June 25, 2024
Hope you didn't have any plans for Valentine's Day! Wanted: Dead is here and it's got more personality in one severed finger than your date has in their whole body. The Finger Guns Review:

To say I was hyped for Wanted: Dead after its ambitious marketing and trailers is something of an understatement. It ticks almost every box I could think of and more I never knew I had. On paper, it should be the perfect game for me – a third-person cyberpunk action title, full of cybernetics, katanas, synthetics, evil corporations and heaps of old-school sensibility.

It’s also bonkers. Flat out bonkers. A mashup of styles and scenes, anime and cyberpunk, gore and karaoke minigames. It pretty much has to be seen to be believed. If you’re a fan of the Yakuza games – that level of strangeness, off-the-wall stories, and flipping between genres and styles – you may well feel right at home. It’s certainly got a bit of that feel to it.

Thankfully, if that’s not your thing – and it generally isn’t mine – the bulk of the gameplay is something else entirely. A balls-to-the-wall, Ninja-Gaiden-difficult gun-and-katana combat, third person action title full of parries, executions, and more fatalities than Mortal Kombat. It’s gloriously hedonistic, satisfying to play and master, and I’ve rarely squealed in wondrous shock so often as I did watching the slow-motion executions I’d just dealt out.

There’s a lot to unpack in Wanted: Dead, one of the most ambitious projects I’ve played in a long while.

The basic story is a Suicide Squad premise. You play as Hannah Stone, an ex-con, let out of jail in exchange for a reduction in her sentence. She’s indentured to join the Zombie Squad, a group of elite police enforcers, but the police are in turn owned by shady megacorp Dauer Synthetics. In future Hong Kong, it’s not about justice or government, it’s just about who pays the most. The rest of Zombie Squad are introduced over shakes and bacon at the local neon-emblazoned diner, The Atomic Heart; Herzog, a fluffy blonde womanizer with a scar and a misogynistic story for any occasion; world-weary, coffee-guzzling Doc; Cortez, a tattooed and deaf POC who signs his way through dialogue scenes, so make sure you read the subs; and finally Vivienne or ‘Gunsmith’, a highly intelligent, ex-celebrity chef and owner of twelve cats she keeps at the station.

They’re an eccentric bunch, like the writers took the old maxim of fleshing out your character’s quirks to mad new heights. But in a funny way, I appreciated it. These guys could be four nameless grunts in any average shooter series, ones that you’d forgotten again the moment you stopped playing. You rarely get this kind of character right off the bat. Praise comes with some caveats, because none of them really have any story arc of their own, nor do they fundamentally alter the course of the narrative really. They just make the ride that much more eclectic and memorable. Not depth, just personality.

Drenched in rain on a Hong Kong night, the first mission finds the squad called to a break-in at a huge bank headquarters. When it’s clear the perps are still on the premises, Hannah goes off script and demands the team storm the place. Cue one massive two-hour bloodbath of a mission, the details of which we’ll cover when we talk combat, and the end result is that the team has gone against a Dauer Synthetic directive and caused issues. An untraceable body and some strange scenes with Dauer’s lead enforcer, and it’s clear there’s something afoot involving synthetics, and the evil megacorp you work for.

The rest of the story deals with synthetics, the people who have access to them, and why they’re here, as they’re rarely seen not doing their off-world labours (much like in Blade Runner), human trafficking, and the lengths to which Dauer Synthetics will go to cover up the megacorp’s dealings.

Exposition-wise, what I’ve given you there is more than the game really explains – I’ve filled in the blanks myself. There’s more information in this recent trailer than there is in the actual game. There’s little to no explanation of Zombie Squad, their remit, or the limit on their powers. There’s little in the way of stakes except for the Captain talking about getting funding cut off. Instead, it tries to deliver the information in-mission, in confusing exchanges and quick, mishandled cutscenes. The ending of the first mission is a confusing rush of shots trying to do too much in too little time. It feels a little like there are missing cuts, things jump together too much and skip in time, even moment to moment.

