I am a fan of Dead to Rights. Just a few minutes into playing the first game, I became fascinated by its intriguing mix of high octane gunplay and laughably inept storytelling. My borderline obsession with that title led to me writing what may well be the longest review in videogame history, a twenty-five thousand word treatise on all the myriad ways in which it contained the most ludicrously inept videogame story of all time. While this may lead the to the assumption that I disliked the game, or had some grudge against the sequel, that couldn't be further from the truth. I encourage everyone to play DTR, I've shown friends the game's cinemas so that they can be entertained by the idiocy of them, and I use the term CotEWiNoLo as frequently as I'm able to in everyday life. So when I say that Dead to Rights II is a complete failure on every conceivable creative level, that the vast majority of the game's design is worthless and inept, and what few small elements actually work well are overused and run into the ground until even they lose all value, I hope that it's understood that this is coming from perhaps the world's foremost expert on Dead to Rights.
Like its predecessor, DTR2 is a third-person shooter/brawler that concerns the misadventures of ultraviolent supercop Jack Slate as he guns down roughly one tenth of one percent of the population of Grant City. The action is broken down into two types of levels: levels where Jack shoots bad guys and levels where he beats them to death with his bare hands.
It's generally a good idea to start reviews with the positive aspects of the game, so I'll give the developers at least some credit. They managed to maintain the level of fun that the first game's gunfighting offered, and even improved on it in a number of areas. Just as the first game shamelessly ripped slow-motion dives from Max Payne, DTR 2 steals from Max Payne 2 the "spherical" dive, a special move that allows Jack to spin in mid-air, aiming at enemies all around him, rather than just the ones directly in front of him. Unfortunately, while upgrading the dive, the developers removed the one feature that made the first game's dives unique and useful. While Max Payne's bullet time effects were a gimmick that quickly grew stale, DTR's dives were a vital gameplay device because even though the rest of the world slowed to a crawl, Jack Slate was still able to fire his weapons at full speed. This led to a few wonderful set pieces wherein Jack Slate would jump through the air in slow motion, gun down a room full of enemies before they could get a shot off, then watch them all fall to the ground simultaneously. Now Jack's weapons fire as slowly as everyone else's, but do more damage when in slow motion. The removal of this extremely fun, if completely unrealistic, game mechanic only serves to make the game considerably harder and more tedious, and I can't imagine why the change was made, especially given the sheer volume of combat the game requires of the player.
This is the "running into the ground" I mentioned earlier. I praised the gunfighting in the first game because it was fast, fun, and satisfying, with a fairly balanced difficulty level. While the shooting is a little less fun than it was the first time around, there's actually far too much of it. In each room of each of the game's twelve levels, Jack will invariably have to gun down around ten people. While this may not seem like that many, it's important to note that there is absolutely nothing to the gameplay other than this continuous killing. Nothing more is asked of the player than to move from room to room, killing every single person they find along the way. Even the old gameplay-extending standard of sending the player off down corridors to find keys or turn valve handles is sorely underrepresented here, with Jack almost never having to do anything but kill wave after wave of opponents. It's almost as if the developers didn't have time to do anything but build the levels and populate them with enemies—hard to believe given that the game must have been in the works for almost three years. Late in the game, I was amused to discover an "objectives" listing on the pause menu—as if it was possible not to know what to do next. There were only ever two directions to go in any given level—the way I'd come from, and the way towards more living people.
Perhaps all of this repetitive gameplay wouldn't have been so mind-numbing if I hadn't found myself moving through the same locations and fighting the same bad guys for the majority of the game's playing time. While I don't have anything negative to say about the game's graphics, there is a disturbing lack of variety among the game's bad guys. There are five different groups of opponents in the game, which really should be enough to fill twelve levels of gameplay, but there are only two or three different looking enemies in each group, meaning that whenever Jack finds himself facing off against six or seven enemies at a time (a very common occurrence in the game), he'll invariably be battling two sets of triplets or three sets of twins. While I understand the limitations that graphic engines place on game design, this tiny amount of effort is really just inexcusable. How hard would it really be to give each of the bad guys ten different colors of pants and jackets, randomly selected as they're spawned? I know this is a fairly common problem in videogames, but the sheer volume of identical enemies that attack Jack Slate pushes the problem from the realm of the noticeable to the unacceptable. It's not like Jack ever gets close enough to see anyone's face in real detail, and a little variety would have gone a long way to making the game a lot more bearable.
The level design suffers from a similar malady. While most of them are attractive and well-built enough, the developers sought to get the most out of their design dollars by making the sure that they got as much use out of their levels as possible. Almost all of the levels require the player to do some kind of backtracking, and a couple of the levels force Jack to walk all the way to one end of the level, then turn around and kill his way back to the beginning. One level even forces players to fight their way through the same area three separate times. If the game offered more things to do in the levels—hostages to rescue, bonuses to find, even the much-maligned minigames that the first title offered, then perhaps this problem wouldn't be so obvious. But since the game consists entirely of walking through rooms gunning people down, it's hard not to notice that they keep getting killed in the same rooms over and over.
The game occasionally tries to break up the gameplay tedium by switching from gun to fist fighting. I absolutely loathed the hand-to-hand combat in the original Dead to Rights, and was dismayed when I discovered that it was making a return appearance here. After reading that the hand-to-hand engine had been completely redesigned I allowed my expectations to be raised a little, only to have the gameplay itself beat them brutally back down. The fighting is so bad that it not only feels like it was designed by people who have never worked on a 3D brawler, it feels like it was designed by people who have never played a 3D brawler.
