Wanted: Dead review - a shambolic yet hypnotic barrage of nods to PS2 action games
Wanted: Dead's marketing materials describe it as a "love letter to the sixth generation of consoles", aka PS2, Xbox and Gamecube. It's the work of veterans from that period - developer Soleil was founded by Tecmo alumnus Takayuki Kikuchi, whose credits include the first Ninja Gaiden. The funny thing about loving something is that it can go hand-in-hand with extensive and lingering dislike, and I do not like a lot of Wanted: Dead. I do not like bolted-on pseudo-Gearsy shooting, wave-based encounters that routinely slaughter you just before a checkpoint, or storytelling that is 70 percent goofing around with regurgitated cop movie stereotypes. I do not like campaign design that seems to exist mostly in the service of one-off vignettes and Easter eggs. I do not like these things at all. But I do kind of love them.
I love them, I suspect, simply because I'm a member of Wanted: Dead's target audience of early middle-aged players who cut their teeth in the heyday of the "double-A game" - basically, games from the dawn of the broadband era, before Naughty Dog and Ubisoft forced every third-person rival to learn parkour and court comparison with HBO, before the ubiquity of Steam and the death of trade-ins, before every game had to involve a loot treadmill and a season pass. This was a time when mid-tier 3D action experiences in particular were free to be raw, brutish, unpolished, shamelessly smashed-together and, very often, an absolute bunch of arse, because there were fewer settled notions about what any videogame should do. I'm not sure this idea of "double-A" ever really existed - it feels like something dreamt up by cranks who never got over the death of Midway. But whether a rose-tinted delusion or not, it fits Wanted: Dead to a tee.
Following an introductory news broadcast featuring Thatcher and Yeltsin, from which I can recall only the phrase "a failure of common sense", Wanted drops you into the shoes of Hannah Stone - a katana-wielding cyborg in sneakers who leads near-future Hong Kong's infamous 'Zombie Squad' of convicts turned enforcers. In the course of a week in-game, Stone and her roughneck associates will chase down a conspiracy involving androids, though the script is often more interested in slice-of-life comedy than developing the plot, with entire cutscenes devoted to the spectacle of the gang eating ramen.
The campaign consists of trips to parks, clubs and warehouses made up of corridors and open spaces with farflung checkpoints, where you'll beat up a repetitive cast of grunts, ninjas and mech dudes, washing it all down with a gruelling pattern-based bossfight. Generic as it sounds, it's a structure I haven't quite seen since the PS2: the absence of a save-anywhere feature, especially, both teaches you to manage your modest pocketful of healthpacks carefully and makes more obvious the mission design's dependence on arbitrary pop-up reinforcements. The stuff between missions, however, is more redolent of later action games and in particular, Platinum's Astral Chain: you'll wander a police station, scooping up case files for XP, shooting the breeze with no-name officers (half of whom spend their working days lugging boxes), and playing one of many, diverting but inessential minigames, which range from arcade cabinet shmups to rhythm-matching karaoke.
I like the idea of cooling my heels with side characters, especially in a game as savage as Wanted can be, but I try to keep better company than this. The core cast are an odious 80s buddy quartet resurrected from the putrefying entrails of Blockbuster Videos by a seriously mistreated ChatGPT client. There's a comedy sexpest with go-faster hair and scars, who tells jokes you're supposed to wince at but which mostly baffle you. He's paired with a kawaii version of the mad cat lady from The Simpsons. Connoisseurs of crappy representation can look forward not just to a perma-furious Black police chief, but a mute Black squad member who joins you for a mission to a dance club called Deaf Panther. The writing in general is rancid and incompletely localised, with palpable dips in coherence between main and ambient dialogue. The voice performances are engrossingly bad: one of the game's funniest moments is a dance floor fight in which one, extremely tired-sounding VA has to portray a dozen bouncers simultaneously. Stone herself is the cherry on the urinal cake: a Tommy Wiseau-grade scenery chewer who always sounds like she's just woken up.
The writing recovers a little during bigger story beats, which include some fairly fluid, if far from mind-expanding discussions of android sentience. There's also a touching flashback in which Stone has to comfort a kid whose mother has been murdered. But then you wander back out into the station and it's all playground bangers like "What are you looking for in the interrogation room? Torture?" I'm mesmerised by the spread of ethnicities in that station, which I guess reflects the premise of cyberpunk Hong Kong as a cultural melting pot, but probably owes more to production circumstances: some cops talk like Ealing Comedy wannabes, others like the high school chuds who get flattened in the first 20 minutes of Spider-Man movies.