This is the ongoing style, not just a one-off. Cutscenes are random conversations with your team over ramen, or at the diner or police station, all delivered in the most haphazard style. They’re often not related to the mission or plot, just character-building stuff. Sadly Hannah’s voice and delivery is wildly erratic and jarring throughout the game, full of strange intonation and putting the emphasis on the wrong word in almost any given sentence. She has a great accent and also sounds appropriately gruff, but it’s not a performance to hang a game off of.

The rest of the team is a little better but not by much. Herzog delivers these off-the-wall monologues, but at least his flow can be followed; Doc is dull and droll, but understandable, and Cortez is fine with his silent sign language. Stephanie Joosten, of Quiet fame, steals the show on voiceover work, delivering the most complex lines (her character will suddenly explain deep philosophical ideas or rote science) and with intonation that makes them clear enough to follow. However even as I say all that, there’s nothing here that I haven’t seen done in similar bizarre fashion in a Yakuza game.

You spend your downtime in between missions with the entirety of the HK police station to explore. Speak to colleagues, find documents, trigger cutscenes, and then it’s on to the next mission. The storytelling between missions in Wanted: Dead is very jarring. One moment I’m walking around and pick up a document, the next I’m in a flashback cutscene – I thought I’d inadvertently started the next mission. One moment you’re watching a cutscene, and the next there’s suddenly a narrator, a real Aussie one in fact, telling you the history of Tonkotsu noodle soup. Then you’re marvelling at the strange dialogue flow, and suddenly you’re in a minigame to see who can eat the most ramen. You step outside a room and without warning, you’re watching an anime cutscene.

In another instance, the team are having another of their nonsense conversations, where you can only barely tell what each is talking about, but for some reason Hannah gets annoyed enough to loudly curse them all out. Then it’s literally straight into a Singstar minigame, belting out 99 LuftBalloons in the original German. Next second we’re interrogating a synthetic.

The storytelling leaves a lot to be desired, bumbling its way from mission to mission passably and with a lot of nonsense as you go. If I’m being kind it’s a lovable B-movie style. A bit of fan-service, lines delivered in odd ways, drenched in neon cyberpunk style to take the edge off. Some of the (differently rendered) cinematic cutscenes are pretty good. It’s got a hell of a lot of personality, but it’s not delivered to you with much skill.

Now some will have seen the trailers and be rightly asking why I get so het up on narrative when they’re just skipping it anyway to get to the heart of Wanted: Dead – that insane combat.

Hannah Stone is a fearsome master of the katana, but also of rifles and pistols. She can bring any armament to bear and make the most of it. This allows Wanted: Dead to really show off its greatest asset – fast-paced, nicely complex combat. What seems to start as cover-based shooting is constrained by a lack of ammo for your long-range rifle. This forces you into sword combat. Armoured grunts can take a few hits, still shoot at you, and so can their mates. When a red glow appears on a weapon, you can press triangle mid-flow with your sword and whip out your pistol, shooting the offending guard and moving on. The handgun is a reaction combat tool – not an L2-and-aim gun. That’s reserved for the rifle. The handgun is used for John-Wick style CQC and keeping you in the fight. Mixing it up between katana and your pistol is the key to extending combos and keeping enemies on the backfoot.

Then there’s parrying. Very soon you start to encounter nimble sword-slashing ninja enemy types, which I’ll be honest messed me up a few times. You need to begin to master your parry (thankfully on L1 like most games have settled on) and follow-ups to knock back their attacks and lay in with a combo. It can be hard to start with, but with a few basic skills from the skill tree, and generally getting good, the whole thing starts to make glorious satisfying sense.

Then we have executions. Get close to the end of a guard’s health, sever a limb or land a particularly good combo, and you can follow up with a triangle and circle execution. Hannah seamlessly breaks out of moves, grabs and performs one of dozens of different contextual executions. Parrying and kills also build up your bullet-time power, and you can slow time to empty your pistol clip, and then finish each of your shot enemies in a rush of linked executions.

Watching Hannah slash limbs off, then get a finisher, squat, kneel on a neck and shoot a guard in the head never really gets old. The sheer number of executions, the complexity of contextual moves, and the absolute gore on show is jaw-dropping at times. When you have a few skills under your wing and can get really stuck in with your sword, it’s carnage out there. Shocking carnage. The gunshot head-exploding finisher is glorious. Kick in bullet-time, and deploy your clip dump – if any of the shot enemies is out of range of a quick finisher, Hannah will take perfect skull-exploding slow-mo shots at them.

