Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developers: ZootFly | Ubisoft
There was once a time when calling something a movie tie-in wasn't an immediate indictment of quality. Even in relatively recent years we've seen that licensed games can be so much more than a swift cash-in. Who remembers the hack'n'slash Lord of the Rings titles, or zipping around a sprawling metropolis in Spider-man 2, or kicking ass in Kung Fu Panda? All of those titles proved that just because you were helping to support a movie, that didn't mean you couldn't be great too!
Of course, laziness set in. Harry Potter 7 Part 2 happened. And much of the industry decided silently that maybe we'd all be better off without film tie-ins. This summer, however, has already seen one in the shape of Beenox's The Amazing Spider-Man, taking its cues from the aforementioned classic above. But no one told Ubisoft.
By rights, the game version of The Expendables should really see a series of the best action gaming setpieces of all time bundled up into one big game and framed by a nonsensical plotline that nobody cares about anyway. Oh wait, that already happened with Singularity and no-one bought it.
Clearly, Ubisoft must have thought to themselves, what people actually want is a truly mediocre top-down twin-stick shooter, with woefully underdeveloped mechanics, the barest smattering of an upgrade system, the all of the variety of a KFC bargain bucket when it comes to the enemies that you'll face in the game. Or maybe, you know, they just ran out of time and money and didn't really care. Stop the presses, this is a film tie in that's shoddily made and short on ideas.
Once again, it's such a shame because most of the pieces are in place. The drop-in/drop-out online and offline co-op is truly seamless. I was trundling merrily along with my girlfriend, whom I'd roped in to helping me bust some caps due to the seeming absence of anyone else online, when lo and behold a the other two computer players were swiftly commandeered by some other virtual denizens of Xbox LIVE. After my other half became rather irritated at the complete lack of aiming feedback in the game, she quit, and Barney Ross immediately started running around uselessly at the computer's behest once more.
It's a setup perfectly suited to the movie as well. What better way to celebrate a bunch of action superstars kicking ass and taking names than to be able to jump into the fray as four of them - Stallone, Li, Lundgren, and Crews - and do just that against hordes of enemy soldiers in bullet-ridden, explosive fashion?
It's so easy to get into, too. True, the menu is about as bland and basic as a breeze block, but it's pretty efficient at getting you into the action quickly. There are four main chapters, each with multiple parts, in the Campaign mode, all of which can be played with 1-4 players, locally, online, or with a mix or either. You select which of the four characters you want to play as initially and then you roll out.
On the battlefield, it's a run-and-gun killing spree. The Expendables 2 handles exactly like a top-down shooter, but the camera angle is set more at 45 degrees than directly overhead. To its credit, the game doesn't look horrible. The characters are at visually approximate to their real-life counterparts, and Lundgren and Crews chip in with some authentic voice-over work. It's a shame about the other two, mind; Stallone's stand-in verges on the hilarious at times, and Jet Li's replacement has a slightly Oriental accent but sounds absolutely nothing like the star of Hero and Romeo Must Die.
But we were never here for Oscar-winning performances! We need guns; lots of guns. Each of the characters has two main weapons: Barney is rocking is faithful Colt magnum along with dual pistols, Yin Yang is equipped with deadly throwing knives as well as an SMG, Gunner Jensen has a sniper rifle and a machine gun, and Hale Caesar is rocking a shotgun and a grenade launcher.
Whilst that all seems nicely balanced, you encounter problems from the start. First of all, you realise that instead of upgrades making these BMFs even more outrageously awesome, what the developers did was actually just nerf characters at the start, and then fix those issue with upgrades. Instead of creating more varied, trickier enemies later on to up the satisfaction and counteract one's upgrades, in this game they just fix the excruciatingly slow reload system, or allow you to carry more ammo. Instead of creating a cracking experience to begin with and then building upon that for progression throughout, The Expendables 2 offers a fairly solid, enjoyable shooter, but only if you unlock all of the bits to fix it first. There's a quick option, of course, and that comes in the contemptible form of paying to unlock everything.
Really, Ubisoft? Really? It's as if they knew.
As you're running and gunning your way through levels, wondering why on earth anyone would even want a sniper rifle in this sort of game, it doesn't take long to become incredibly frustrated at the supreme lack of visual feedback when it comes to aiming. So bad is this system, that you end up just praying and spraying, nudging the right stick in the vague direction of amassed foes and hoping for the best. Using Caesar's shotgun, for example, I spent 8 rounds trying to off someone only a few paces away, only for the guard in the tower 30 feet back to suddenly topple out of his perch.
Two things that do work pleasantly well, however, are the grenade and evade systems. Nudging the left bumper will cause you to dive out of harm's way. Holding the right will bring up a little reticule for deploying explosives. Simple, effective, and pleasing when you manage to take out six guys who were seemingly impervious to bullets. Sadly, the system behind grenade amassing is a bit flawed too. Collecting golden tokens in the levels will boost a bar next to your character's stats that you can either use for explosives or save to execute a Signature Kill. Sadly, instead of doing a 360 degree spin and taking out ten guys at once, or breaking the arms of five people in five seconds, or doing anything somewhat impressive involving multiple takedowns, the camera zooms in for a little close-up. There's a little aftermath effect - Caesar's shotgun gets explosive rounds for a few seconds - but it's somewhat anticlimactic .
Run and gun gameplay is one of the oldest pillars in this industry. There have been so many shining examples to have trodden this path before that it seems almost unthinkable there'd be a game in this genre that's not at least a little fun to play. To be fair, by its very nature, The Expendables 2 is a game that may provide some amusement when drunk with three other people. But we shouldn't be settling for this. And Ubisoft really ought to know better than this too. The framework is there, but the execution could have used quite a bit more time. You know it's bad when a run-and-gun action game has to insert a cover mechanic - and a botched, broken cover mechanic at that - to cover its own shooting inadequacies.
Buy Renegade Ops instead.
- At least it's not a retail title
- With extreme focus and determination you might have some fun with four players
- Co-op integration is really very well done indeed
- The shooting sucks
- The enemies suck
- The upgrade system sucks
- The sites giving this game 5+/10 are only encouraging base mediocrity
The Short Version: Somewhere, somewhen, a little pixellated Contra hero (or even a virtual John Rambo himself) is crying at this game's alarming folly. Supremely underdeveloped in all areas, The Expendables 2 takes what could have been an obvious, lazy-yet-enjoyable basis for a game, and manages to suck most of the fun out of it. Not broken, just bad.