In this age of borderless multi-national free enterprise, a franchise isn't considered a success unless a feature film, videogame, action figures and McDonald's Happy Meals all licensing the same "thing" are unleashed upon the world at exactly the same day, hour and minute. In this high stakes climate, financiers don't want to take any chances, so top Hollywood stars find themselves being "mo-capped" (motion-captured) for a licensed videogame in hopes of generating box-office like profits to increase the bottom line and make investors happy about the fourth quarter earnings.
Six years ago, it was ground breaking news when A-list actor Bruce Willis sat down for 15 minutes so developers could scan his face for the PlayStation title Apocalypse. Today top Hollywood talent is not only willing to lend their likeness; they are more invested by adding their voices, movements and creative talents. Recent games like Enter the Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, and James Bond: Everything or Nothing are symbolic of this trend. Rise to Honor, a Sony developed PlayStation 2 title, follows in the footsteps of those games and represents the best and worst of the trend sweeping the videogame industry.
At the center of Rise to Honor is world-renowned Wushu martial arts stylist and Hong Kong film idol Jet Li, in the ass kickin' out-for-revenge hero role he's played dozens of times before on the celluloid screen. While this may seem old hat on film, it comes off relatively fresh on the PlayStation 2 mostly due to Mr. Li's indelible star power and authenticity to the modern Hong Kong action genre that doesn't look like the usual Japanese anime parodied imitation. After all, many games have featured martial arts legends like Bruce Lee and some have even motioned captured the likes of Jackie Chan, but none at the level of detail and involvement of Rise to Honor. Not only does Jet Li's digital self unmistakably look and move life-like, but he even speaks in Chinese for the levels that take place in Hong Kong (subtitles thankfully included) and painfully practices English for the parts in the United States.
That sense of authenticity also extends well to the gameplay that breaks down to three parts: hand-to-hand fists of fury, operatic John Woo inspired gunplay and a sprinkle of stealth action. Included in the game is a bonus video that documents Jet Li's level of involvement with the game and the technological process that enabled developers to recreate his patented wire-strung flying "no-shadow" kicks with pinpoint accuracy. Even his long-time collaborator Corey Yuen is on hand to direct the kung-fu choreography.
All the talent involved coupled with an innovative control scheme that uses the right analog stick of the dual shock controller for smooth flowing multi-directional attacks, grappling moves and combinations is the best of what Rise to Honor offers. The fighting gameplay looks and feels great. The developers even get brownie points for being able to include man-woman paired dance-like attacks that are so often seen in Hong Kong action movies and now Hollywood ones as well.
The gunplay and stealth portions of the game are where things start cracking at the seams. The game mechanics are in line with similar gun-driven games like Max Payne and Dead to Rights; albeit shades weaker, but none the less serviceable. The problem is how the gun and stealth scenarios are unintelligibly grafted into the game. The player is exclusively punching, shooting or sneaking. The styles are never intertwined into a more involved and intricate experience. The disparity doesn't derail the flow of the game. It just doesn't feel seamless and make logical sense.
For example, if Jet has two pistols with unlimited ammunition, why would he willingly drop them for no apparent reason and resort to fisticuffs? Why go through all the trouble sneaking around five security guards if in the next stage he's beating the crap out of thirty of them in a free-for-all brawl in the same location? The developers ignore those obvious questions and conceptually, Rise to Honor suffers for never reconciling its different styles of gameplay and trying to make its world more convincing to the player.
The designers seem lost in attempts to diversify the gameplay and trying to create memorable scenarios. Rise to Honor never really goes beyond the linear "if it moves, kill it" school of repetitive gaming. What doesn't work about this is having the "good guy" kill an insane amount of goons is neither heroic nor honorable. The body count in the context of the story is ludicrous even by R-rated standards. It feels wrong and contrary to Jet Li's trademark heroic philanthropist persona.
There's also unevenness to the film inspirations and the demands of creating appropriate in-game challenges. The movie-like narrative opens with intriguing possibilities of weaving an emotionally complex gang-related crime drama of friendship, honor, loyalty and redemption. But there's no payoff in the final the execution. The writers seem to be on autopilot producing a weak script and conceiving awkwardly contrived transitions between story sequences and gameplay.
It's the developers who never rise to Jet Li's gifted physical abilities and the ambition of the source material. Instead of finding innovative means to explore new narratives, they are content to rely only on its effective control scheme and Jet Li's face to drive the core experience. Everything else falls back on tired videogame conventions and that makes Rise to Honor an acceptable game, but a deeply flawed next generation model.