Rogue Trooper's comic book origins suit it remarkably well. Perhaps unlike the grand baggage that came with the Judge Dredd licence and helped make Rebellion's Dredd vs. Death a critical underachiever, Rogue Trooper only benefits from effectively embodying its source material's bold presentation and lack of pretension. I love, for instance, that the fallen comrades who live on as biochips to aid our hero, Rogue, are unashamedly named after their use value: Helm is attached to Rogue's helmet, Gunnar to his principal firearm, and Bagman to his backpack. Almost comical, you might say.
The four-voices-in-one-character banter that ensues isn't nearly as galling as one might imagine and creates a clever allusion of camaraderie in what is essentially a very lonely, last-man-standing action setup. And while this is ostensibly a conventional third-person shooter, there's a refreshingly no-nonsense feel to play (epitomized in the bullishly efficient and fast-teaching tutorial levels) that is carried off with enough satisfying fun to absorb any criticisms that the game is too generic.
But it's the thoughtful, sympathetic design that really distinguishes Rogue Trooper. The game is dotted with many nice touches and shrewd design choices, from the pivotal (a gun's crosshair will display a small skull-and-cross-bone icon when in position for an instant-kill headshot, and a gas tank graphic when targeting an enemy's explosive oxygen backpack) to the incidental (the loading screen reads "Analyzing Route" instead of "Loading" and maps the journey being made to the next level area.)
The principle gun weapon (Gunnar) could be accused of being a little too empowering, as it discourages the player from risking more tactical approaches to combat (such as setting mines or picking off enemies with stealth kills) which are actually well catered for in the level designs. Yet Rogue Trooper wisely mixes up its emergent battlefield possibilities with more clearly directed situations, such as sneaking behind an enemy stronghold to release a group of ravenous animals on their captors, or introducing enemies that require specific attack patterns to overcome. Overall, a nice action-strategy balance is provided across the board, and, crucially, not just for perfectionists.
The satisfaction of clearing an area with a skilful and methodical mix of stealth kills, head shots and maximum destruction grenade throws is largely analogous to that experienced in any game of this kind. As ever it's an exquisite feeling, but the difference here is that Rogue Trooper enables such a performance to be staged on a first attempt and not only by expert players. The leniency of the health and power-up systems, the utility of the targeting mechanics and the reliability of finding and using suitable cover in the heat of battle all meld together to make supremely satisfying set-pieces achievable by just about any reasonably capable player.
Some may accuse the game of being too easy to play through, but there is a kind of lenient discipline instilled through the game flow; an understanding of whether I handled a situation successfully or not, but without punishment. I feel the pang of failure when entering the power-up screen for a mid-battle health and ammo boost, but it's nothing that's going to spoil my game. It connotes the feeling of being a soldier far more enjoyably than a slender health meter and a thousand quick-save restarts could.
Rogue Trooper is a little short-lived, and what's worse is that it suggests the end is about to happen far too prematurely, therefore leaving the player expecting a denouement at least mid-way through the game, which makes the narrative feel protracted from that point on. It never totally runs out of steam, however, thanks to some successful atmospheric shifts and the excellent pacing within levels that know when to take things slow and steady and when to pour it on thick. It's a restraint that gels smoothly with the moody but unobtrusive soundtrack and the smartly subtle gameplay variations—be they effective (stripping Rogue of his Gunnar rifle; short climbing sections) or mediocre (shooting down airships on a gun emplacement; only-for-effect non-player-character back up).
The game even offers a more than competent multiplayer mode, which doubles up as a self-testing challenge mode for solo players. Options may be limited by the modern benchmark standards, but it carries over enough of the main campaign's dynamism to remain an enjoyable bonus. I confess to not having taken Rogue Trooper online, but wouldn't be surprised if the experience was just as solid as the rest of the game.
It may not be the most lightning fast and intense action game you'll ever play, but with its accessible and satisfying gameplay tweaked to near perfection, Rogue Trooper makes a satisfying case for its easily dismissed genre. It's also the best kind of licensed videogame: one that earns merit as a game first and foremost, drawing players willingly in to the intellectual property's background as a result. That I was compelled to read every single unlockable entry in Rogue Trooper's NU Earth Encyclopaedia speaks volumes.
It would be a real shame for critics to disregard Rebellion's title simply because it appears to slip so cosily into a mediocre stereotype. This is a game whose execution outweighs its ambition with consummate ease, until it becomes a benchmark of sorts for a generation of underwhelming third-person shooters. Wringing the very best out of its simple and solid core mechanics, Rogue Trooper is more accomplished and enjoyable than anyone had a right to expect.
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