While movie tie-in games typically get a bad rap across the board, they certainly can succeed. There’s actually quite a bit of difference between games that take place within a licensed universe and property tie-ins that attempt to serve as an adaptation of events that have already been portrayed on film. While either has the potential to work, the task of creating a compelling title seems more difficult for developers that choose to go the latter route. Doing so, can actually make for a game that’s difficult to assess while disregarding the film that it’s drawn from. In discussing a tie-in game, it seems best to consider game mechanics outside the context of the license. Goldeneye, for example, would have been a remarkable game regardless of the Bond license, a fact evidenced by the existence of its spiritual successor, Perfect Dark. However, for every Goldeneye, perhaps serendipitously created by developer Rare, there are countless throwaway titles that hardly seem worth the development effort required to make them.
It seems wise that Double Helix, the developers of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra chose not to recreate the events of the film. Setting a game somewhere on a timeline either before or after events depicted in film is a tack that can certainly work well, a notable example being The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. But this is generally only possible when the mythology the characters inhabit is either fairly rich or open to invention. As a property, G.I. Joe seems perfect for an action game with its wide cast of characters and innately action-oriented mythology. Further, Double Helix certainly has the talent to do something fun with it. The developer is the result of the merging of The Collective and Shiny Entertainment. While from a critical standpoint, Shiny likely has the better reputation, having been responsible for both Earthworm Jim and MDK, The Collective was responsible for the underrated Buffy The Vampire Slayer for the Xbox. As such, all the pieces seem to have been in place for Rise of Cobra to be a fairly enjoyable game to play.
Unfortunately, technical deficiencies, poor design choices, and a necessary adherence to the world depicted in the film (despite being narratively unique from it) render Rise of Cobra utterly forgettable. It’s difficult to recommend for action game fans, fans of the film, or fans of the property at large. Rise of Cobra is a stylistic mashup of Gears of War and Contra, both of which seem well suited to the aesthetic of the property. But the action is repetitive and flat, and the camera largely irritating. As such, action fans have plenty of other superior titles to choose from. Fans of the film might enjoy it more, but both the character models and voice acting are lacking, distancing its looks, sound, and feel from the film that it’s meant to be tied to. Nostalgic fans of the G.I Joe cartoons will likely have the same criticisms of the liberties taken with the mythology as they had with the film, which reduces a wide cast of characters to a relatively generic special forces team, the likes of which are already far too common in both films and games alike.
An interesting question arises, then, of who film tie-in games are actually intended for. Since they’re generally forgettable, it’s hard to argue that hardcore gamers are the targeted demographic. Rather, they generally seem a transparent attempt to cash in on the time sensitive popularity of any given action film. The marketing of games in general makes them far more likely to be purchased and played soon after release, particularly given how quickly they enter the secondary market. This seems doubly true for games based on another form of media with a similar rush of marketing around product launch. To the disadvantage of these games based on films, however, they get no second wave of support surrounding home release, as happens when movies are released on DVD. So we’re virtually guaranteed not to see a sequel that can address the issues of the game unless a second film is released, and an accompanying tie-in published. From this perspective, in the face of the Hollywood cash-ins of 1980s nostalgia, it might be a better idea to reinvigorate an entire brand rather than a particular vision of it.
While making a live action film from a cartoon liberties necessarily have to be taken in order to make its production both feasible and interesting to an audience of now-adults. As a gamer, there really doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to have to have a game so closely tied to it. If the film is good enough to spark interest in a dormant license to begin with, why can’t games take that opportunity to explore this newfound interest in the brand as opposed to simply cashing in on a momentary popularity accompanying a theatrical release? Then sequels could be released completely independent of the film franchise’s schedule. Realistically and unfortunately, the answer is likely that the current model generates a more guaranteed revenue stream for those involved. Piggybacking on a heavily advertised film close to its release date likely drives up sales more than the risk of creating a solid product does. As such, we’re not likely to see these kinds of cash-ins go away anytime soon.