It's not often these days that we get an 80's action movie video game. It seems Namco and Volatile Games knows this, as Dead to Rights: Retribution makes no attempt to be highbrow. This is the kind of action game we were playing back on the PS2, albeit with some smart visuals and a blood-thirsty canine. After sampling a couple of the game's early levels, we came away having had an old-fashioned, but entertaining time. Who wouldn't when you can make a dog take down an enemy by targeting the crown jewels?
Grant City is under threat from bad guys, and it's up to you, Jack Slate, to put them right. And by put right we mean, perform finishing moves on them so brutal you'll wince slightly. That is if you haven't already unloaded a few shotgun rounds into them or set your loyal companion Shadow the killer dog on them. There is a story here, but all you really need to know is that bad men are around and Jack, complete with the biggest arms we've ever seen in a video game, is going to stop them.
When in control of Jack the game mixes third-person cover-based gun-play with close-quarters melee combat. Shooting feels meaty and is pretty standard stuff. The cover system isn't as smooth as the best in the genre, but it works well enough. You even get to use a bullet-time-like focus mode, which allows you to target heads that bit more easily. While the game isn't overly showy in terms of gore, it's still incredibly violent, with gunshots having a real weight behind them.
If you're not shooting you're battering enemies by using the game's simple to learn combat system. Two buttons control your punches and kicks, while another dodges and the fourth face button performs context sensitive moves – brutal finishers or disarms. The end result is a combat system that feels a little like that seen in last year's Batman: Arkham Asylum, although not nearly as smooth at this stage. You do get 360 degree control over your attack direction, and enemies do try to take you down rather than just standing around you in a circle, but fist fighting does feel a tad clumsy.
Jack isn't the only playable character in Retribution, though, with Shadow given his own sections as well as being able to help you out during Jack gameplay. In direct control Shadow is a merciless killing machine, ripping out throats or going in for the hard to watch ball bite. He's a nice enough looking pooch, but boy does he enjoy killing. He's more than capable of performing instant kills at the press of a button, and his stealth stance means he can sneak around enemy bases undetected – while using his special canine vision to see goons through walls. Shadow is also very handy to send off ahead, either to distract enemies or to hold them still while you follow-up with a sniper-rifle bullet to the head.
Even with the dog mechanics, Dead to Rights Retribution feels like it's borrowing an awful lot from other games. That's not a bad thing, but just don't expect a fresh experience. It's good to see a game that doesn't take itself too seriously, though; when a dog's idle animation sees him peeing on dead bodies, you know this isn't a game that's going to be covered on the Culture Show. Don't mistake this willingness to laugh at itself as a sign that Retribution is going to be a slap-dash product, though; from what we've played the presentation is perfectly adequate and in some places the visuals are really rather attractive – as long as you can see past Jack's massive bulging muscles.
It's completely overacted too, with some ludicrous voice acting and some of the most bizarre NPC movement we've ever seen. In the early levels, Jack's dad Frank wanders around during shoot-outs as if he's on a stroll around the park, looking completely out of place in his brown suit. There's a ton of swearing here too, mostly from Jack after he's popped a cap in someone's deserving ass.
Dead to Rights: Retribution isn't going to dazzle anyone on its release in April, but it should provide a lot of people with some simple, gory fun. If you've always wanted to bite a man's balls off, you need to seek help, but if the idea of doing so as a dog sounds like fun, Retribution might be for you.
Dead to Rights: Retribution is due for release on Xbox 360 and PS3 on April 23.