A video game based on a movie license is not very good, and no one is surprised. It's the expected result nowadays when we hear that a publisher is working on some game based on a major motion picture. Finding an enjoyable movie-licensed game has become the game industry equivalent of discovering a once-thought extinct species. Given this fact, one wouldn't be incorrect to assume that The Expendables 2, a downloadable action game based on the upcoming movie sequel, would be a bad game. This is most definitely a lazy, slapped together, overly expensive waste of time that nobody need bother play. And yet, for some bizarre reason, all I could think about while playing The Expendables 2 was that it didn't have to be this way.
That's because for all its missteps and idiotic design decisions, there is a good idea for a game in The Expendables 2. Much as The Expendables film franchise is all about cobbling together aging action stars for a bit of nostalgic exploding of things, The Expendables 2 hearkens back to a bygone era of action gaming, when games like Contra and Ikari Warriors let players blast through absurd waves of pixelated bad guys, and Sylvester Stallone still had his original face.
Unfortunately, a good idea is all The Expendables 2 has going for it. And that idea isn't worth much when it's executed so miserably.
This is a four-player co-op shooter featuring four of the film series' muscle-bound protagonists. You can play as Stallone's pistol-toting Barney Ross, Jet Li's knife-throwing Yin Yang, Dolph Lundgren's barely-intelligible sniper Gunner Jensen, or Terry Crews' gigantic shotgun-toting jokester, Hale Caesar. Jason Statham and Randy Couture are sadly nowhere to be found, but that's really the least of The Expendables 2's problems.
The real problem here is mechanics. For a game based on the act of shooting things and sometimes making them explode, The Expendables 2 is remarkably dull when executing these seemingly basic tenets. A variety of factors contribute to this, but most notably, the controls are garbage. The developers at ZootFly have attempted to meld the kind of perspective-oriented shooting of one of the more recent Contra titles with the aiming mechanics of a twin-stick shooter, like Geometry Wars or Smash TV. This does not work.
It's hard to explain exactly why it doesn't work without digging into that nebulous concept of "feel." Shooting things in The Expendables 2 feels weak. The guns have no real impact, the constant need to upgrade them throughout the game means that at least half the game will be spent with long reload times and very little ammo, and there's just not a damn smidgen of excitement anywhere to be found in the combat.
There are mechanical issues as well. The control scheme of aiming with the right analog stick and shooting with the R1 button works fine in most modern shooters, but here it's just awkward as hell. There's no aim lock mechanic, so basically you're just spraying bullets in directions in the hope of hitting stuff. Again, in a dual-stick shooter, that usually works. But because your guns are so weak-feeling through much of the game, it rarely feels like you're making much impact. When I'm playing as Hale Caesar and I've got that massive, otherworldly-looking automatic shotgun of his, I should be sending bad guys flying in multi-directional shards of human meat. That does not happen here.
Instead, you blast blast blast until everything on screen is dead. If you're playing in co-op, you'll manage to do this pretty quickly, even on the hardcore difficulty. If you're playing with AI-controlled bots, then it'll take a bit longer, because they're idiots. They'll shoot, but their accuracy and rate of fire tends to be a lot lower than yours, and they will attempt to use the ill-conceived cover mechanic more than you will. Yes, using cover will usually block you from being shot, but unless you're playing for extra XP points, it doesn't matter if you die. Most times one of your teammates will be able to run back and heal you, and if not, the checkpoint system doesn't force you to retrace much distance. In fact, in a weird twist, being down on the ground arguably makes you more useful to your team than otherwise. You can shoot with a pistol while grounded, and if you have even a halfway decent aim, you'll basically just pick guys off left and right, while taking no damage. It's like you're a human turret.
The Expendables 2 does little to capitalize on the wonderfully stupid action movie nostalgia inherent to the films. Not that the characters were particularly fleshed out in the movies, but here they're barely given anything to talk about that isn't a badly delivered, even more poorly edited one-liner. Only Crews and Lundgren voice their own characters, and it's pretty obvious that they were only in the recording booth long enough to say their lines once and collect their checks. The guy who does Jet Li's voice borders on offensive, and the actor pretending to be Barney does an even worse Stallone impression than I do.
What little plot there is barely acknowledges itself. At some point it's explained that you're on the hook to rescue a Chinese diplomat, or something. In order to do that, and collect your $1 million reward (that money wouldn't even cover the damage costs of the first level), you have to kill thousands of people. That's not an exaggeration. That certainly is in keeping with the spirit of the first movie, in which the stuntman credits greatly outnumbered the actual cast. And because of the sheer volume of bad guys you're fighting on screen, most battles become these bizarre, completely incomprehensible blasts of fire and bullets. You never know what you're hitting. As long as things are exploding and guys are falling backward in overly dramatic fashion, you're doing fine.
Except you're not doing fine, because you've paid $15 for this bland, hopelessly rushed bore. Again, I've no doubt few of you are surprised by this result. Downloadable movie-licensed games have had a particularly rough run in recent years, so there's no reason why anyone should have expected anything from this game. And yet a twinge of dismay continuously stuck with me as I played through crappy level after crappy level of The Expendables 2. There's a fine idea for a game here, but either the talent or the budget (or both) wasn't there to make it work. Chalk this one up to a sadly missed opportunity.