The Double-A Team is a new feature series honouring the unpretentious, mid-budget, gimmicky commercial action games that no-one seems to make any more.
Double-A man doesn’t reload. When he runs out of bullets, he throws his gun away and picks up a new one. Double-A man shoots with the A button, not the right trigger. Double-A man can’t jump, but he can dive in slow motion. When he discovers his father’s corpse, Double-A man doesn’t cry, he thinks about revenge in a growling noir voiceover. Double-A man hangs out in back alleys, construction sites, prisons and seedy nightclubs. Double-A man says to the scantily clad girl, “For God’s sake, put on some clothes.” Double-A man’s dog is a weapon.
As soon as Christian Donlan invoked Double-A man in his recent piece on Red Faction: Guerilla, we knew we wanted to return this forgotten, mostly extinct species of game: commercial games with simple hooks, middling budgets and modest ambitions, big enough to be mass market but small enough to be a bit trashy or weird. They’re a kind of gaming we just don’t get any more, and as dumb as they could be, we miss them. And what better place to start than with Namco’s 2002 action potboiler, Dead to Rights?
Dead to Rights is the story of violent cop Jack Slate. Could you ask for a better Double-A man moniker than that? Jack Slate, two-fisted and stone hard. Slate and his K-9 unit (that’s Double-A-man-speak for dog), Shadow, patrol the mean streets of Grant City, shooting up bad guys. One day, his father turns up dead at the end of a tutorial mission. Jack swears revenge, although it will doubtless bring the whole rotten edifice of Grant City – its sleazy crimelords and corrupt cops – down on him. That’s the set-up, a broad but honest clich that is established within seven minutes of booting the game up.
This is one of the things we miss most about double-A games: there’s a familiarised but somehow refreshing efficiency to them. You know where you are, because you’ve seen the movies the developers are ripping off, and also because they’re not being precious about it. Dead to Rights is a bit John Woo, a bit Raw Deal, a bit cod-noir. The guy’s got a dog with him, like in Northern Exposure, but it’s violent instead of funny. Got it. Let’s go.
The same’s true of the game mechanics. There’s a bit of cover shooting, a bit of Max Payne-style bullet time, you can use goons as human shields, and when your dog is charged up you can use him for an instant kill. (Brilliantly, you select him from your weapon list where he appears as a dog silhouette.) There’s no aiming, you just lock on and blast away. There’s nothing to craft or unlock. You pick up guns and you shoot them. Sometimes you have a basic, but not too sloppy fist fight, with a few waves of identical meatheads. (Double-A man doesn’t need varied character models; he doesn’t have time for seeing people as human beings. They are all just targets to him.) Did I mention you have a dog?
There’s not a lot of depth there, but that doesn’t mean there’s no challenge, and there’s no chaff either. The simplicity of the game means the developers can move through set-ups at a brisk lick. There are some hilariously throwaway mini-games; within the first 20 minutes of the game, you’ll have picked a lock and done some pole-dancing. (Not as Jack; he’s not that kind of guy.) “Conquer key MINI-GAMES and unravel challenging puzzles within storyline context,” declaims the back of the box, which is the touching humility of double-A all over. We’re going to have a few mini-games and puzzles, and they’re actually going to fit the storyline, guys.
You can’t say that Dead to Rights has aged well. It looks awful – frankly, much worse than its 17 years – and the time-to-stripper is astonishingly low. (Only a couple of minutes longer than the time-to-dead-dad.) But you can’t quite say it has aged badly either. The dog gimmick is rather perfunctory, and is developed better in the game’s sequels, but the violence in those games also takes on a more gratuitous and unpleasant tone. This one is so telegraphed and stylised, by necessity of its low budget and weak technology, it has a kind of primitive innocence to it.
That’s what makes Dead to Rights funny to play now, but also lends it genuine charm. Its hard-boiled stylings might once have come across as macho posturing, but they’re delivered with such naive sincerity that you can now almost believe they’re a knowing self-parody. Improbably, the script is a delight. “People aren’t born here, they’re forged out of broken bones and blood money,” rumbles Slate in voiceover over the intro. “It was another grey autumn. The leaves were changing from go green to caution yellow. Pretty soon they’d be danger red. Then dead brown.”
That’s the power of nostalgia, I suppose. It was a simpler time. But that is something video games sometimes seem to have forgotten these days: simple times can be good ones.