There are a lot of videogames released these days that hide behind an ironic or detached ‘love’ of the action movies of the 1980s. The best of those films were lovably repetitive tales of lawless supermen engaging in consequence-free ultra violence, and the very finest of them were so acutely aware of their own ridiculousness, that the comedians of the period who attempted to parody them often had nothing to mock but their own misconceptions. So many of today’s lower-profile action games boast violence that is dank and tasteless, and some of their creators are very fond of reeling off the names of some 80’s genre classics in the accompanying press releases. These technically accomplished but stylistically bankrupt games all allude to an element of homage that usually isn’t there at all – the suggestion is merely used as shaky justification for stomach-churning brutality and chauvinistic humour.
But Dead To Rights: Retribution is a legitimate pastiche, and a surprisingly sharp one at that. Along with the constant nods to the genre staples that everyone is aware of – the ever-furious police chief, the presence of an idealised father figure (literal, in this case) and the man-hating femme fatale – there are other examples present that lesser titles never bother to acknowledge; like the ceaseless hijacking of film noir convention, the incessant hard drinking, and the uncovering of a ludicrous conspiracy; and all of these serve to ensure that Dead To Rights: Retribution proudly stands apart from the mob. Fans of the earlier releases in this franchise (of which there are surely a couple) are undoubtedly going to be more impressed with this than everyone else put together, as those games were generic and unsatisfying in ways that this sequel most definitely is not.
But those fans will definitely be familiar with the dynamics of the gameplay, which has been pedantically fine-tuned rather than revolutionised. Although it could be classed ostensibly as a cover-based shooter much like Gears Of War, a commendable emphasis has been placed on the meaty melee combat this time around. Although it is kept simple (much like everything else is, in fact) it isn’t simplistic, and is never boring to engage in. Combos are a joy to pull off, with a satisfying one-button countering command becoming an essential part of the mix as the tougher enemies start appearing. The cover-based gunplay is extremely accomplished, and the constant dearth of ammunition encourages you to trade blows at least as often as you rack up headshots. It’s an effective device, and the surprisingly aggressive AI means that over-using your weaponry will quickly result in an empty clip and a large, multi-opponent brawl that will require considerable skill to survive beyond, even on Normal difficulty.
Jack Slate (yes, really) has always been the star of the Dead To Rights series, with his trusty sidekick (an Alsatian named Shadow) forever in tow to provide valuable (and valuably violent) assistance when things get dicey. In the earlier games Shadow was only ever a button-press away, ready to perform (usually context sensitive) kills when Jack became overpowered. Here though, Shadow is a playable character, and although the game dictates when you can and can’t use him, it introduces sequences of stealth that should detract from the experience, but actually end up providing some of the most thrilling moments of the entire game. Shadow can see enemy hearts beating from great distances (and even through walls) and often has to dispatch roomfuls of them at a time, always making sure to drag the bodies into darkened areas afterwards.
There are some other nice additions (including weapons disarms) but along with Shadow’s emergence from the shadows, the most well implemented new feature is the slow-motion Focus Mode. It is measured by a tiny meter in the bottom left hand corner of the screen, and you add to it by executing overtly brutal or stylish kills. It takes a surprisingly substantial amount of time to fill that meter, and it takes mere seconds to use it all up, so it is a tool to be utilised with extreme caution. The best places to trigger it usually take place during the set-pieces that involve hostages, as you’re able to take every last oppressor out before they are even able to react to your presence. That mechanic is old news and should evoke feelings of exasperated deja-vu, but it is so well balanced that it becomes one of the title’s trump cards. Similarly antiquated is the lack of a map screen. There is rarely any need for one – as wrong turns are blocked off and the game is nothing if not linear – but the lack of garish waypoints feels surprisingly fresh.
It’s an unexpected pleasure to see a frequently ridiculed cinematic period treated with such unsnobbish respect for a change, and although Dead To Rights: Retribution was never going to be anyone’s idea of great art, it’s an experience that ineffably works as a moderately clever and extremely entertaining approximation of one heck of a good time at the movies, circa 1988. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t sophisticated, but it’s a nostalgia-tinged riot for gamers of a specific generation.
Watch the Dead To Rights: Retribution trailer here…