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Dead to Rights: Retribution

There was a time when we were content with video game stories. Stories that were basic, empty, and sometimes upon reflection, rather callous. River City Ransom? Bad Dudes? Did anyone ever question whether the aliens in Space Invaders just wanted to talk? No, because we didn’t care. There were bad guys and you shot them.

These days, with titles like Heavy Rain, developers want to make you cry. Every game is striving to have a meaningful story to justify its content – a raison detre, if you will. Dead to Rights is one such game. In the midst of all the horrifying bloodshed and gore, a story is trying to be told. Right off the bat, it will make you uneasy. After a while, it will make you laugh for all the wrong reasons. While injecting this limping series with a little plot may have been a nice idea, Retribution ends up being the most… well, the most video gamey game I’ve ever played.

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By that, I mean it’s the epitome of what the outside world thinks video games are. You know when kids are playing games in sitcoms, and they’re always these ridiculous caricatures featuring gratuitous violence and hammy acting? That’s no longer inaccurate. They’re playing Dead to Rights: Retribution.

You’re cast as Jack, a terrifyingly ripped detective who wears football gear and grunts a lot. Par for the course these days, really. The first time you see him may be a little jarring, though. Dead to Rights has always had a film-noir, Hong Kong detective action flick vibe going for it, and Retribution is no exception – until you actually start playing and the mood totally changes. The initial cutscenes are dark, moody, and set to monologues that wouldn’t be out of place in The Maltese Falcon or something. The whole good-renegade-cop story is a great launching point for a game, but then Retribution decides it wants to be Gears of War, pitching the musclebound Jack against waves and waves of bizarre enemies that look like they jumped straight out of Borderlands.

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Oh, but then it realizes that’s a bit much and tries to backpedal. After you storm through an office building murdering goons with your bare hands and several fully-automatic firearms, you spend some quality time with dad. Jack’s father is also his boss at the police station. After some friendly boxing and a nice chat, they’re off to solve the mystery of The Union – the gang that you pulverized several dozen members of a few hours before.

By “solving the mystery” I mean you go and beat the shit out of/blow the heads off of more Union gangsters. This is where Retribution starts getting truly bizarre. Chilling with your father apparently includes brutal murder, complete with charming gosh-dad-you’re-the-greatest dialog in between. Just what the hell is going on here? After a while, more police characters get involved, and Jack’s dad and a SWAT officer have an argument about the morality of killing all these goons. Daddy thinks we need to talk to them, not murder them!

Uh, ok. This happens after about an hour’s worth of father-and-son detective work.

Oh, and have I mentioned the dog yet? You have a vicious wolfhound that eats people’s throats for fun. Jack and his dad think it’s cute. I can think a lot of things the owner of a human-eating canine would say to them after watching it butcher a warehouse full of guards, but “good boy!” is not one of them.

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All of this weirdness is compounded when your dad is murdered. As rain falls, violins swell, and ambulance lights flash, the half-man-half-gorilla cop Jack wails at the top of his lungs for about five minutes straight. This is more than just weird, it’s unsettling. It’s creepy. Dead to Rights just can’t decide what story it wants to tell. A moment that would be heartbreaking in any other game is somewhere in between creepy and hilarious.

As for the actual game? Well, it’s standard shooter fare. You run around fairly linear levels, ducking behind cover and popping out to shoot people as blood streams out of every bullet hole. There’s a twitchy melee combat system that works well in 1v1 fights, but the game tries too hard to be Arkham Asylum, pitching waves of enemies at you at a time. Fighting more than one guy at a time is rendered impossible thanks to the hypersensitive controls and jerky animations. On the plus side, there are really great looking takedowns. Jack can also disarm opponents and blast them in the face with their own gun, complete with slow motion. It’s pretty great.

Shadow, Jack’s giant dog, is also playable. His sections are the most unique, but they essentially boil down to “kill guards, get key” fetch quest moments. Shadow can sneak around silently, tear out enemy throats to silence them, and then drag their bodies to somewhere dark. It’s a cool idea, and it’s exciting the first couple of times, but after a while it just becomes tedious.

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Graphically, Retribution is a mixed bag. The graphics themselves are quite nice, particularly the lighting effects. The heavy shadows really do a good job of setting the mood. The problem is, the mood is always being set in warehouses, offices, alleys, and more warehouses. The world is as bland as it can be, but it’s filled with strangely costumed gangster villains adorned with gas masks and leather straps and so-on. Jack himself looks great, except for his freakish muscles, which would make Ryu uncomfortable.

Dead to Rights: Retribution is a video game. It bleeds video game. You slaughter waves and waves of bad guys in entertaining ways to progress. But by trying to be something more than that, it just becomes strange. The plot wavers between comic-book badassery and awkward melancholy, making you wonder whether the writing team couldn’t come to an agreement on what kind of story they wanted to tell. Theoretically, this could have been a reboot of the maligned series; a chance to mature the characters into something better. Instead, it’s just plain weird.

5 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in October 2006.

Gentle persuasion

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