Given that all 3D brawlers consist of small groups of people battling huge hordes of opponents armed with little more than their hands and makeshift weapons, there are at least two mechanics that appear in all games: 1. player characters have more health than enemy characters, and 2. player characters do more damage than enemy characters. These two advantages are what allow main characters to survive the endless waves of opponents they have to deal with. In the old days, these rules could be bent a little in the more challenging games, as players would generally be able to pop in another quarter to keep playing. Given the way this review has been going so far, I doubt anyone will be surprised when I reveal that Jack Slate has neither of these advantages on his side. No, each enemy has just as much health as Jack does, and does just as much damage as he does. This is worsened by the fact that the game's many weapons do such huge amounts of damage that if an enemy lands a single combo with a baseball bat or two-by four, the player can go from full health down to an eighth. Worse still, although all the villains in the shooting sections of the game have energy bars, their current health is a mystery in the beat 'em-up sections, an omission that serves to crank the tedium of the already frustrating fighting up to ten.
Worse yet, the fighting stages of the game are included completely arbitrarily. While the first game at least made some effort to explain why Jack was fighting hand to hand (in jail, captured by enemies, etc.), in this game, Jack will walk into a room and, for no discernable reason, decide it's time to beat people up. Then he'll walk into the next room and start shooting again. I'd guess that it was because Jack didn't want to shoot unarmed opponents, but most of them have knives and clubs, and besides, this is a guy who has a tendency of executing hostages with a bullet to the head, so any moral objection is doubtful. There is one bright side, though: many of the hand to hand areas can be run through without actually fighting anyone, which makes them slightly more irrelevant than they are tedious.
Of course, my biggest problem with the original Dead to Rights was its story. I'm not going to try to compress 47 pages worth of comments here, but suffice to say it had problems. Judged against other videgames, apparently the very fact that it included characters with names who spoke actual dialogue to one another was enough to win it awards. Judged against any rational definition of story, however, and it didn't do so well, as it contained laughable plot twists, insane dialogue, and a main character whose detective skills were "so deficient as to border on helmet-wearing territory." The main character, far from being sympathetic, was a bloodthirsty killer who was remarkably unfocused about who he took out his rage on. The thing that made the game so wonderful is that the writers of the story were completely unaware of this fact. No, for the entire length of the game, Jack Slate is treated like a conventional Action Hero, despite the fact that morally, he had absolutely no claim to the second part of that title.
This disconnect between the game they thought they were making and the game itself led to amazing hilarity, in a way that only the failure of something that takes itself completely seriously can. Had they decided to follow up the story of DTR with a story every bit as elaborate and crazy, I would have been happy. Had they followed it up with a story that was actually good, I would have been ecstatic. The developers of DTR2 defied my expectations and chose a third option that I hadn't even realized existed: they included no story at all.
Now, it may sound like I'm being a little extreme, but believe me, this story is one of the most hollow and tacked-on narratives I've ever seen in a game. It almost feels as if the game was required to have a plot, and the developers added the absolute minimum their contract required. Not counting bosses (none of whom need to be fist-fought, thank the lord), there are only three characters in the game, one of whom is killed halfway through speaking his only line. Even Jack Slate isn't the same character as he was in first game. I suggested that, based on his actions, that Jack was less of a good cop in a bad situation and more of a dangerous psychopath. DTR2 seems to embrace my diagnosis wholeheartedly, offering a Jack Slate who freely admits that he's too stupid to do investigative work, and prefers to murder people whenever he can manage.
Gone are his trademark idiotic noir catchphrases, replaced by excessive amounts of swearing and awkward pop-culture references. Gone is the labrynthine plot, replaced by a straight-line affair that consists entirely of Jack murdering one group of criminals until he gets to the head criminal, who, before dying, tells Jack where the next group of criminals live. There's evidence to suggest that the game's story was meant ironically, or as some kind of satire—the plot kicks off with the kidnapping of Judge McGuffin, after all—but even if that's true, there's nothing clever enough to make it actually funny. Here's an example at the game's attempts at humour: every single level opens the exact same way, with Jack Slate crashing a vehicle into or through something. This has the makings of a decent running gag, but the developers don't seem to understand that this sort of thing really needs to have a punchline. Otherwise, it's just repetition. For example, all of the enemies could have figured out that this is what Jack does, leading them to install a very heavy gate in front of their base, which Jack attempts to ram through, destroying the car and knocking himself out—leading to the standard "captured by enemies" moment. Or the bad guys could have shot up a car as it attempted to ram their building, and then celebrated their success until they realized that it was actually full of explosives, which then go off, killing all of them and knocking a hole in the wall. These are better ideas than the developers had, and they took ten seconds to come up with. So what is Widescreen games' excuse? Really, the satiric and comedic elements of the story reek of being the worst kind of comedy—the tendency of uncreative people to resort to parody when they can't come up with actual ideas of their own. Despite the trappings of satire, DTR2 doesn't have anything to say about violent video games. It's just repeating what the first one said, this time in a funny voice.
Dead to Rights 2 isn't a good videogame. It's not especially big, but the tedium of the action makes it feel overlong. The lack of variety in enemies and gameplay make it feel almost like a budget title. While Dead to Rights failed to accomplish everything it set out to, at least it made a valiant, if hilariously misguided, attempt. Dead to Rights 2 doesn't attempt to accomplish anything beyond mindless action fun, and it even managed to get that wrong. It's really sort of a tragedy, because the concept of Dead to Rights—a great big action game with a story equal in depth and quality—is a good one. Dead to Rights 2 doesn't live up to the promise of the original. In fact, it's a pretty huge step backwards. The only potential bright side is that Dead to Rights 2 is actually a prequel, set before the events of the first game. Unlikely as it is, this gives me some measure of hope that someone, somewhere down the line will make a legitimately good sequel to Dead to Rights. Or at least one that I can enjoy as much as I enjoyed the first one.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.