Review: G.I. Joe – The Rise of Cobra (Xbox 360)

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With the G.I. Joe movie out, the inevitable, action packed, tie-in was almost expected. It isn’t the first time that the Joes have seen themselves in the hands of gamers, either, as their adventures have taken them to the Atari 2600, the Commodore 64, and even into the arcade with blistering, four player co-op against the nefarious plans of Cobra. The new game takes place right after the film finishes up and introduces a number of nostalgic pieces to tug on the memories of its fans from the 80s. Unfortunately, even for this fan, there seem to be a few accessories missing from this blister pack.

If I had ever wanted to find out what DICE’s Battlefield: Bad Company or Pandemic’s Mercenaries 2 would be like without great controls, open maps, or exciting action, this would probably be the answer. This is particularly confusing considering that both of those games were published by EA who is no stranger to open battlefield combat. Rise of Cobra feels as if it may have been created in a vacuum ignoring much of what made those series both fun and popular to play, something that should have been a slam dunk considering its namesake.

For a game that is supposed to pick up right where the film leaves off at, it ignores a few things that have actually occurred within it especially in relation to several key characters. Perhaps there may be a DLC that explains this discrepancy, but for now, fans that have seen the movie (like me) will just have to pretend that this stands very much apart from the film regardless of when it is supposed to be set.

The story starts off with Cobra up to its old tricks as it helps old friends escape while plotting world domination. Nostalgic fans of the 80s series should get a kick out of the way the game weaves in favorites like the Weather Dominator and H.I.S.S. Tanks as it plays off of these to bring a plot that could have come straight out from the classic series. If you remember those, you might find yourself grinning when they come up during the game.

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Solid voice acting rounds out the huge amount of dialogue that talks the player through each cartoonish twist but don’t let the audio fool you: that’s not Dennis Quaid on the other end. It seems that only Joseph Gordon-Levitt reprised his role from the film, but I was hard pressed to know the difference with anyone else thanks to a literal who’s who of voice acting such as Grey DeLisle and Steve Blum.

I started out with a team of two in the fight against Cobra by first choosing who I wanted from a roster of characters that would eventually opens up over the course of the game. Only Duke and Scarlett are initially available for recruitment, but as the game progresses and missions are completed, additional Joes join up with others available after completing a bonus mission or objective. Two players can co-op through the game together, but only if they’re on the same console. Online multiplayer is apparently not part of Rise of Cobra’s modus operandi.

Once I had picked my team and heard the briefing, off I went into a game that reminded me more of G.I. Joe’s arcade stand-up debut where the only direction to go was forward. Only in this case, Rise to Cobra’s linear gameplay had the benefit of textured polys and the illusion of an open world to back it. But why you couldn’t sweep the camera around instead of being forced to play with a locked view is a question that is never answered.

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Instead, while the left stick moves your action figure around the screen, the right stick is instead used for the mundane task of switching between targets, one at a time, until you get to the one you want. This can also take several tries in particularly crowded battles as I scrolled through each onscreen target. Guns are all but useless without the automatic lock-on, but bashing or slashing at a target with melee inspired violence required only that I point myself in the right direction.

All of this explosive action also earns points that fill the Accelerator Suit gauge at the top of the screen. At one point in the film, certain Joes used the special armor to become a walking arsenal of annihilation. In the game, when the gauge is filled up, activating the suit transformed my Joe into an invincible juggernaut dishing out massive damage with rockets and gunfire while a slightly retooled version of the classic G.I. Joe theme played in the background tugging on my nostalgia.

Joes can also build up a number of “special” attacks to do tremendous damage at whatever they manage to hit. Duke can launch a grenade from his assault rifle as a “special” attack, for example, and additional specials can be earned from power ups in the field or in collecting a bodycount. This is also one of the few instances where weapons actually feel as if they did what they were supposed to do.

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Most everyone’s weapons appear to do the same amount of damage with the exception of those that specialized in the fine art of personal combat…like Snake Eyes and his katana. But his puny pistol can also kill tanks in the same way that Heavy Duty’s chaingun does making their individual roles useful only for opening special doors and ruining any reason for players to use anyone else. To make things even weirder if you are playing solo, your partner’s damage is gimped to the point where the only thing they provide is another target for the enemy AI to shoot at.

