We're all gamers here. We've know the score. There's a big budget Hollywood movie aimed squarely at the wallets of lads, ergo a game's in the works. These movie tie-ins sell purely off the back of the hype surrounding the film they're based on, and so publishers don't bother giving developers time or money to make them any good. Publisher PRs don't send review code out to publications like us because they know it'll get panned, and rightly so. We got it for Iron Man last year. And we're getting it for Terminator Salvation this year.
That's exactly what I'm thinking as I sit down for a hands-on session with the GRIN (Wanted: Weapons of Fate, Bionic Commando) developed third-person shooter, due out this June to coincide with the release of the Christian Bale movie. This is going to be rubbish, I think. This is going to be like every other video game movie-tie in.
My hands-on begins with a loading screen, and a pretty impressive one at that. It's an extreme close up of a T-600, its metal skull striking against a pitch black background. As the Xbox 360 whirs the Terminator's iconic red eyes spin. It's an impressive sight, one that's about to get even more impressive. As I move the thumb stick I slowly pan the camera across its face, revealing the terrifying metal teeth locked together in what looks like a maniacal smile. If nothing else, GRIN's come up with a wicked loading screen.
One hell of a CGI cutscene begins, showing almost photo-realistic resistance members battling against Skynet's machines at night. John Conner's voice over laments the struggle of the conflict as he scouts a settlement. He lies flat on the ground as a Hunter Killer hovers above. It flies off. He shoots at it. The HK ignores his fire, instead taking out a resistance helicopter, which spirals towards the main man and the camera. Boom. End of CGI cutscene. Wow.
Expect cutscenes of a similar quality throughout the game. They've been crafted by the team responsible for the movie CGI: The Halcyon Company, which owns all the rights to the Terminator universe. This bodes well for the film, I reckon.
The hands-on action begins with Chapter One: LA 2016. As the name of the level suggests, the game is set in 2016 in Los Angeles. It actually fits in somewhere after the events of the horrendous franchise-killing (or so I thought) Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and the upcoming movie. So Judgement Day has happened, the world is in tatters and the machines are on the rampage. You play John Connor, the eventual leader of the resistance force (and subject of many a time-travelling assassination attempt), as he seeks out survivors of Skynet's onslaught. But there's something off - Connor looks nothing like Christian Bale. That's because the Batman actor refused to lend his voice to the game, a decision that makes me think he's an even nicer man than previously thought. The resistance is trying to escape from LA after a botched assault on a Skynet facility, and are getting their arses handed to them on a plate by the machines in the process. You're immediately thrust into the action, a third-person perspective giving you a good look at GRIN's Connor model and his various cover-hugging animations.
Immediately I get a Gears of War vibe. It's a very dark game, to the point where it's actually difficult to see what's going on, but I'll give GRIN the benefit of the doubt since it's in keeping with the post-apocalyptic Terminator universe. Salvation's cover system has quite obviously been inspired by Gears'. To hug cover you press the A button (on the Xbox 360, the version tested). From there, by pointing in the direction of another bit of cover a small curve will appear on screen, allowing you to pinpoint with the thumb stick exactly what cover you want Connor to head for. Then it's a case of pressing A and off he goes, vaulting and sliding from concrete to concrete. The game is all about cover. Stray too long into the open and you'll get torn to pieces like the flimsy flesh bag you are.
There are "Wasps" to kill: small flying machines that are more of an annoyance than a genuine threat. Popping out of cover and taking pot shots at them feels very Gears. And there are "Spiders", too - grounded machines that remind me of the Droidekas from Star Wars. Their front shields force you to slowly flank and take them out from behind, something you'll constantly be doing throughout.
Weapons include an assault rifle, useful at medium distances, a shotgun, which can take down a Wasp in a single shot, an RPG, which comes in useful against the stronger enemies, and pipe bombs, which help take out machines from the front when it's impossible to flank them. Throughout my hands-on I was often frustrated by my teammates' lack of ability to get the machines' attention. The two-player co-op mode, still under wraps, should help alleviate this problem.
So far, so very Gears. The game even asks you to press the Y button to look at points of interest: a door opening, for example. Even the dialogue smacks of Gears of War: one of your squad mates yells: "Yeah baby!" after you take down a Wasp. Remind you of anyone?
Still, the game retains that unmistakeably "Terminator" coolness. That iconic "der, der, der, der der" music plays throughout. And when an "endo" turns up (the nickname given to Terminators in their skinless form), you get a real sense they're nigh on impossible to kill. Indeed an endo stalks you throughout the entire first chapter, culminating with an on rails section that sees the metal machine jack a truck and speed after you in a tunnel as you pump it with a mounted gun.
The HKs, too, are tough cookies. In one section, you're charged with taking one down with a few direct hits from an RPG as it hovers outside a building you and your squad are holed up in. In another section, while manning an MG on the back of a speeding truck, the only way to take the HK down is to shoot its damaged engine, then its sensors and then its forward plasma guns. For the most part, though, you'll be taking cover and concentrating on flanking so that you can hit the machines where they hurt; the targeting reticule will go red when you're hitting the right spot.
From what we've played, Terminator Salvation won't set the gaming world on fire, but what can't be denied is that the game's got an undeniable cool factor. When you're pinned down by T-600 mini-gun fire and that iconic music kicks in, it's hard to keep the hairs from rising on the back of your neck. And, in the game's defence, we've only seen a snippet of what's on offer. Whether Terminator Salvation turns out to be yet another lazy movie tie-in, or bucks the trend... well, we'll know soon enough. Hasta la vista... baby.
Terminator: Salvation is due out on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC this June.