers most of the handsome justice in Dead to Rights: Retribution with fists and firearms, but the game shines when his dog takes the helm. Too bad poor production values and a heavy reliance on archetypes tarnish these genuinely enjoyable moments.
- Enjoyable (but few) campy moments
- Dog stealth is both ridiculous and entertaining
- Satisfying, meaty takedowns
- Overall bland design, boring levels, and generic enemies
- A slew of glaring bugs
- Wonky camera, especially up close
Dead to Rights: Retribution reanimates the dormant K-9 cop series -- unseen in five years -- for its third console title. With his beloved city crumbling under corruption and gang warfare, honest cop Jack Slate enlists his partner and (man’s) best friend, Shadow, as he embarks on a one-man quest for truth, justice, and looking good in a tight t-shirt. While the game offers campy fun at times, it’s saddled with glitches and uninspired design.
Kicking Ass and Taking Monosyllabic Names
You’ll spend most of your time playing as Jack, who alternates between shooting and brawling at your discretion. Gunplay is standard fare. The clichés of uninspired third-person shooter games are all here: civilian escort missions, bridge levers, heavies with rocket launchers, etc. Controls can be wonky and maneuvering, including the inability to take cover in (what should be) intuitive locations, is stilted and awkward.
If you choose to take on baddies with your fists, combat flows a bit more smoothly -- provided enemies do not attack you from different angles, which the camera can’t handle very well. . That said, the two-button attacks haven’t evolved much since the series’ inception. Rough up your enemies without disposing of them entirely and you’ll be given a button prompt for a canned animation takedown. Delivering a no-look, back-handed haymaker is a satisfying reward. Bland, repetitive, and uninspired-looking enemies like the Triads (Triads, really?), is just one example of the bland design that prevents this from being more than a sub-par action title.
And They Called It…Puppy Love
Shadow, Jack’s dog, is the highlight of Retribution and the trademark of the series. When you play as Jack, Shadow will accompany you, attacking and retreating at your command. He’ll also fetch guns and ammo for you once in awhile. Rather than simply being a deployable weapon, as we have seen him in past games, Shadow is now constantly by your side. While this goes a long way in terms of establishing a relationship, it does leave the door open for some unpleasant experiences. Shadow, the friendly malamute who spends moments of respite between gun fights playfully wriggling on his back, can be shot and downed. Watching blood spurt from my dog’s side and hearing his pained whimpers negatively affected my experience. Dog lovers be warned.
The real fun in this game comes when it’s your turn to control Shadow. As a stealthy, Sam(oyed) Fisher, you’ll sneak around enemy territory, taking out guards with silent kills (you can also choose to attack them head-on). Shadow is able to sense human heartbeats in stealth mode, which means you’ll be able to see enemy cardiovascular systems from a distance. It sounds bizarre, and it is, but attacking and then both seeing and feeling the enemy’s heart throb before eventually giving out makes for a satisfying kill. Every few kills, Shadow commits something called a “scrotality.” Let your imagination be your guide. More than once, you’ll need to play as Shadow to recover a keycard from an enemy location. Nevermind that this dog, bless his heart, isn’t always smart enough to even bother trotting out of the way of a bullet storm -- he can infiltrate an enemy base and seek out a specific key card. I didn’t buy it in Jaws Unleashed when the shark did it, and I don’t buy it now.
One of the game’s best moments is a mission that tasks Shadow with shutting down generators Jack can’t reach. Rather than unplug them -- he’s smart enough to find a key card among a squadron of enemies, after all -- Shadow boldly lifts his leg and pees all over them. If only this game were as full-on campy as this mission, it would have been a greater success. Camp can’t be half-hearted: it needs to be full-on, like the original Dead to Rights with its pole-dancing mini-game, or forgone completely in the name of a serious action title.
Unfortunately, the game contains inexcusable glitches, in both amount and severity. The display stutters and sputters whenever things get too intense, sometimes for seemingly no other reason than brisk walking. Fallen enemies spin like tops on the ground, ammo pick-ups float at waist height, and friendly AI run in place, stymied by nothing greater than crate placement. In my personal favorite bug, Jack’s father and mentor, Frank, moonwalked forwards and backwards atop the corpses of his enemies for nearly 10 seconds before stopping, grimacing, and yelling, “And stay down!” He then broke his grimace and went back to his moonwalk of perpetual motion. While there’s room to argue for sub-text about the toll that decades of police work and fisticuffs have taken on Frank, let’s chalk it up to either rushing a game out the door before it’s complete or project abandonment.
Gone are the strippers and neon nightclubs of the series’ past: level design is decidedly bland, an uninspired brown and gray heap of industrial parks and skyscrapers. One particularly dull level tasks Jack with disposing of enemies by crawling all over a train. This was cool at exactly one moment in time. The time was the late 90s, and the moment was GoldenEye 007.
Try, Try Again
Dead to Rights: Retribution shows glimmers of potential greatness. Had those been plucked and used to design a well-executed camp-fest, this could have been an awesome game. Instead, these moments are suffocated by rushed development and an overall lack of inspiration. It’s an opportunity badly squandered. If there’s anything the gaming industry has taught me, it’s that franchises seem to get an unlimited number of lives, so hopefully Namco Bandai reboots this one again in another five years with Shadow running the show. It can only be an improvement.