Switching between the two of them becomes more of a matter of whether there is a door that you need someone else to open than in using their abilities to do something exciting. Thanks to this, what could have been an explosive roster has been watered down into a depressingly bland experience across the board except for when it came to other unlockables like Snake Eyes or Storm Shadow. Just as in the movie, those two are pretty much the only reasons to get into this game.

Even the awful boss battles drive this point home as all you need to do is keep your finger pressed on the trigger while running about. The final battle, in particular, redefines rampant repetition and the use of invisible walls in a way that I didn’t think was possible, making the big finish feel repetitive and boring. And that’s pretty much how the entire game is played as: one finger holding the trigger and the left thumbstick leading the way to the end of the level. While this simplicity may be aimed at the younger crowd, I remember playing games on the NES that were a lot more exciting than this.

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Depending on how well the player scores in each stage, their score is tallied up and a number battle points are awarded. G.I. Joe fans from the 80s should get the reference if they remember the “flag points” that they could collect from toys and then mail in for even cooler stuff…like Sgt. Slaughter or the Hooded Cobra Commander. In the game, battle points allow you to unlock characters that you might have rescued or uncovered during the campaign that are now on the roster. Replaying completed missions to find extras or open doors with a different character is always an option, but earning more battle points depends entirely on whether you can score high enough to achieve a better ranking as long as you can put up with everything else that is broken.

Vehicles are also in the game at certain points but I had to change the default control scheme in order to be able to drive around without crashing into trees or walls. Initially, driving is done from the perspective from the vehicle and the generally sluggish control makes it an even worse experience. Shifting this to the screen’s perspective makes it a little easier to point the vehicle on where to go, but it’s only a slightly better method at moving what amounts to a box on wobble wheels. Most of the time I’d inch only ever so slightly forward, fearing having to turn in any direction, and simply pivot my weapons to sweep the area in front of me and repeat.

Checkpoints aren’t what they appear to be, at least on the higher difficulties. Each mission is broken up with these, but that doesn’t mean that your progress is saved at the end of each stage. Slightly tougher enemies are one part of this formula and Pavlovian repetition to encourage you not to die is the other. In co-op, however, reaching the next checkpoint will bring your partner back at these higher difficulties, but it’s a small comfort considering what will happen when both of you die. On Casual, the player or their partner will respawn right at the point of death. The downside is that they won’t be able to earn all of the point rankings available on each stage along with a small bonus.

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On “Advanced” and higher, a point bonus is awarded along with a tougher challenge but instead of hopping back into the fight at the point of death, players get to replay everything from the start if both Joes bite it. Die at the boss fight? Tough luck, I hope you enjoy repeating everything you had fought through to get there. Tougher enemies are understandable, but this comes off as a cheap method in forcing some replayability into the game while expecting to be just as fun. This is made all the more worse when particularly vicious enemies enter the battlefield, like Serpent armor behemoths, that can kill quickly enough to make repetition your best friend. Even the health regeneration system is handled without much subtlety. Although damage will regenerate over time, near instant healing is available by simply hiding behind cover, making every crate or wall obstacle a potential health pack.

Extras in the form of text files and cards describing characters and weapons within the game are also unlocked through discovering them within each mission. A few of the public service announcements that had accompanied each episode from its run in the 80s are also available, but there’s not much else here. For the triumphant return of G.I. Joe to both the big screen and gaming in general, it’s disappointingly light on the fireworks.

There’s a good story here that fans could get into but only if it were in another title with better mechanics. It’s also clearly geared for co-op play which may keep it interesting for a few more hours, but only by so much given how monotonous it is on the whole. Rise of Cobra is a traumatic game for longtime fans or for players in general. If everyone had access to a classics arcade and Konami’s take on G.I. Joe were humming quietly in the corner, I’d recommend playing that instead. You might have a lot more fun for much less the cost of what this game retails for.

G.I. Joe – The Rise of Cobra
Electronic Arts / Double Helix / Backbone Entertainment
PS3 / PS2 / PSP / Xbox 360 / Wii / DS (Xbox 360 version reviewed)
Rated T for Teens