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For me and millions of 30-35 year olds in this country, the last great licensed property to be turned into a modern video game is GI Joe. With its cast of iconic, colorful heroes, memorably diabolical villains, near-future technology and focus on military action (with a splash of much-needed ninja swordplay), Hasbro’s classic toy line seems primed for an awesome action game. Sadly, no games based off the cartoon, toys or original Marvel comic have been produced since GI Joe: The Atlantis Factor for the NES in 1992. The announcement of the much-maligned "GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra" movie pretty much guaranteed that we’d finally get a Joe game, though not quite the version of the team we were hoping for. Sadly, the game isn’t what we were hoping for, either.
GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is a 3rd person action game that harkens back to the days of Ikari Warriors and the indoor, vertically aligned levels from Contra. The camera, which is not controllable, sits high above your two-person team, and pretty much always puts you near the back of the screen, urging you to move forward in this linear game. As GI Joe team members, you’ll use your primary weapon, secondary weapon, and melee attacks to wipe out the forces of Cobra. The two-man teams are designed with co-op in mind, and a second player can easily jump in and out of the action. Solo players can switch between team members, which is convenient, but allows solo players to exploit the fact that computer-controlled characters can’t die. If Snake Eyes gets low on health, simply switch to Scarlett, and wait for Snake to recharge.
Defensively, your Joes can do a dodge-roll to avoid incoming fire, and certain objects in the environment allow players to take cover behind them, a-la Gears of War. This not only prevents you from being hit by enemies, it also allows you to heal quickly. For the sake of balance, most of these cover items are destructible, meaning you’ll have to take cover, get the benefits, and move to the next bit of cover. Sadly, taking cover can be a more difficult task than it should. Some walls seem to loathe the idea of you pressed up against them, and refuse to allow you to cling to them. Others will skip the “taking cover” animation altogether, immediately forcing you into the “jump over the cover wall” animation. Glitches like these can be extremely frustrating, especially later in the game when cover is vital to your survival.
Playable characters are split into three groups; Heavies, with massive firepower, Commandos, with excellent melee skills, and Combat Soldiers, who are balanced. Despite the fact that every character fits in one of these three categories, there’s actually quite a bit of variety to the Joes. For example, both Duke and Shipwreck are combat soldiers, but Duke carries a machine gun and uses a grenade launcher as his secondary weapon while Shipwreck carries a shotgun, and uses a parrot with a satchel bomb as his secondary weapon. Similarly, many of the game’s levels include class-specific doors that can only be opened by one type of player. One thing that all the Joes have in common is their use of the movie-inspired Accelerator suits. These suits can be used by both team members once a meter fills up, and grant increased speed and firepower as well as invulnerability for about 10 seconds. Saving up your accelerator suits for the right time can be difficult, but it makes difficult boss fights far easier, and accounts for about 90% of the strategy to be found in the game.
Like in most top-down action shooters, defeated enemies sometimes drop bonus points and power-ups. Unfortunately, they are handled in a baffling, frustrating manner. All power-ups and bonuses are subject to the game's paper-thin physics engine, meaning that when they pop out, they bounce wildly, often ening up out of reach. This makes power-ups, like additional secondary weapon ammo, literally impossible to reach. Bonus points are a little different; they still bounce all over the place, but they are in small boxes that can be targeted. this means you can always shoot out of range bonus points, but it also means that you'll accidentally target them instead of enemies. This can be a real killer in tense firefights, and can often result in a player's accidental death. Even weirder, all bonuses and power-ups originate from the player who earned it, making that player the less likely of the two to actually pick up the bonus. It's an asinine way of handling a simple aspect of an action game, and detracts from the overall experience.
Since this is a GI Joe game, there’s no reloading, no running out of bullets, and no aiming. Since the game auto-targets, laying on the right trigger and pointing in the general direction of enemies is usually your best technique. More skilled players will quickly learn to flick the right analog stick to switch targets, but you could probably get through the game without ever touching it. To break up the litany of on-foot action, vehicle missions are scattered throughout the game. While it may sound cool to ride around in one of the Joes’ signature vehicles, the reality is pretty grim. The various tanks, jeeps and all-terrain combat vehicles control very poorly, and you’ll be ready to get out as quickly as you got in. On a couple of occasions, you’ll take control of an orbiting satellite in order to blast back hordes of rushing Cobra soldiers. These sequences play out like a simplified version of Missile Command, and are far more enjoyable than driving VAMPS and Snow Cats.
With its two-player co-op gameplay, one would assume that GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra would be custom-made for online play. In an inexplicable move, EA chose to omit all online options from the game, leaving only the offline campaign. There are three difficulty levels, and each is significantly different (easy-dead soldiers immediately regenerate, medium – dead soldiers regenerate at checkpoints, hard – dead soldiers don’t regenerate until the end of the level), and there are plenty of collectibles to uncover, but there’s just nothing to keep players coming back for more. Even the campaign itself is tedious, repetitive, and completely forgettable, meaning that the game lacks not only replayability, but playability in the first place.
Even in most of their throwaway movie tie-ins, EA’s studios have a tendency to render some of the best looking character models in the industry. This tendency was apparently forgotten during the development of GI Joe, because it’s one of the ugliest current-gen games on store shelves today. Character models, usually viewed from high above (thankfully), are atrocious, with indistinguishable faces and jerky, uneven animations. Environmental elements are just as bad, with embarrassingly low poly-counts, fuzzy textures, and laughable explosions and environmental effects. At least there are a decent variety of enemy types to fight, even if they do all look lousy. The game’s audio presentation is marred by some of the worst voice-acting this side of Mortal Kombat 4. To make matters worse, Joe teammates like Dusty, Stalker and Hawk constantly interrupt gameplay with incessant references to the game and movie's nonsensical plot. Fortunately, the score is good, featuring some epic re-imaginings of classic Joe themes.
Even for a movie tie-in, GI Joe feels like a rush job. It’s not a terrible game by any means; the game mechanics mostly work, there’s plenty of variety to the characters, scores of things to unlock, and even playable Cobra characters like Storm Shadow and Firefly. It’s just that everything it does has been done much better by many different games. From day one, GI Joe feels inconsequential, instantly forgettable, and dated, like an early pre-cursor to the X-Men Legends series. If GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra were a downloadable title, priced at around $15-20, I’d have no trouble recommending it to fans of the property, but for $50 it feels like a rip-off.
And now you know...