In general, the effect of the script's more sensitive moments is to make the nonsense elsewhere feel deliberate, which is definitely a punchline I can get behind, but not when it's dragged out through 10 hours of promising but ultimately tedious breach-and-clear. Wanted's combat has a certain flare, to begin with. Stone performs katana combos with her left hand, mixing it up with auto-aimed pistol shots from her right. The pistol isn't really there to deal damage: it's a way of interrupting attacks and softening foes up, with combos that start with a gunshot then launch you into close range. This interplay can be satisfying. Whatever her failings as a conversationalist, Stone looks pretty swish in action. She's a mixture of Solid Snake and Raiden, quick-stepping through crossfire and popping off gun fu ripostes as foes struggle to manoeuvre, before demolishing them with swipes that leave behind artful loops of gore.
The game's relegation of the pistol to a support role recalls Bloodborne. Also in echo of that game, there's a rally system whereby you can restore some lost health by swiftly performing a canned finishing animation on a stunned opponent. Finishers warp Stone to the target's side, and can't be interrupted: they're often as useful for avoiding damage as for reversing it. The melee combat's final layer is a focus gauge, which builds when you attack or parry and can be spent once full on slow motion pistol salvos, prepping the stage for a crowd's worth of finishers.
The game's tutorials do a poor job of teaching you the method behind this rather specific interpretation of CQC: it just walks you through the button inputs, then punts you pretty much immediately into duels with opponents who can kill you in a single combo. In particular, it took me a while to grasp the utility of the pistol. There's also, dare I say, too little to unlock: Stone gets three skill trees, one devoted to melee, which mostly consist of bread-and-butter stuff like larger parry windows and an extra hit for your starting combo. As a consequence, the sword-and-pistol-fighting never evolves beyond that initial tricky alchemy: the closest it comes to transcending itself is in certain bossfights, which manage a fair approximation of Ninja Gaiden in their emphasis on surgical parrying and reading animations. But Wanted's bigger problem is that the somewhat-engaging melee fighting has to coexist with the game's at best perfunctory, at worst fidgety and broken cover-based shooting.
Her pistol aside, Stone wields an assault rifle that can be lightly customised, plus various collectible guns such as SMGs and rocket launchers, all manually aimed from an over-the-shoulder perspective. Blending these approaches to combat is the game's setpiece gimmick, but in practice, those dabs of Gears of War are woodenly executed and only drag the rest down. The cover-locking is slippery and resentful, tossing you into the open like a neighbour's unwanted cat when you pivot the camera too sharply - fortunately, Stone is far more resistant to bullets than she is to bats, hammers and blades. There's no automatic cornering or switching between cover spots, none of the context-sensitive magic that made using cover in Gears a form of traversal; I attribute this to the fact that every shooting layout in Wanted has to double as a hack-and-slash arena, where overly "magnetic" surfaces would be an inconvenience.
Even when you do find a solid vantage point, aiming around or over objects is fussy: try to lob a grenade through a door, and it'll probably bounce off the wall you're hiding behind. The grace notes that pin this silly symphony together are your Zombie Squad comrades, who scurry all over firing continuously and bellowing at you while dealing minimal damage. They'll help out occasionally with a revive or by pinning an enemy down, but mostly they just serve to confuse you about where the frontline is.
The cover-shooting can be ignored much of the time, but it's sometimes forced on you in the shape of chokepoints and specific boss battles, and it's hard not to wonder how much better the sword-and-pistol combat would be if Soleil had reassigned the associated development resources. That lack of focus is conspicuous throughout, with certain elements chucked in for kicks. Loading break animations that recreate the "wrong number" meme; backstory taking the form of stylish but shrug-inducing anime shorts; the corny joke of censoring chainsaw executions in a game where every 1v1 ends in dismemberment anyway... It makes for an eye-catching trailer montage, but it doesn't merge convincingly in the hands. It also makes me worry about the developers further down the ladder. Easy as it is to characterise Wanted's misfires as fascinating foibles, they also suggest a senior creative who spends too much time on Twitter, making unpredictable demands of an overworked team.
Part of the appeal of double-A games, as I have come to interpret them, was that they left their mess on display. I remember sixth generation third-person games in particular for their alternately tentative and overconfident feats of splicing. So many games from that epoch consist of "X+Y", from Devil May Cry's redefinition of guns as a means of prolonging a combo, to less successful, widely beloved oddities such as telekinetic blaster Psi-Ops or The Suffering, aka Silent Hill meets Rune.
Again, I do have a sneaking affection for Wanted even at its worst, inasmuch as it channels that long-forgotten, early-noughties spirit of abject chaos. At a time when all games above a certain budget threshold seem to have congealed into a single, insufferably complete and glossy open world action-RPG with service-game elements, it's bracing to dip into one that's more like a box of malfunctioning toys at a car boot sale. I can't in good conscience recommend the results, but there's something at the heart of this rickety period pastiche that craves to be understood and acknowledged, if not celebrated.