Dead to Rights: Retribution

Thomas Cross

This is a game about brutally murdering the lower classes of a city, those who are trod upon constantly by their societal “betters.” It’s a game that invites you to enjoy the slaughter of the poor and the mistreated.

Dead to Rights: Retribution

Publisher: Namco
Players: 1
Price: $59.99
Platform: Playstation 3 (reviewed), Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: Volatile Games
Release Date: 2010-04-27

It’s been a long time since I played a game as mediocre and infuriating as Dead to Right: Retribution. The Dead to Rights franchise was born under a bad sign: when Max Payne stole the hearts of gamers and perfectly captured in game form what people loved about The Matrix’s fight scenes, similar games were bound to follow. Payne did it so well that even official Warner Brothers Matrix tie-ins paled in comparison. Dead to Rights showed up, post-Payne, and sporting the even then ubiquitous (for video games) hard ass, down-on-his-luck cop and tried to make its own way, using unique, unheard of tricks and tools.

It did nothing of the sort. Poor melee combat, a worse than forgettable protagonist, a pointless AI dog companion, and poor Payne bullet-time shooting marred the game. It must have done somewhat well though, because it spawned a sequel in 2005 and has now given birth to a third game (a reimagining of the first game), Dead to Rights: Retribution. Even in the early stages of Namco’s PR for the game, Retribution was never sold as anything but a fun, bloody exploration of violence and slowly moving bullets and bodies. It’s a proven formula (if you only look at the Payne games), and the game features cover mechanics, a mix of long ranged and melee combat, and stealth elements. It tries to leverage the success of the recent Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game that mixed multiple styles of play and combat.

Retribution starts out with an agonizingly slow and guileless tutorial. The hulking, cartoon-like hero, Jack Slate, is wounded in the Docks District of the blandly named Grant City. As Shadow, his equally hulking, trusty dog, I was tasked with killing triad gang members and protecting my master. This sequence was the first that hinted at Retribution’s childish lust for violence. Every other dog kill resulted in Shadow ripping viciously at a given Triad member’s crotch, as the man screamed his death rattle.

From here, Retribution dives headfirst into a wretched, tired storytelling device: the flashback. The night before, Jack Slate spearheaded a Die Hard-like assault on a terrorist-held multimedia conglomerate’s skyscraper. Unsurprisingly, the plot concerns itself with a murdered father (Jack’s), loyalties betrayed, and conspiracies to take over Grant City!

Predictably, one of those things are exciting to play or watch. The actor who voices Jack is a growling, shrieking man, who afflicts every cutscene with his poisonous vocal presence. Of course, the actor isn’t the problem here: the writing behind this game is awful. It’s trite and offensive; it wouldn’t know what to do with a character or emotion if such a thing happened along.

This blithe embrace of the worst bits of 80’s action movies carries over to the combat. Hand to hand combat is clunky and difficult to master. Often attacks will miss enemies or bounce uselessly off them, thanks to bad hit detection and a completely unhelpful camera. Combos are long and useless: every fight consists of enough close and long-ranged enemies that I never had a chance to use more than my most basic moves.

Sadly for players possessed of good taste, Jack is capable of performing a variety of finishing moves. These cause the game to slow down, and the camera to pivot around Jack and his victim. Jack then proceeds to pummel his assailant, often shooting his enemies, then kicking them, and then shooting them again. Sometimes he’ll break a criminal’s neck, twice. As he murders hundreds of gang members, special ops guys, and soldiers, Jack will spit a handful of epithets and insults. Really, this is when I gave up hope of this game redeeming itself in any way.

Watching my outrageously burly policeman beating, shooting, and then beating again “criminals,” only to growl “you have the right to remain silent,” or “you should have surrendered, motherfucker,” was too much for me. I can’t understand who would think this was a fun, or funny, or even “cool” thing. It’s trollishly, senselessly violent, and it takes a prurient enjoyment in that violence. There’s no irony or hidden message, no intelligence behind these vicious displays. Someone thought it would be cool to make a policeman shoot another man in both kneecaps, then kick that man into the air, and then shoot him again. Is it too “sensitive” for me to say that I think the trivialization and glorification of police brutality is a bad thing? I don’t think so.

I don’t like the fact that one of the game’s main gangs is “The Union.” They’re men (all men, of course) who used to be in a dock-workers union, but turned to crime when the city went bad, as one character incoherently explains. This is a game about brutally murdering the lower classes of a city, those who are trod upon constantly by their societal “betters.” It’s a game that invites you to enjoy the slaughter (even as our hero soliloquizes on the topic of Miranda Rights, a painfully ironic habit) of the poor and the mistreated.

Beyond the game’s infuriating penchant for violence, the bulk of play can described as “simple.” Guns are hard to aim, and Jack drops each gun when he runs out of ammo. I was forever searching for new guns as waves of enemies rushed me, depleting my stores.

This is a game full of mistakes: checkpoints are far apart, and the game’s habit of throwing snipers and melee experts at me caused multiple deaths and long half hours of replay. To make matters worse, Grant City is one of the most boring video game settings that I’ve ever slogged through. Everything I saw (or shot) was brown and gray. Every level takes place in a warehouse or dock or apartment complex roof. Everything about this world is boring and dull, which is more than I can say for this game.

I can’t think of a single good thing to say about this game. If you turn off the sound (avoiding the offensive and sickly acting and insults), and if you play perfectly and never have to reload, it might be a fun, distracting game. But that’s so only if you’ve never played Uncharted or Tomb Raider or Max Payne or any other third person action game ever made. Name a game, then recognize that that game is more fun, or smart, or interesting than Dead to Rights: Retribution will ever be. I suspect that bits and pieces of this game could have been fun, had they been paired with an entertaining, adult (for the right reasons) game. This isn’t that game, and every second I spent in it reminded me of that fact.


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