A few months ago, I walked over to the Bethesda booth during the Penny-Arcade Expo in Seattle and played through a level of Rogue Warrior. I was literally blown away by how mediocre it was, and wondered if it was possible for Rebellion Games to turn everything around before the game was released in November. When November rolled around, the game didn’t release, being pushed back to December. When a game is released in December, its quality is immediately suspect, and it’s often considered to be a month that publishers ship games of low quality, essentially cutting their losses and hoping that a few foolish consumers might pick it up for the holidays. Rogue Warrior had everything stacked up against it when it was finally released, huge delays, a publisher shift, and a release date in December, but there was one thing that forced at least slight optimism: Bethesda. Bethesda doesn’t really make mistakes, as proven with the Elder Scrolls series and Fallout, so their support goes a long way. The hope was that the overall package would hold together, even if the previews didn’t, and that they knew something that the rest of us didn’t.
Loosely based off of the autobiography of Navy Seal, Richard Marcinko, the story sends players on a mission into Soviet territory in the 1980’s to destroy missiles being held by North Koreans. If you’ve ever played a game before, you’ve likely seen every location the game has to offer. Warehouses, Soviet bases, and more warehouses; there are only a few locations in the story, and they all look and play essentially the same. In fact, it feels as though they could have been presented in any order without losing much storytelling, since they all begin with a few seconds of voiceover and end with a closing cutscene. Almost every mission has Marcinko planting explosives on missiles or trying to find military documents, and very few actually build off of the events in the preceding level.
In fact, despite early reports that the focus would be on story and character development there’s really nothing interesting that happens in the entire game, either in terms of narrative or exciting encounters. If, at any point, it looks like it might move beyond a corridor shooter, something comes up during a cut scene to push it back on course. One mission ended with Marcinko dramatically jumping onto a moving train, saying that there were Soviet missiles on board. The next mission? Not fighting through or on the train, but picking up after it has stopped at the next station, avoiding anything that might be interesting. When the story is over, only two or three hours (at most) have passed, and not a moment was memorable.
The only thing that is even remotely memorably is the voice of the protagonist, Mickey Rourke. He’s constantly throwing out quips and one-liners in his grizzly, gritty voice, but even this seems forced. It’s said that the game is trying to capture the 80’s movie vibe – it doesn’t. Instead, it comes off as cheesy, and not in a good way. Remember that guy from high school who thought he was really cool? He cursed a lot, smoked too much, and thought being overly masculine was a personality trait? You know that guy. You hate that guy, everyone did, he had nothing going for him but his faux machismo and cliché, almost corny “badass” nature. That guy is Rogue Warrior, and he has nothing going for him. Even the game’s graphics look dated, with muddy textures, mediocre character models, and explosions that look two generations old.
It’s unfair to damn Rogue Warrior for its length, especially after how good the campaign in Modern Warfare 2 was despite its shorter-than-standard length. The real core of any shooter is the gameplay itself, and this one feels like it was developed in 1997 and saved in a time capsule for 2009. Everything is sluggish and slow, lacking the fluidity of modern shooters. The only “modern” element is the game’s cover system, but even that can be frustrating to work with. Instead of dealing with that issue, the poor hit detection, and the sloppy controls, it’s usually easier to just spray bullets in the general direction of enemies and eventually sprint towards them for a Finishing Move, which cues an animation of Marcinko brutally killing an opponent. These assassinations might actually be the best element of Rogue Warrior’s gameplay, but even they become boring after animations start repeating ten minutes into the game. It also tries to be modern by removing the health bar in favor of desaturating the screen when Macinko takes damage, leading to confusing deaths because, well, everything is that wonderful cliché "realistic" dark brown anyway.
After the story is over, there’s really no reason to replay, so the only remaining element is the multiplayer. On the back of the box, it’s written that there’s “Intense Online Multiplayer.” This statement is a lie. In 2009, Rogue Warrior’s 8-player deathmatch and 4v4 team-deathmatch simply doesn’t cut it, especially when mixed in with sloppy and unentertaining combat mechanics. It amounts to a bunch of people regretting their purchase and running around in circles, trying to use Finishing Moves on each other because of how inaccurate the gunplay feels. Even if, for some reason, you find yourself interested in the game’s online portion, you’ll likely be the only one, sitting in the lobby waiting for others to join instead of playing better games like Modern Warfare, Left 4 Dead 2, or 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. Ranked deathmatches take only a few minutes to join, while sitting in the Team Deathmatch screen for fifteen minutes amounted to nothing, without a single person trying to join.
With lackluster multiplayer offerings and one of the shortest singleplayer campaigns in recent memory, Rogue Warrior is a smudge on Bethesda’s otherwise stellar record. In a holiday season littered with AAA titles it’s not worth paying attention to. Hell, if it were the only game released in 2009 it still wouldn’t be worth playing. The very fact that there's an attempt to charge $60 is insulting. Save your money, spend it on anything else, and forget Rogue Warrior ever existed.