I'll never forget the first episode I saw of the HBO prison-drama Oz. I was up late one night channel surfing through cableland and decided to finally catch a rerun of the show. At the time, Oz was generating a considerable amount of buzz for its shocking content. This particular episode that introduced me to the series more than lived up to the hype. In the final scene of the hour-long show, inmate Tobias Beecher is emotionally wrought as he reminisces over the long emotional and sexual domination that he endured from fellow inmate and Neo-Nazi, Vern Schillinger. In order to redeem his sense of manhood, Beecher exacts his revenge by ambushing Schillinger in the weight room and knocking him unconscious to floor with a dumbbell. What would happen next left me speechless and paralyzed in front of my television. Beecher punctuated his revenge by defecating into Schillinger's mouth. No need to do a double take on that last sentence folks. One man used another mans mouth for a toilet. I kid you not when I say that I couldn't sleep that night.
The reason I cite this horribly graphic scene for my review of Namco's Dead To Rights, is because the game also features several prominent levels that take place within a prison. During the course of trying to track down the murderer of his father, the player controlled protagonist, Jack Slate, a K-9 police officer is framed for another murder and incarcerated while he awaits execution by electric chair. While a majority of the game is not set in a prison, I felt the prison stages were representative overall of Dead To Rights poorly conceived form and untapped potential in challenging players beyond a higher difficulty level.
While having sequences set in a prison and being visually fashioned somewhat convincingly so, I found no instances in Dead To Rights that were anywhere near as emotionally disturbing as the above described scene in Oz. Granted oral defecation is an extreme example, but you would think that any type of a fiction involving a prison might touch upon or perhaps explore other issues like the social and moral implications of the death penalty; the racial disparity among inmates; the anguish and inhumanity a prisoner might feel from solitary confinement; or the despair and brutality a prisoner endures from being gang raped (the same subjects dealt with on a ongoing basis on Oz). Take your pick. Any one will do.
Despite being rated mature (meaning this game is supposedly for adults), Dead To Rights has no such experience or ambition. It is a mere sheep in wolves clothing that uses only the most socially timid and comfortable clichés like cigarettes-for-trade and prison escape maps to paint a PG-rated teen-friendly novelty amusement park interpretation of prison life. Players don't freely immerse themselves in the dangers and social complexities of a prison environment. Instead, players are ushered from one clearly defined station to next where a silly mini-game or drab fistfight awaits their gratification. Where as a good videogame will cleverly disguise its gameplay interactions and boundaries to heighten the sense of disbelief for the player, Dead To Rights unabashedly reveals in limited archaic conventions.
Not unique to just the prison stages, every real world environment and situation is distilled into a discernable objective that gawks pretentiously like a neon sign on a highway. Later stages set in locales like a nudie bar, dance club, massage parlor, city street and office building, offer possible dialogue on sex, prostitution, drugs, crime and corruption. But every opportunity is reduced to shooting-gallery or brawl and issues go uncharted in any convincing or meaningful fashion. Dead To Rights is depressingly regressive in its gameplay and treatment of topics the storyline affords.
What could be considered truly horrific in Dead To Rights is the equally regressive graphics. While character animations are adequate, the models lack convincing detail and texture. Motionless lips during dialogue and frighteningly bulbous fist-shaped hands only exacerbate the visual deficiencies. Later levels look unpolished or unfinished, which gives the game a rather uneven progression for stage to stage. While making its debut on all-powerful Xbox, Dead To Rights looks more suited for the original PlayStation.
The one thing that does work in Dead To Rights is the John Woo-inspired bullet ballet gunfights that comprise a good portion of the gameplay. While using a familiar third-person perspective, Dead To Rights excels past similar formulas in this one area by fusing a slick player-controlled slow-motion 'bullet-time' feature and a smooth auto-targeting system that will have players bringing down multiple enemies in a room with Chow Yun Fat-like grace. Options like being able to use an enemy as a hostage/shield and being able to disarm enemies with fiendishly sadistic choreographed martial arts moves also keep the mechanics lively during these gun battle sequences.
There are rare moments in Dead To Rights where the gameplay, design structure and environments come together nicely and during those instances, my sense of self is transposed into the game. The gun battle sequence in the graveyard (reminiscent of the scenes in the John Woo's film Hard Target) and on the pier comes to mind. However, none of these moments are sustained. Dead To Rights is all too eager to remind you that you playing a very poorly planned and weakly scripted videogame. The wonderful shoot'em up mechanics is wasted because the game has no ambition to elevate itself beyond the tried-and-true formulaic composition of game design and narrative focus. My greatest grievance is how Dead To Rights squanders potentially invigorating situations and possibilities that could raise the level of discourse in videogames. Dead To Rights as well as a myriad of other recent ultra-violent games expose game developers as conceptually unsophisticated craftsman unable to rise artistically to the occasion. Good art will often shock a viewers emotional and intellectual foundation. It will change a persons value system and alter the way a person looks at the world. The original HBO cable show Oz achieves this on a weekly basis. Dead To Rights is mere child's play in comparison.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.