Monday, September 30, 2013

Jet Li: Rise to Honor Review

Rise to Honor

Cinematic delights run right over the gameplay.

After starring in some fantastic movies from Hong Kong and some decent movies in America, Jet Li is making the move to the digital realm with Rise to Honor on the PS2. With Jet Li providing the moves and Cory Yuen supplying the choreography, this is a title that's bound to please the martial arts fans out there. The only question is whether or not all of the flying fists and feet translate well into a videogame experience. In the end, all of the cinematic flourishes can't help save a game that might've been good a few years ago, but is a lackluster experience today.
Rise to Honor takes a decent premise of a digital Jet Li, complete with tons of his moves, and then sticks in plenty of repetitive gameplay, cheap bosses, and awkwardly designed levels. The biggest asset to the game, the cinematic nature of it, is well worked out and provides plenty of opportunity for the game. Sometimes this succeeds and provides a good experience, but just as often it contains a section that is no fun to trudge through.
Cinematic Style
To make the game play like a movie, Rise to Honor avoids any in-game loading, letting the whole experience run through smoothly. This is handled in a couple of different ways: Streaming the levels during the game and loading during in-game cinematics. Some levels merge into each other so fluidly that it's hard to notice that you're even in a different level at all. It's only later when I went back to the main menu that I figured out how many different levels I had played. Set up like a DVD track menu, Rise to Honor breaks the game up into 63 different scenes. As these get unlocked, the chapter selection menu shows clips of the action from up to four different scenes. This makes it easy to jump back to a previous level and play it again for the fun of it.
Several of the different levels are set up like scenes of a movie as well. One common theme was the frustrated boss. As Jet Li rips through the onslaught of minions, the bosses get frustrated and call in more troops. Other scenes bring in different styles of gameplay, such as the gunfight scenes where Jet Li picks up two guns at once and uses his John Woo shooting skills to take down the opposition. One of the coolest scenes was ripped straight from Woo's Hard Boiled in which Jet Li rides down a hospital hallway on a stretcher and shoots everyone along the way.
During the action, when Jet Li gets in some particularly good attacks in, the camera zooms in for a slow-motion shot to show off the moves. It can be a bit disconcerting by breaking up the game, it still adds to some of the overall cinematic feeling going on.
To make the fighting move well and fit in with the cinematic theme, some questionable control decisions were made. While the left analog stick is for movement, the right analog stick is used for attacks. Tapping in one direction causes Jet Li to attack in that direction, which is especially useful in battles with multiple assailants. After stunning an enemy in one direction, it's easy to direct another blow at an opponent coming from a different direction. With a little bit of practice, it's easy to direct Jet Li into pulling off nice looking combos with two, three, or four different enemies at a time.
In addition to the multiple directions, there's also the ability to block, grab, counter-attack, and up adrenaline. The block is simple and rarely necessary since the counter-attack is so much more effective. The grab is mostly useful for throwing people off roofs and doing some fancy moves. To counter-attack, the L1 and R1 need to be held while being attacked. By tapping the right analog in the direction that the attack is coming from as it hits, Jet Li will punch or kick in the same direction. Often, this is much more useful than the regular attack. While surrounded by a group of six enemies, a counter-attack can initiate a swing kick that sends everyone around to the floor.
Using up the adrenalin causes Jet Li to "spaz out" and unleash a flurry of moves complete with motion trails and combos that get much larger than what's possible in normal mode. While playing the gun levels, Jet Li goes into "bullet time" when the adrenaline is kicked into play. Jet Li leaps forward in slow-motion and can get shots off at a half-dozen targets before he lands.
While all of this sounds useful and great and fantastic and all, many problems quickly pop up. First of all, there's no control for what kind of attack that Jet Li can do. All of the combos are already mapped out for different directional combinations so it's a surprise as to whether a kick or punch will come next. The adrenalin moves look cool, but it's still semi-automatic fighting. In theory, some rhythm is required to do the attacks and counter-attacks properly, but constantly tapping along at a steady pace will do the trick too. The moves don't change or evolve as the game goes along either. There are no new tricks to unlock at all and even though there's a combo counter, there's no noticeable reward or benefit for getting a big combo.
An odd quirk is that the fighting system is designed for fighting multiple people at once, but the same system is awkward in the one-on-one battles. In these it's easy to tire out your thumb by constantly tapping the stick in one direction. This skill comes in especially handy with the boss characters.
