The video game Dead to Rights: Retribution confirms that there’s minor value in setting the bar low. Simply performing basic gameplay mechanisms via a conventional controller remains one of console gaming’s chief pleasures, and that’s certainly the focus of Namco’s reboot of its critically reviled Xbox franchise, comprised of 2002’s dreadful original and its even lamer 2005 sequel. Striving to be nothing more than a competent third-person actioner with a signature novelty (your hero K9 cop is paired with a vicious husky), the game takes baby steps toward rehabilitating its ancestors’ wretched reputation by just focusing on its core elements. Hardly groundbreaking or even all that memorable, Volatile Games’s latest is, in light of its predecessors’ awfulness, nonetheless a decent reclamation project, proving that muted aspirations don’t have to be fatal.
In Retribution, you play as Jack Slate, a Grant City super cop with steroidal biceps, a gruff voice, and a generic desire to do good and exact vengeance against those who murdered his father. Slate is a bore, but of a non-aggravating sort, and while his canine sidekick Shadow is also short on personality, the two are a functional pair of proxies. Beginning with a sequence in which, as Shadow, you protect an injured Jack from assaulting forces, and then flashing back to elucidate the preceding events, the game has a rather mundane story to tell about Jack’s efforts to avenge his father’s death, a quest that leads him to uncover a plot by a titan of industry and a traitorous fellow officer to seize control of the city. A conspiracy-tinted saga full of faux twists, the narrative is a perfunctory bit of nonsense, though if it never engages, at least it’s handled via passable cutscenes that maintain adequate forward-progress momentum.
While the plot keeps things moving, the places it goes are too familiar to truly excite. Plowing through office buildings, navigating rooftops, storming military bases and escorting captives, the game’s varied levels are doggedly formulaic. Worse still, they last far longer than they should, adding difficulty only by distending and rehashing the same encounters. This isn’t helped by the so-so nature of the easy action itself. Retribution’s combat is a mixture of hand-to-hand fighting and gunplay, both of which are handled blandly. Two buttons, one for strong strikes and one for light, allow players to perform fisticuff combos, albeit pretty straightforward ones that require little skill, since most combinations have the same effect. Using firearms is similarly standard, with Jack—required during skirmishes to use a duck-and-cover system no different from that found in every other third-person game—able to alternate between two weapons (one handgun, one piece of heavy artillery) as well as grenades. All of this is carried out in perpetually gray environments that are excessively expansive for the linear action at hand, with the graphics subpar—especially for Shadow, who often seems to be floating above the ground—and the chaos embellished by Jack’s constantly profane exclamations.
That said, a number of gameplay elements enliven the nonstop mayhem. The first is the opportunity to disarm an adversary (via an on-screen button-push prompt) and, if timed correctly, immediately deal a follow-up lethal shot to the thug’s noggin. It’s a small but effective feature, and one complemented by the ability, during fist fights, to perform a deadly blow (again via a graphical prompt) that plays out via cutscene. This latter facet ably contributes to the game’s badass cinematic vibe, though if it’s in keeping with the overriding ethos of killing first and never asking questions, it also couches the proceedings in juvenile amorality, as Jack’s kill maneuvers are so gratuitously over-the-top—if not delivering skull-crushing kicks to the head, he’s slaughtering them with multiple, cold-blooded executioner gunshots—that Retribution becomes plagued by a severe disconnect between its hero’s noble quest for justice and his rampaging-lunatic homicidal proclivities.
Ultimately, the main selling point here is wielding Shadow as a weapon, and it’s a gimmick whose implementation is frustratingly rudimentary. Through simple forward-return commands executed via the controller’s D-Pad, Shadow can be told to attack specific enemies, retrieve fallen weapons, or stay and protect Jack’s hide, a situation that gives battles—often against multiple enemies who like to hide behind cover—a tad more complexity. Still, one can imagine this central Jack-Shadow dynamic being fleshed out to involve more complicated scenarios than are present in Retribution, an impression that also plagues the sporadic stealth sequences in which, as Shadow, you’re asked to surreptitiously take down goons walking about in predictable fixed patterns.
None of the game’s various stages are actively bad, and at times, the sheer number of diverse enemies—including regular soldiers to snipers, fighters and heavily armored goliaths—generates sufficient adrenalized energy. Aside from Shadow occasionally going glitchy and not responding to your orders, as well as a camera that doesn’t always know which way to face, Retribution handles its material with nondescript proficiency. So thoroughly stripping away any interest in its plot, or in concocting gameplay intricacy, the shallow game functions somewhat akin to an old-school arcade brawler like Final Fight in that its pleasures are almost wholly derived from the endless repetition of simplistic actions. That’s surely not enough to warrant excitement, especially in light of competitors like Uncharted 2 and God of War III, which tweak and expand upon their traditional genres to far more exciting effect. Yet as a title designed only to satiate immature bloodlust and, more fundamentally, a desire to execute punch-and-shoot techniques ad nauseam, Namco’s reimagining of their disgraced franchise winds up being a serviceable diversion.
Dead to Rights: Retribution. Publisher: Namco. Developer: Volatile. Release Date: April 27, 2010. Platform: Xbox 360. ESRB: Mature. ESRB Descriptors: Blood, Mature Sexual Themes, Violence. To purchase, click here.