Nothing delivers a vicarious thrill quite like a slick, big-budget action movie. Hollywood blockbusters, like Face/Off and The Rock, in addition to some of Hong Kong's finest movie fare, like The Killer and A Better Tomorrow, put you right in the middle of intense modern-day shoot-outs between the "goodest" good guys and the baddest bad guys. Films like these are undeniably exciting, but they sometimes leave you wondering how on earth the good guys managed to beat such impossible odds. The answer is obvious: These movies aren't real. Of course, Dead to Rights isn't real, either. If you've ever wondered what it might feel like to be the lone action hero who's pitted up against a ridiculous number of enemies, this game is about as close as you'll get. Dead to Rights was originally released in the summer of 2001--exclusively for the Xbox--where its intense difficulty level polarized the game's audience, as some loved the relentless challenge, while others couldn't handle it. The subsequent PlayStation 2 and GameCube versions, for better or worse, greatly toned down the game's difficulty, thus making Dead to Rights a whole lot more accessible and slightly less nerve-wracking, though no less action-packed. Now a PC port of the game is available, and while it doesn't look like much and controls differently than you're probably used to, it still delivers plenty of entertaining combat.
Dead to Rights is about a K-9 cop named Jack Slate, who does what he can to keep the peace in a criminal cesspool called Grant City. At the beginning of the game, Slate and his trusty dog Shadow are investigating a mysterious construction site. There, Slate discovers that someone very close to him has been murdered. Against direct orders, he sets off to find some answers and to seek revenge. The story, as told through Jack's deadpan narration and the occasional CG cutscene, seems pretty straightforward at first. During the course of the game, however, it actually takes some decent twists and eventually becomes quite involving. The best that can be said for it is that, unlike most stories in games, this one does a commendable job of tying up all its loose ends before the credits roll.
Superficially, Dead to Rights unquestionably resembles Max Payne. This is mostly because that game, like Dead to Rights, is clearly inspired by a certain breed of action movies, the most notable of which is probably The Matrix. Like Max Payne, Dead to Rights is the tale of a fugitive cop who's apparently fighting alone in his war against a sinister, corrupt organization. Even the game's respective main characters have a lot in common. Their names sound alike, their dialogue is hammy and melodramatic, they shrug off bullet wounds, they shoot rapidly with two pistols at once, and when they leap through the air, all the action around them slows down. That's a lot of similarities, but that's also where the similarities end.
Dead to Rights plays differently from Max Payne--and from most other action games, for that matter. Most of the game consists of third-person action sequences in which Slate has to gun down countless foes before reaching his next objective. Just as the plot in Dead to Rights offers up a few surprises, so does the gameplay. Simple yet inventive minigames frequently figure into the action, as Slate will have to do all kinds of things, from disarming bombs to lifting weights to picking locks. These minigames rely on precise timing and/or button mashing, and they make for fun diversions. Also, Slate will have to fight unarmed in a number of sequences. Fortunately, he can switch to unarmed combat in the middle of a gunfight.
There's a lot to say about the action in Dead to Rights because Slate is a versatile fighter. He can carry a number of different firearms at once, and the game features a wide selection of real-world pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and more. He'll typically salvage these from fallen foes, but he wastes no time reloading, opting instead to coolly toss aside depleted weapons. Aiming in Dead to Rights is automatic. You just press and hold the right mouse button, and Slate will draw a bead on the closest foe. Once that enemy goes down, you press the right mouse button again to find your next target. You can also opt to manually aim from a first-person perspective. This rarely figures into play, though you'll sometimes need to do so when using sniper rifles.
Your enemies are plentiful, heavily armed, and armored and are often quite deadly. They'll rush at you, but Dead to Rights feels like an arcade game, so you probably won't question their reckless tactics. As for you, if you wish to improve your chances of survival, you'll need to make use of all of Slate's defensive maneuvers while fighting. A martial arts expert, Slate can disarm his foes at close range by snatching their weapons while delivering a deathblow with dramatic flair. Alternatively, he can put a vice grip on most any foe. This allows Slate to use the opponent as a human shield while retaining the ability to shoot back (at least with one weapon). If his hostage isn't killed by friendly fire, Slate can coldly put the fool out of his misery with a bullet to the head or a shot in the back. This isn't exactly lighthearted stuff.
Slate's got even more moves. He can duck behind cover and can also flatten his back against a wall, thus priming himself to spring out and start shooting from around a corner. And, sure enough, he can leap through the air in any direction while keeping his guns trained on his foes. Pressing and holding the jump button causes the action to go into slow motion in midjump, while, for some reason, you get to retain a real-time rate of fire, which allows you to take out multiple targets before you hit the ground. This maneuver is hardly realistic, but it's exciting and acts as a real lifesaver. Your ability to use it is governed by an adrenaline meter that works like bullet time in Max Payne. The meter fills back up as you defeat enemies, and it also refills gradually with time, but it's well balanced so you can't get away with using this powerful move excessively.
