Terminator 3: Redemption isn't a great game. It doesn't break any new ground in concept or execution, and the graphics aren't exactly eye-popping. It is, however, the best Terminator console game, and comes right on the heels of a game so bad I didn't bother to review it, and then one of the worst professionally made video games of this generation. It's not a perfect game by any means, but when put in the context of Atari's brutal mishandling of the Terminator franchise, this game is nothing less than them knocking one out of the park.
At a time when so many games try to do everything and end up drowning a sea of their own unfocused ambition, it's refreshing to see a game that sets its sights on doing one very specific thing and then does it very well. In this game's case, the goal was to create a third-person shooting/driving hybrid, which it pulls off with enough class that it almost makes it look too easy.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Redemption is that—in premise at least—it is the exact same game as Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines; An action recap of the movie's plot with extra future war sections added to the beginning and middle. I can't put my finger on exactly why the plot works so much better here than it did in the other game—I'm just happy that it does. The story even makes more sense here, with the mid-game trip back to the future an integral (if far-fetched) part of the story, rather than just a tacked-on flashback.
While the graphics aren't anything too spectacular, the central skin effect that shows up in just about every Terminator game—the slow degradation of the Terminator's human outer shell as it takes damage—looks especially good here. The graphics artists have gone to the trouble of creating a model with numerous layers, resulting in gruesome effects as the metal endoskeleton peeks out from underneath ravaged flesh. Even more impressive is the fact that the game makes the model changes on the fly as the player is damaged—and even though health can be regained, the external damage visuals can't be repaired by anything short of finishing a level.
The game actually uses one of the completely wrong-headed ideas that Rise included, and makes it work almost perfectly. I had ridiculed the idea of a Terminator fighting game, yet here they make a simplified close combat combo system work as an integral part of the run and gun gameplay. It's impressive just how much functionality they get out of a two-button fighting system. The player can steal enemy weapons, drain energy from them, even tear out their power supplies to use as grenades, all incredibly useful techniques that are easy enough to perform that they become an integral part of gameplay.
This game suffers from the same plot problem as Rise of the Machines did, in that the overall story really won't make much sense to people who haven't seen the movie. It doesn't really matter though, as the movie's story was nothing to write home about, and the narrative created by the game's action sequences is actually much more compelling. The only really irritating thing is the nearly endless series of "wacky" quips that fly out of the Terminator's mouth (there's even a "wacky quip" button on the controller). There's a lot of belief I'm willing to suspend, but hearing a killer robot in the year 2029 say, "Now that is what I am talking about" really doesn't fall under that category. The game's human troops are even worse, screaming things like "Blue streak, bitch!" and "Yo Joe!" when they kill enemies. There's anachronistic, like the future troops using bullet-firing weapons, and then there's just amateur, and unfortunately the game occasionally falls into the second category.
The level design is good, even great at times, but that isn't what makes it so special. No, the game's developers have managed to make each of the levels surprisingly fun to play by the addition of mini in-game cutscenes. They play whenever the Terminator does something spectacular, such as jumping onto a crippled helicopter or commandeering a plasma wall generator, and act as rewards for exploring the level fully. They're uniformly excellent in their choreography and always a pleasure to watch, making them more than worth searching out.
Perhaps the game's greatest strength how shockingly varied the gameplay is. One moment I was playing a run-and-gun third-person shooter and the next an action driving game, speeding along and trying to throw the villain off the back of the car. The game went from being a rail shooter to a Tempest-style tube sliding game within a matter of minutes. The most amazing thing of all is that none of these gameplay changes feel out of place or jarring—they blend seamlessly into one another creating a hectic game experience that's full of surprises all the way through. The game teaches players a few basic skills in the first level, then lets them learn the rest as they go—and even right up until the last level I was still learning new tricks and techniques.
Oddly, this great gameplay dynamic also leads to one of the game's only real drawbacks: the size of the individual levels. The game isn't especially long, only around twelve levels, with the individual levels taking anywhere from three to eight minutes to play through. Unfortunately, there are no in-level checkpoints, so a slipup at the end of a level (which is a real possibility, as some of the later levels get very difficult) can result in a loss of seven minutes work. This isn't that daunting a setback for people who've been playing since the days of limited continues, but it could get frustrating quickly for some. The mid-level changes in gameplay style only serve to intensify this problem, as the switch from run-and-gun to rail shooter to driving game can put some players off balance, causing more level restarts than would be necessary if the game saved checkpoints at every style change.
It's rare that a game exceeds its expectations by this wide a margin. Now, it's possible that this game only looks as great as it does because the game it's following set those expectations so abysmally low, but even without taking that into consideration, it's still an incredibly fun game. After years of dangling a perfect videogame setting in front of gamers, the Terminator franchise has finally delivered a great console game. It's one of the only times in recent memory that I haven't groaned when a game ended with a "to be continued." Here's hoping that the next installment lives up to or exceeds this one's high water mark, making this game a turning point in the franchise, rather than just an aberration.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.