The game has an old-school sensibility in combat. It’s difficult and it’s not afraid to make you go back and do it better. You often have to clear large areas of multiple rooms before facing a boss ninja or armoured mech guy who can oneshot you, just before you can reach a checkpoint. One slip-up and you have to slog back through fifty goons to challenge them again.

There are five huge, multi-levelled, maze-like levels each at least two hours long. Granted some of that is because you’ll end up having to redo sections. Overall it makes for a game around 12-15 hours in length, but probably double that in practice, because of the difficulty. One section at the end of the fourth level had me stuck retrying at least a dozen times. You’ve got lives, but only two of them, so you’ve got to master it to even finish the game on normal.

Combat is a visceral assault on the senses and a bonkers demand on the reflexes. Blood and limbs are flying everywhere, weapons and attacks coming at you from all sides. Hannah’s model often spends a good portion of each mission covered in blood from head to toe. You will exclaim at the shocking brutality of some of her executions, and then you’ll get stuck back in for some more. Wanted: Dead’s combat is so much fun, as to heavily outweigh much of what else is wrong with the game.

Musically, Wanted: Dead again displays the art of just doing things a little differently. Stephanie Joosten has recorded a number of covers and original songs for the game, many of which play during exploration in the station. There’s also a whole slew of tight, pulsing score pieces to get under your skin when your slicing and dicing. We need more video games with actual pop-song themes and a willingness to experiment.

While this is a release full of jankiness, slightly floaty cover sticking, and plenty of issues in presentation, it was actually really light on glitches. I only encountered a few; sometimes I couldn’t collect pick-ups, such as a much-needed stimpack, which was infuriating; A few times I couldn’t switch my weapon all of a sudden, even though I had been doing it up until a moment before.

There are some balance issues with the difficulty, especially towards the end, such as a lack of ammunition or stimpacks to actually get through some of the late sections. But clearly if you become good enough, that won’t stop you.

Wanted: Dead has enough ideas for about six lesser games, all struggling to be seen, gasping for air-time. There’s so much going on, it can feel like a scatter-gun approach to games design, ambition and ideas without a unifying vision. Everything has the feel of a first project with a budget and an everyone-gets-a-say attitude. It veers wildly between outright incredible combat to impenetrable segues, from awful acting one moment, to beautiful cinematics the next.

Things just could have been handled so much better. More exposition, more explanation and a slowed-down start to the story. Give us a bit of tension up front, introduce the world and some stakes – like a Viola Davis in Suicide Squad-type thing – there’s a chip in your head etc. Clearer transitions between events, why are we going here next? And a clearer briefing before each of the missions. I also think Dauer Synthetics is there, but it’s also not there. Like the police are owned by them, but I really could have done with more consequences and more from Madame Wong, their face in the police station – after her intro you don’t see her again for ages.

Wanted: Dead feels like an older game wrapped up in a new package, from an era when it was okay to experiment like this. The bonkers inter-mission cutscenes and exploring the station, chatting to your team, it’s all a little weird. But it’s also kind of what I hoped for. I was concerned the game would be a shooting/slicing gallery, funnelling you from mission to mission. But instead, it’s got tons of personality, off-the-wall humour, over-the-top delivery, and moment-to-moment nonsense, with a lot of heart, a love for its characters, and a real try-anything-and-see-if-it-sticks attitude.

Wanted: Dead also feels like a bit of a multimedia release, where the experience is enhanced by the other surrounding media – Gunsmith’s old Late Night Chow cooking videos, the anime music video for the diner waitress working three jobs. It feels quite a lot like the developers greenlit crazy idea after crazy idea, and the result is a pretty bonkers game, but one with so much personality it’s probably destined to be cult classic.

Wanted: Dead trips over itself trying to tell a coherent story, but its intense blood-spattered limb-slicing combat is satisfying, rewarding and demands mastery. It’s full of ambition and ideas, drenched in personality, but stumbling to deliver. Despite its quirks and failings, it’s got cult classic written all over it.

Wanted: Dead is out today on PlayStation 5 (review platform) and PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC via Steam.

Developers: Soleil
Publishers: 110 Industries

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.

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