Guess what? Slate's got even more tricks up his sleeve. He can grab explosive canisters--conveniently strewn about some of the levels--toss them at his foes, and then shoot the canisters as they're nearing their targets, thereby allowing him to blow up several baddies at once. Unarmed, Slate can perform various combinations of punches and kicks, as well as a limited number of grappling moves. He can block enemy punches and kicks, too, or he can break enemy grapples with a well-timed button press. Don't forget about Shadow the dog, who basically works like a recharging superweapon. You can sic Shadow on any nearby foe with a simple button combination, and then you'll suddenly be watching a slow-motion close-up of Shadow as he mauls his victim. The faithful mutt then kindly brings the enemy's weapon to you and vanishes as suddenly as he appears. He'll be ready for another meal in less than a minute. You'll come to rely on Shadow often, but, as a gameplay mechanic, this dog could have used some more attention. The way he's implemented just doesn't make any sense. At any rate, don't worry about sending your dog into the middle of a firefight, because he'll always come out unscathed. If only you were so lucky.
It's surprising to see problems like disappearing dogs. Other aspects of the game clearly could have used some more work too--especially the camera. Usually, you can rotate the camera around by using the mouse (or the right analog stick on a dual analog gamepad, though the default keyboard and mouse controls basically work well). You'll have to, because the camera doesn't do a good job of tracking your movement all by itself. As you might imagine, having to futz around with the perspective while trying to take on a dozen enemies with AK-47s doesn't make the proceedings any easier. The camera also wigs out when you get into tight corridors, and you'll be in tight corridors fairly often. Additionally, the camera angle is unpredictably locked in some sequences, but this isn't any better than the free-roaming camera and will only disorient you even more. The best thing about the camera is how it snaps to whichever enemy you have targeted. During brawling sequences, the targeting doesn't work the same way, and you'll occasionally get blindsided by enemies who attack you from just off the edge of the screen.
You'll invariably take a lot of hits as you fight your way through the game's selection of more than a dozen chapters. So you'll be constantly on the lookout for health and armor power-ups, which can instantly take you from death's door to perfect shape--not that Slate looks or acts any differently based on his health and armor levels. The shooting sequences are actually very fun once you get the hang of them. Throughout the game, you'll also take on a number of powerful bosses, and while the early boss battles are straightforward slugfests, some of the later ones are much more interesting. The brawling sequences are usually neither interesting nor particularly fun, though. Your enemies block and counterattack seemingly at random, though their attack power has been heavily toned down since the original Xbox version. Disappointingly, all your standard foes also basically use the same canned punch-and-kick combos and throws that you have access to. Worse yet, though you'll be fighting large groups of enemies hand-to-hand, you can't knock or throw an enemy into his cohorts. Enemies won't coordinate their attacks, either. Instead, they'll stand idly by as you beat up their pals. The fact that the brawling is relatively easy is a mixed blessing, since, while it really isn't very good, it won't be as much of a sticking point as it was in the Xbox version.
The game runs smoothly, at least. Jack himself looks OK, and you'll see him sporting several different outfits throughout the game. Many of the other characters look blocky and simple, and none of them move their mouths when speaking. Most of the game's environments can be described in the same fashion, as they all use lots of bland, blurry textures and some rather ugly-colored lighting. For what it's worth, some of the levels--like the neon-lit streets of Chinatown--do look considerably better than the others do. Interestingly, none of the game's environments are destructible, so you'll use things like wooden boxes to protect yourself from munitions that would rip right through them in real life. Dead to Rights does feature some stylish animations, especially for Slate's various combat moves. Some of the special effects are well done, though the garish pools of blood left behind by slain enemies look like something out of a horror movie or like something you'd use to top off a peanut butter sandwich. The game sounds pretty good. The voice acting is hit-and-miss, though Jack has some pretty good lines. The music is mostly subdued and, at times, repetitive, but the report from all the various weapons is loud and clear.
We experienced a major bug in the first level of the game, which prevented us from playing any further. Publisher Hip Games quickly addressed the problem with a patch, and the rest of the time we spent with the game was spent without incident. Or, rather, it was spent without any additional technical foibles, as the game itself is full of "incidents" and pure action. Though Dead to Rights looks like a watered-down port of an aging console game (in fact, its looks were never its strong suit), its gameplay still holds up and survives the translation intact. It's not just another cookie-cutter shooter but plays differently in a number of key ways. So if you're looking for a unique twist on the single-player PC shooter, then Dead to Rights is worth your while.