Everyone's favorite genocidal cyborgs return with Terminator Salvation, a game from Bionic Commando developer GRIN that seems to take as much, if not more, inspiration from Gears of War as it does the film upon which it's based. There's a very narrow focus on cover-based action here, and while it's got some decent energy to it, the whole thing feels very barebones.
That barebones feel starts with the story, which is, well, kind of nonexistent. It's more about basic motivation than character development or specific plotting. You play as John Connor--who, here, looks a bit like a poor-man's Commander Shepard--and while you're ostensibly on a mission to save a guy named David from something Skynet related, it all boils down to constantly running towards or away from murderous machines.
Terminator Salvation is a product of our post-Gears of War world, and it strips that cover-based third-person shooter formula down to its basest elements. The game is, essentially, a series of brief firefights against small packs of those murderous machines. The places that the firefights take place in always seem highly contrived, with bits of cover conveniently scattered, usually in some sort of semicircle configuration, around the area where your enemies will eventually stroll in, hunker down, and start firing away at you.
It would seem that, at this point in the Terminator mythology, Skynet hasn't diversified production much, as you'll encounter a whopping six different types of enemies over the course of the game. Probably the most interesting of the bunch are the spidery T-7-Ts, which are too heavily armored for you to take head-on. This requires you to rely on your constant AI companions to distract them as you sneak around by hopping from one piece of cover to the next and blast away at their tender and exposed backsides. It's the most tactical thing you'll do in the game, but the game is generous to a fault with the tactical advantages. There's always ample ammo, you're regularly given the higher ground over your enemies, and the machines very rarely stray outside of their designated attack areas.
There's something actually enjoyable to the constant-cover philosophy at work here. Part of it comes from the fact that John Connor looks pretty awesome sliding and rolling from one piece of cover to the next. They're much more dynamic-looking than most of his animations, which look kind of pinched. His run animation specifically makes him look like he's constantly looking for the bathroom. There's also a semi-circular on-screen guide that shows up when you're behind cover, which makes the process of moving from one piece of cover to another feel very intuitive. For as derivative as most of the action in Terminator Salvation is, this little trick struck me as something that other Gears of War-style games could benefit from.
The individual firefights can be fun, but the game never lets itself build up any momentum. Almost every enemy encounter takes place in a small, contained area, and they're usually bookended by a short cutscene. There are numerous sequences where you'll literally walk from one cutscene to another, without any action in between. The game mixes things up with the occasional on-rails sequence--you'll man a turret in the backs of trucks, subway trains, and dune buggies--but these are even simpler and more straightforward than the rest of the game.
In addition to not offering a terrific amount of variety, Terminator Salvation is a short experience, too. Playing on the normal difficulty, it took me a little under five hours to see the credits roll. There's no real reason to revisit the game once you're done, either. There's a split-screen coop mode, but no online option, and both the PS3 trophies and the Xbox 360 achievements are based entirely on clearing the individual chapters. If you play it on the hard difficulty, you can get everything in a single play-through.
Terminator Salvation ultimately just feels too small for a $60 game. Even the environments, which consist mostly of war-torn streets and boxy, brownish interiors, give you little sense that there's a world outside of the path that you're on. It's not a bad experience, but what it offers is so simple that it would feel repetitive if it were any longer. As it is, it doesn't do enough to justify a purchase.