In 2002 Namco released Dead to Rights, a gritty present-day cop thriller situated somewhere between Max Payne and Dirty Harry. Dead to Rights introduced us to Jack Slate, a down-on-his-luck K-9 detective whose policeman father is slain by unsavory characters inhabiting his native Grant City. Slate wouldn't be much of a cop if he let this affront go unpunished, so he set out to find out what happened and exact some revenge in the process. Now Namco and Widescreen Games are working on Dead to Rights II, a sequel that's attempting to strengthen the best gameplay elements of the original and tell a new, equally gritty story at the same time.
Dead to Rights II picks up more or less where the first game left off. Jack Slate still has a bone to pick with the scum of Grant City, and when the honorable Judge McGuffin is abducted by criminals with ties to the city's power elite, Slate springs into action. McGuffin, it seems, had a positive working relationship with Slate's father, so Jack figures he owes the old guy a favor or two. You'll follow hot on the trail of the judge and his kidnappers as you blast through one dingy urban setting after another, and you'll interact with characters who will try to help or hinder your pursuit, depending on their motivations. Needless to say, the plot should expand beyond one missing judge by the time all the dust has settled.
The gameplay in Dead to Rights II should be familiar to anyone who has played the original, though most aspects of the gameplay are being tightened and refined wherever possible. The core shooting action is as solid as ever, with a quick autotargeting system that lets you lock onto nearby enemies. There's an interesting ranged mechanic at work whereby the closer you are to an enemy, the more damage your weapons will do, and the damage level is indicated by the color of the reticle centered on your current target. The weapons we've seen so far run the gamut from .45s and small submachine guns to sawed-off shotguns and assault rifles (and we expect to see heavier ordnance as we progress through the later levels). Thankfully, Slate's not afraid to fight John Woo-style; you can dual-wield pretty much any handheld weapon you can find.
There are a number of special maneuvers you can pull off in the right situations to take out enemies with a little flair. If you manage to get up close to an armed foe, you can perform a disarm move that will net you the guy's weapon and grant you a free one-hit kill, portrayed by a brutal animation of Slate blowing the enemy away. If there are other enemies in the area, you might opt instead to take the enemy as a human shield, which will protect you from most of the incoming gunfire as you fire back at the opposition. Lastly, you can back up against a wall and peer around the corner to look for enemies who are lying in wait. If you see any, you can target them, jump out to take a few potshots, then retreat behind cover before you get shot yourself.
The most important and useful move in Slate's arsenal is a multidirectional dive that you can pull off to evade a hail of bullets. If you hold down the dive button a little longer, the game will kick into a bullet-time-style slow-motion effect that lets you target and blow away enemies, mid-dive, at your leisure. You can't run around doing this all the time, as the slow motion drains your adrenaline meter (which is pretty slow to replenish), but at times, the slowed-down dive maneuver is absolutely essential in clearing a room packed with armed thugs.
Like the first game, Dead to Rights II has a buddy-cop system of sorts involving Slate and his trusty K-9 companion, Shadow. You won't really see Shadow milling around during the game's missions; instead, you have to call him into action whenever the situation demands it. If you're targeting an enemy, Shadow will head straight for him and go to town on the guy, even bringing back a weapon for you if he kills the enemy. Otherwise, Shadow will just head out into the fray and look for the closest bad guy to take out. Just like the slow-motion move, Shadow's attacks will deplete your adrenaline meter, so while the lovable pooch is extremely effective, you'll have to use him sparingly.
Occasionally, the game will switch from the standard shooting gameplay to a melee-only stage (with no explanation that we saw), and you'll have to beat up a bunch of thugs rather than blow them away. There's a rudimentary combo system at work that lets you chain together punches and kicks into some pretty cool-looking attack combos, and this time around, you'll be able to get your hands on various melee weapons, such as a knife and the ever-popular board-with-a-nail-in-it. These weapons can be used only for a limited time, though, after which you're back to fists and feet.
From what we've played so far, the action in the game has been fast and quite furious, and the ease of autotargeting and the responsive shooting controls have made us tempted to just run into every room, guns ablaze and with no consideration for personal safety. That tactic hasn't gotten us very far, though. Only when we started using all of the available abilities--slow motion, wall shooting, Shadow, and so on--did we start having a lot of success against the many hordes of enemies the game has been throwing at us. The combat has definitely felt more rewarding as we've gotten a handle on all the varied moves and abilities you can use in the game.
Dead to Rights II's visuals certainly seem to be shaping up as an improvement over those of the original game. The environments and character models look more detailed thanks to an apparent increase in geometry, and there seems to be a lot more breakable scenery this time around, as well. During almost every firefight, you'll see glass bottles shattering, computer equipment blowing up, and other background elements being explosively sundered by the hail of gunfire. There are a number of set pieces that can be functionally destroyed, too, such as a car that we blew up to take out a bunch of enemies that were firing from positions around it.
It's worth noting that Dead to Rights II will definitely get some mileage out of its M rating--we've seen plenty of risqué scenery and heard enough swearing to make a sailor blush. It's nice to see that if Namco and developer Widescreen are going to make a game with gritty-cop-movie trappings, they're not skimping on the elements that are essential in achieving that grit. Dead to Rights II is scheduled for release in mid-April; look for more before that time.