The bosses here get unbelievably cheap in their tactics since they're not held to the same laws of the game that Jet Li is. Taking the bosses down requires some old-fashioned 8-bit strategies. In other words, let the bosses go through their pattern and then attack them when they're done. After trying to fight one boss with strategy and counter-attacks, I finally figured out that all I had to do was run away from him and attack when he got finished with his combo attack moves. Cheap? Perhaps.
Another strategy when fighting is to use the constant counter-attack tactic. This requires holding down L1 and R1 and constantly tapping in the direction of the attacking enemy. This will make Jet Li dodge all the incoming blows until he can punch back and stun the assailant. Then he can launch into his own combo and do some damage. While the effect looks stunning to anyone watching the game, it's too simplistic of a gameplay device to keep one's interest very long.
One boss character fights with a pair of guns just like Jet Li, but strangely has some different powers. At any time while the boss is running around or shooting, it's almost impossible to shoot him. Only by waiting for him to stop and laugh can he easily be shot. At the same time, running around and shooting is a sure way to get killed. While the fights give a slight nod to the idea of strategy, it's all about the cheap shots.
To give some variety from the action, other modes of play are included and these are the shooting, stealth, and stunt levels. By far the most fun of these are the shooting levels. Jet Li has unlimited ammunition in his two handguns and lets rip through the hordes of enemies. They're goofy and too easy once you realize that all you need to do is keep shooting all the time, but with some bullet time action and the stretcher scene in the hospital, it's a healthy nod to John Woo that livens up the pace.
The other modes don't fare nearly as well. The stealth levels go on much longer than they need to and the strategy for finishing them is not much more than waiting for the security officers to turn around so that you can knock them out from behind. The stunt levels just involve Jet Li running along and tapping the R1 button when the game tells you to. It looks cool on the screen, but it's incredibly easy to pull off, making finishing the levels more of a relief than an accomplishment.
When Rise to Honor turns up the heat, it usually does so by bringing on the cheap bosses or piling on the enemies. The latter gets so ridiculous at times that a later level pits Jet Li against dozens of guys in a long sequence of group battling. While the action picks up the pace and starts to really take off and show off the power of the engine, the cinematic nature gets in the way again. With many slo-mo close-ups and cutaway shots showing more people running into the area, the action gets cut up and disorienting. In mid-fight, the camera cut to a shot of one man running in and then cut back to the overall action to show that there are two or three more guys right next to Jet Li. In the moment it takes to figure out what's going on, one of them can easily knock you down.
Rise to Honor goes for the cinematic effect so much that, like the cut-up action I just described, it can hinder the actual gameplay. The action moves along smoothly and looks very nice, but it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of true interactivity. If someone can make a game that combines the slick movement and cohesive feel of Rise to Honorand implements some elements that make the game reward skill and exploration of the game's mechanics, then we'd have a winner. As it is, Rise to Honor feels mostly like a concession to action movies that never quite delivers.
There are many different environments in Rise to Honor and they all get a solid treatment. Even though the graphics here are not filled with eye candy and tremendous amounts of detail, it's still a good looking game that holds steady with minimal amounts of slowdown. The developers fell in love with doing reflections and there are many nice uses of it here. Many floors have that freshly mopped and waxed look and are so clean that reflections of the characters are easy to see.
The character models themselves have a similar feel to them. They are not overly complex or detailed, but move smoothly and clearly show off the many different martial arts moves that are included in the game. With the moves coming fast and furious at times, it's good that it doesn't become a blur as well.
The soundtrack has a healthy variety of music types to provide a backdrop for the action while the sound effects have plenty of audio cues to make your roommates think you are watching some martial arts highlight reel. There are some aggravating repetitive phrases that highlight an overall average voice-over set of sessions. Jet Li does his own voice over work, which is quite nice if you're a fan.
It's a game that could've had potential. Jet Li put six weeks of work into making the moves authentic and Rise to Honor meets the challenge of showing them off. Unfortunately, some slick production and cinematic style doesn’t always translate into a good game and there are many gameplay elements that get bogged down by repetition.
With a game that doesn't develop the challenges to truly make it worth playing all the way through, Rise to Honor often resorts to some cheap tricks to make the bosses extra strong. While there are some efforts made to create an interactive Jet Li, it ends up feeling like remote control. Now if only the next step could be made and gives the gamer more control of the action. With the solid cinematic touches already displayed here, that would definitely be a game worth playing.