Hey, do you remember that game? The one where you're dropped in the middle of a huge city, and you were free to go whereever you wanted to go, and there were stores where you could buy armor and guns to protect yourself from your enemies. And if you felt like walking around wasn't getting you there fast enough, you could just steal a car off the street and tool around at high speeds? Don't drive too fast though, or the cops might get on your tail, leading to the inevitable shootout. And don't kill too many cops, or else the National Guard will show up and blast you to pieces. Remember that?
Actually, you probably don't, since I'm talking about Bethesda Software's 1990 game The Terminator. That's right, a full two years before Wolfenstein 3D had all the world running through rectangles of varying sizes, The Terminator was a first-person shooter that featured a huge continuously-loading environment, a wide variety of weapons including grenades, and fully driveable vehicles. Five years later The Terminator: Future Shock would be the first FPS to feature freelook (mouse-operated aiming), beating id's Quake by a year. It also offered fully-functional jeeps and aircraft, six years before Halo.
I only mention these games because it's important to realize that, at one time, the Terminator franchise was at the bleeding edge of FPSs, pioneering entirely new gameplay mechanics even as they were putting out solid games. It's only with this in mind that it's possible to see just how far the series has fallen, and what an incredible disappointment Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines really is.
I hate starting with the review proper with a negative, but I'm having a really hard time finding anything nice to say. So I'll start with the bad.
The game is a liar. It lies to the people who buy it. The absolute top-listed feature the game claims on the back of the box is that it allows the gamer to play as Arnold Schwarzenegger for the first time ever! Of course, this isn't true. Terminator 2: The Arcade Game quite famously featured Arnold's image and voice, allowing people to play as him in a first-person shooter context. Interestingly, this game cribs its entire structure from that one. Neither film featured enough shooting content to justify a FPS, so they included extensive "Future War" sequences. In fact, the vast majority of this game takes place in the future. This isn't a bad design decision in and of itself, but it's only the fact that absolutely nothing interesting, new, or unexpected was done with the future that makes these sequences so incredibly tedious.
The graphics are abhorrent. The models are ugly, simplistic, and repetitive. I know that it's a given that if I'm going to spend a game killing robots, there's a good chance they're all going to look pretty similar. Despite this, I wish the designers could have come up with a better way of differentiating the types of fleshless terminators (by far the most common enemies) beyond changing the color of their glowing chests. The environments are incredibly drab and uninteresting. I know the game is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and as a rule, basically everything is going to be gray, but this limitation is no excuse for how similar everything looks.
This is only worsened by the dull level design. Actually, "dull" isn't a strong enough word. The level design feels like a mid-90s FPS, from a time when just being 3D was enough and levels didn't actually have to be complicated, or even make sense. A perfect example of the mundanity: I'm deep within the enemy base, and waking across a bridge I've just extended, and then I spot a canister of health and a few weapon clips sitting on top of a piece of machinery, requiring me to jump over a long gap to pick it up. Who put the energy there? Who was it intended for? Can Terminators even jump to pick it up? This game's level design is stuck in the days of Doom, where powerful weapons are placed atop high pedestals and only finding the correct coloured key will allow access to them.
Speaking of weapons, this is one of the few games that actually has far too many. Not a common complaint, I'll admit, but the game features 14 different weapons, each with a secondary-fire mode, and there just isn't enough variety in their effect on enemies to justify the kind of time it took me to scroll through them, looking for the weapon I wanted. Sure, the SAM launcher can destroy a flying HK in a single shot, but if any of the fast-firing laser weapons can destroy them in five or six shots, why would anyone ever use the SAM Launcher? Now expand that question to seven or eight other completely superfluous weapons, and you have a perfect example of poor weapon balancing.
Then there are the enemies, who all seemingly trained in the exact same battle tactics. They either stand still while shooting or walk slowly towards the player while shooting. This leaves the game feeling like little more than a virtual shooting gallery (and not in a fun, Dead Man's Hand way, either). Frankly, I have a hard time believing that the Terminators could have come so close to wiping out humanity with soldiers this dim-witted.
Perhaps the most pointless and incomprehensible feature of the game is the extensive use of footage from the film. Amazingly, there isn't enough footage to convey the plot of the film (or game) in any meaningful or coherent way, so the game really doesn't make sense unless players have seen the film. This raises an important question: If they were going to require players to see the film in order to understand the game, then why include footage from the film at all? To remind them of the movie they'd just seen?
The game actually does attempt to do one new thing, and I suppose I should mention it. On occasion, it switches from a FPS to a Tekken-style fighting game. Unfortunately, this part of the game is as badly-designed as the rest. The fighting is simplistic, repetitive (four of the five fights are against the same enemy) and much too easy (except for the last battle; like most video game villains, the Terminatrix's fighting ability is inversely proportionate to the amount of damage she's received). Worst of all, these fights aren't even spread evenly throughout the game. In fact, two of them happen back to back, leading to a "didn't I just beat you up?" sense of déjà vu.
It may seem like I'm being too hard on the game, but it's just me struggling to describe what a depressing experience playing this game was. It seemed to drag on forever, with its identical levels and dull-as-dishwater gameplay. It's an affront to the noble history of the Terminator game franchise, and an insult to anyone who would be foolish enough to buy it.
But there is one nice thing that can be said about the game. In the special features section of the disk, there's a demo of the upcoming game Terminator: Redemption, a third-person shooter that includes driveable vehicles and decent graphics. While the controls are still rough, and even though it offers tragic framerate issues, this 10-minute demo is far more playable and entertaining than the entire game Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The demo is good enough, in fact, that it caused me to question the wisdom of including it on the disc, as it makes Terminator 3 look that much worse by comparison. I mean, if they had a game this potentially good in the pipeline, why release Rise of the Machines at all, when the only effect it could have is to alienate your audience and make them question the viability of the franchise?
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.