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Dead to Rights: Retribution Preview

By Matt Cabral, 4/9/2010

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Aside from maybe BloodRayne and The Suffering, Dead to Rights is probably the least likely last-gen, third-person action franchise I expected to re-emerge with a 360/PS3 reboot. But there it was, an early preview copy of Namco Bandai Games' and Volatile Games' upcoming Dead to Rights: Retribution sitting in my mailbox, begging for acceptance among this generation's big budget AAA efforts.

As a fan of the first, but not so much the sequel or PSP spin-off, I was cautiously optimistic for Jack Slate's return to Grant City to kick ass, take names, and kick more ass. But more than Jack being back, it was the promise of his K-9 sidekick, Shadow, playing a much larger role in Retribution that had me enthusiastically popping the preview disc into my 360. And, right off the bat, that promise was fulfilled as the title's prologue is played from the perspective of Jack's four-legged friend.

The game begins with you—as Shadow—protecting a wounded Jack. This means keeping an eye on his dwindling life meter while you chomp your way through Grant City's armed-to-the-teeth criminals. I don't remember how gory the previous titles were, but I'm pretty sure Retribution's graphic dog-eat-man kills make them look like kiddie games. This mutt is super pissed, and he's not shy about channeling his emotions through his sharp, pearly white incisors. Finishing moves consist mostly of Shadow taking a vice-like grip on bad guys' groins or throats, and not letting go until blood begins squirting like those fountains in front of Las Vegas' Bellagio hotel. As the killer pup, you can sneak up on the gun-toting goons or simply charge them, but either way, the result is a kill that'll have more squeamish spectators turning their heads.

A later Shadow-based mission in a baddie-occupied warehouse yields even more grisly gameplay. Here, Shadow can get all Sam Fisher on the enemies and hide in the shadows while reading their heat signatures—no bulky night-vision goggles required. Enemies appear mostly transparent, save for their glowing, pulsating circulatory system which no doubt kicks Shadow's appetite into overdrive. He can also lure enemies out with a bark and drag dead bodies to hiding spots. In addition to guaranteeing the bad guys never father any offspring, he can also pee on electrical devices to short them out—talk about a multi-tasker! Playing as the faithful fur-ball is a highlight, and it doesn't take long before you feel emotionally attached to your nut-chomping sidekick.

While Retribution could potentially just stand on Shadow's four feet, it's also got Jack, who's not exactly a chump either when it comes to using his fists and firearms. An intuitive combat system combines accessible controls with cinematic style. With just a few button inputs, you're able to unleash a variety of rib-cracking blows; light and heavy attacks are mixed with throws, blocks, and weapon disarms that all flow surprisingly smoothly, even evoking a bit of Batman: Arkham Asylums' satisfying combat mechanics. Personal favorites include a slick disarm move that immediately shifts the targeting reticule to a bad guy's head after you confiscate his weapon, and a hostage-taking move that swiftly turns your enemies into mobile shields.

The gun play, which sees Jack locking and loading with the expected arsenal of pistols, automatics, and shotguns, is pretty standard stuff. However, mixing it up with the cool combat—and a decent cover system—makes for many moments that feel appropriately action movie-esque. In fact, an early mission involving a hostage situation in a skyscraper had me feeling more like Die Hard's John McClane than Jack Slate. Rescuing frightened hostages, tossing baddies from balconies and through large panes of glass, and exchanging gunfire in plush lobbies totally put me in that “yippee-kay-yay” zone.

This sort of old school charm, which some will no doubt criticize as feeling “dated”, also emerged in some other nice nostalgia-inducing moments. Grant City has a total Robocop feel to it, gangs of crazed baddies have the police force out-numbered and out-armed, and I saw at least a couple of ladies of the night displaying their thongs above their waistlines. Again, some may scoff at these touches, but as someone who grew up on a steady diet of 80's action flicks, I'm totally digging the vibe.

Retribution also pays tribute to Max Payne, not only in its dark, noirish presentation, but also with its slow-motion shooting mechanic. Combined with the visceral combat, this bullet time-like feature injects even more cinematic flare to the one-against-many firefights. Mixing the slo-mo with ranged gun battles and more up-close fist-to-face encounters provides plenty of variety in how you take out the game's endless parade of henchmen, sub-bosses, and bigger, end-level baddies.

The title's early levels focus on teaching you either Shadow's moves or Jack's, but as you get deeper into Grant City you'll sometimes have both at your disposal; during these levels, you'll still possess all of Jack's abilities, but you'll also be able to issue commands to your faithful, flesh-hungry best friend. So, if things get a little heavy for Jack, a simple button command will send Shadow out to even the odds. Oh, and for all you animal lovers out there, you'll be relieved to know that you can revive your dog when he's downed by a stray a bullet.

Dead to Rights is not a series I ever would have asked to make a return, but after spending a couple of hours with it, I'm happy it's attempting a comeback. The combat is fun, the action stylish, and the dog mean...real mean. Rebuilding the franchise with a larger focus on the K-9 combat and a much more mature presentation is a smart move, and one that'll hopefully get a new generation of gamers to Grant City to clean up its corrupted authority and crime-infested streets. If the simple, yet stylish, action-heavy focus of its early hours can be sustained throughout the game, I'll definitely return to America's worst city. And I'll bring my dog, too!



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