I like biting off men's genitalia as much as the next guy, but after a while it tends to get a bit old. Once you've chomped and chewed your eleventh set of meat-and-two-veg, it simply ceases to be that big of a deal. If variety is the spice of life, then Dead to Rights Retribution has enough seasonings to fill a sizeable wooden shelf; unfortunately, they're all minor variations on the same herb: freeze-dried leaf of ultraviolence.
Like the previous two games in the Dead to Rights franchise, Retribution follows the bloodthirsty adventures of Grant City detective Jack Slate, and his best friend Shadow the Dog. Slate and Shadow are supposed to be an investigative partnership, but most of their cases simply involve the wholesale murder of assorted bad guys - Slate using guns and his brutal martial art styles, Shadow using his teeth and snuffling wet nose (well, maybe just his teeth). Retribution starts out in Die Hard-like fashion, with Slate slaughtering his way through a whole tower's worth of crims, then moves on to several other gritty-yet-familiar urban environments - junkyards, railway stations, and sewers. Later on a slight sci-fi vibe is thrown into the mix for good measure, but the basic formula remains pretty much the same throughout: kill everyone in sight, then go for a little walk until you find your next victim.
It's a primitive setup to say the least, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a spot of mindless destruction is just what the doctor ordered (if only to drum up business), and to its credit the game does offer a multitude of ways to inflict painful misery on your foes. At a distance you can blaze away with pistols, machine guns, and a wide selection of other firearms, with headshots yielding a satisfying burst of slow-mo; when you're up close you can batter away with combos consisting of light and heavy attacks, and guard-breaking moves that stop your opponent from blocking. When an enemy is low on health you'll be given the option to snuff them out with a violent finishing move, triggered at the touch of a button. For added chuckles, you can also use a gun for these executions - resulting in charming little vignettes in which knee-capped thugs plead for soon-to-be-ended lives. Finally, and perhaps most satisfyingly of all, Slate has the ability to disarm gun-toting goons, allowing you to shoot people in the face with their own weapon.
It all adds up to a broad arsenal of attacks, and yet in other ways our renegade copper is surprisingly limited. Like Woody Harrelson in a 1992 basketball flick, Jack Slate can't jump. He can't manually crouch either, but if you're near something sturdy there's a good chance that he'll be able to take cover behind it. Unfortunately, the button to initiate this cover mechanic is the same one for the disarmament move; it's rather aggravating when you want Slate to snatch away the shotgun that's prodding his face, and he has a nice little sit down instead.
On the whole the combat works well. There's no lock-on system, and occasionally this results in melee fights feeling a bit scruffy, but at first there's plenty of fun to be had from pounding on assorted gang members, kicking their faces in and throwing them into electric fences and the like. There's a bullet time system to assist with shooting and brawling, but this largely feels like a fun bonus rather than an essential tool. Enemy and friendly AI is decidedly patchy: rescued hostages have the smarts to pick up discarded weapons, and your foes have pretty much the same hand-to-hand skills that you do (including the disarmament move), but sometime you'll run across gang members doing something stupid, standing around and staring into space.
A far bigger problem is simply the fact that the game gets boring all too quickly. Levels are linear, straightforward affairs with invisible walls to keep you on the chosen path, and there's really very little to break up the pace. Yes, you have the ability to "sic" your dog on anyone you choose, or to send him off to retrieve a gun for you, but this never really feels particularly necessary. On the contrary, unless the poor bugger takes too many hits and punks out with a loud yelp, you'll be perfectly alright to forget about him entirely.
The only time when Shadow really proves his worth is during the few segments where you take direct control of him, sneaking and mauling your way through brief stealth stages. Shadow has the ability to see guards through walls (and the even stranger ability to see their internal organs), but aside from this oddity these interludes are very much old school stealth gameplay: guards have limited vision, short-term memories, and predefined patrol routes. If you bark within earshot, they'll walk over to investigate and then conveniently turn their back - allowing you to run up and bite out their throat. And as you've probably heard by now, you'll also sometimes kill your opponents by biting off their bollocks. It's certainly one of the better genital mutilations I've seen in a video game, but it's hardly a massive innovation.
Then again, it speaks volumes that much of Dead to Rights Retribution's pre-release marketing has focused on these "testakills". While there's nothing offensively bad about this game, there's simply very little to write home about. The graphics acquit themselves well enough, and both the voice acting and backing music are very well-produced, but the story is thinner than a supermodel's tapeworm. Technically this is a remake of the very first Dead to Rights, but it's hard to say who'll be bothered when the plot amounts to "man with big arms and dog kills many men with smaller arms". It's the kind of story where coked-up Triads with face make-up run away from you and jump onto a passing train... which luckily happens to be packed with more Triads. And bombs. But because the Triads are evil, they'll try to stop you from defusing the explosives - even if this means that they'll die.
But who am I trying to kid - this is an action title, the equivalent to a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie - and an early one, at that. Violence is the be-all and end-all, but while Retribution tries its best to give the player plenty of options, it's simply too limited for 2010. In the last nine months we've had Batman: Arkham Asylum, Bayonetta and God of War 3 - all blockbuster titles that have raised the bar for action gaming. In the shadow of these juggernauts, this is a decidedly tame offering.