(PlayStation 3 Review) Renegade Ops

Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Action
Players: 1-2 (Local) / 1-4 (Online)
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

In my younger days, there were two titles that I couldn’t have imagined being combined but have since realized just how perfectly they complement each other. Konami’s top-down arcade shooter Jackal featured little buggies piloted by soldiers who drove around blowing everything to smithereens in order to save imprisoned comrades—awesome. Tradewest’s Super Off Road was a unique arcade racer that used a tweaked isometric view and rudimentary physics model to convey the feeling of speed and drift that was like little else at the time—awesome. And now, Avalanche Studios, developers of Just Cause, have taken the two awesome worlds of Jackal and Super Off Road and combined them into a (wait for it) phenomenal (hah, got you) title that marries the fast, gung-ho action of Konami’s efforts and the sense of recklessness and exhilaration of Tradewest’s.

The connection goes a bit deeper than that, though. Renegade Ops also features a four-man squad battling and occasionally rescuing friends, in this case from a murderous madman named Inferno, and an upgrade system. While Jackal‘s four-party band was reduced to two jeeps onscreen, Renegade Ops takes things a bit further by allowing for simultaneous two-player local and four-player online multiplayer. The upgrade system is also more advanced, broken down as it is by three character-specific skill trees based around offense, defense, and tactical upgrades. Each soldier has two weapon slots, one for a basic machinegun, upgradeable through power-ups, and the other for an acquirable secondary weapon (rail gun, rockets, or flamethrower).

The skill-tree unlockables run the gamut from an extra life to additional rounds from secondary ammo crates to reducing special ability cooldown time. Only four perks can be equipped at a time, with two of the slots unusable until unlocked, so there’s a bit of loadout experimentation as you progress through the levels. The upgrade system utilizes a traditional experience-based leveling mechanic that is built upon a combo system that emphases speed: the faster you land hits, the higher the ‘damage streak’ score modifier climbs. If you take too long to damage an enemy, though, both the meter and modifier are reset. Even better is a thoughtful difficulty setup that allows beginners to play without worrying about their performance, while the incentive of unlocking upgrades on the skill tree will encourage them to move onto normal and further still for maximum points. The entire setup is a simple yet ingenious system that works perfectly with a game based around over-the-top combat and reckless driving.

The action is controlled via a twin-stick setup, with one analog stick handling movement and the other fire direction. Unlike most twin-stick shooters, Renegade Ops has varied terrain that will see the vehicles scooting around dirt roads, over bumps, and down hillsides in tropical environments, canyon valleys, and underground caverns. Ramps litter the levels, allowing for some boosted jumps that only add to the chaos. The engine also allows for the vehicles to go over, into, and through structures, which means running gun battles will have buggies and armored vehicles dashing around villages, sending debris flying as a missed turn results in a villager receiving a new buggy-sized hole in their home. This could be a commentary on the dangers of interventionist policies in less-fortunate lands, with the shanty villages that are supposed to be protected ending up somehow looking worse for wear afterwards … or it could just be a way for Avalanche to show off their gloriously destructive engine. It’s as if Rico called in reinforcements from some of his old, equally rambunctious mercenary friends and let them run wild.

Like most arcade-style action titles, Renegade Ops favors a short, intense experience over a drawn-out epic quest. As a result, it manages to entertain while not overstaying its welcome, with its nine missions capping out at around the five-hour mark on normal difficulty. Most of the missions feature secondary objectives, such as rescuing villagers and seizing ammo crates, which add a bit of pressure to score hounds because the smaller goals eat into the many timed primary objectives; if you’re taking too long to lower a bridge or make it to an escort zone, time will slow down and a three-minute countdown timer pops up. Several of the levels are also on fairly large maps, which, even with the aids of an area map and waypoint arrow, can be tricky to navigate due to the numerous winding paths. On the positive side, there are many open areas and long stretches of road that allow you to really open up and boost to your heart’s content. There are also a handful of areas that require platform-like precision to make it around obstacles in narrow confines, as well as speedy button-mashing segments, which is used to represent your character pummeling guards while their vehicle is parked inside of a structure. These really don’t add too much to the gameplay, since the vehicles are better at being whipped around corners than inched along and the button-mashing is just that—very basic. Even though they are pretty innocuous, I still would’ve preferred more helicopter segments to switch things up.

Even though each character has their own skill trees and special weapons, they aren’t so wildly varied that each offers an experience so unique that the game is worth soloing through four times. Fortunately, there’s multiplayer. Unfortunately, it’s kind of buggy. Local multiplayer can be played using one of two views: static or dynamic. Static is the traditional splitscreen mode where each player takes a side of the screen, though the halves here are slightly different as the dividing line runs at a slight angle down the middle. Dynamic is an interesting, if very disorienting, alternative where both players share one undivided screen until they move too far apart, at which time the dividing line then shifts to indicate by which direction the players are separated. In both cases, the smaller view makes the action a little hard to follow, given the constant mayhem of debris flying, explosions going off, men and cars shooting and moving about. It’s definitely suitable and adequate if there’s a connectivity issue, but the online mode is where the real action is.

Whenever connections are solid, online multiplayer provide some good old-fashioned arcade-style fun. Players will naturally team up as they come upon primary objectives and then split to handle secondary objectives or to clear a path. Any of the characters can be chosen, allowing numerous players to use one particular favorite, and a few short messages are bound to the directional pad for quick communication. Aside from longer loading times, I did experience a problem with the game freezing on me while transitioning from intro to level. This wasn’t common, but it was an annoyance.

The single-player portion isn’t immune to problems, either. The camera does a decent job of keeping up with the action, but there will be certain instances, primarily whenever you pass behind a taller object, when things can get hairy. There were moments when I was stuck but had no clue how; no matter what direction I tried to turn, I wouldn’t move. The game has an auto-respawn feature to handle such instances, but having to wait for the countdown is nerve-racking when you’re being pummeled by mortars and gunfire. There are also times when the countdown timer takes a while to load, which seems to be when the game isn’t sure if you’re truly stuck or just caught on an object. At one point, I managed to go over a ledge and wedge my jeep between two walls. There was no way for me to get back up, so I just had to wait patiently until the system recognized I wasn’t moving—after flailing about for a while, of course. Most of these are minor irritants, to be sure, and many due to the crazy physics engine; still, it’s hard not to scream a “Come on!” at the screen whenever you’re stuck somewhere behind a palm tree and being lit up by napalm.

But it’s hard to stay mad at Renegade Ops. Whether you’re trying to do donuts to douse the flames that are sapping your life, outflank a tank to one-shot its exposed rear core, or blow through a building to take out an entrenched sniper, there’s a lot of ridiculous fun to be had. Sure the core action system is repetitive, but the unlockable perks, four-player multiplayer, and multiple characters make for a high-octane concoction that serves up plenty of good times.

One part Super Off Road, two parts Jackal, and a splash of Just Cause 2, Renegade Ops is a glorious over-the-top twin-stick shooter with action to spare. A few technical issues mar the experience somewhat, but there’s still plenty to enjoy in both single and multiplayer. Multiple characters, numerous unlockable skills, four-player online co-op, and explosions upon explosions—$14.99 well spent.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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