The hardest games to review are the middle of the road titles. Talking about terrible games is just fun, and the biggest challenge when dealing with great games is finding twenty different words to replace 'great'. Then there are the titles that are just sort of there. Completely by-the-numbers productions that don't do anything particularly wrong, but don't stand out in any way either. If there's nothing to push against, nothing to think about, what is there to write about?
The lack of any substantial content is especially surprising, given Constantine's subject matter. It concerns John Constantine, a man with magical powers who uses holy guns to shoot demons, then makes an occasional ironic comment. A Max Payne style third-person shooter based loosely on the film of the same name, the game's premise is that a group of demons have decided to invade Earth, and it's up to the player to gather as many religious artifacts as possible to battle them. Despite being packed to the gills with religious iconography, the game doesn't actually have anything to say about religion. It's no more about Christianity than Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was about Zeus-worship—the religious content is simply mined for a few cool-sounding names and concepts.
Whether the subject matter is shallow or not, it certainly does provide the game with a visually stunning central location: Hell. Depicting Hell as a decrepit, apocalyptic version of Earth is nothing new, but the level designers have gone the extra mile to make Hell as chaotic and awful as it needs to look. This is actually a bit of a mixed bag. Hell is used in two ways in the game, firstly as a 'darkside' version of earth that the player must travel to in order to bypass obstacles in the real world, and secondly as a level of its own, where the player must travel long sections of city and highway in Hell to reach their objectives. The "dark version" levels were actually far less interesting than the dedicated Hell levels, almost as if the restriction of needing to make two identical maps with a different set of textures and colours kept the level designers from feeling like they could really cut loose.
The game also has a nice variety of weapons and spells for use in combat against the hordes of hell... in the early levels, anyway. It seems like the game introduces all of its enemies and most of its weapons a little too early in the proceedings, and towards the end all the game does is toss large hordes of these enemies at the player. The game is nice enough to give the player some very powerful weapons to deal with these situations, but the game's play balance feels a little bit off. Constantine has access to two separate spells that are capable of killing an entire room full of enemies, and since magical power is regained by sucking the energy out of fallen foes, every time there are more than three enemies on screen, John can just fry the lot of them, and then be ready to cast the spell again a few seconds later.
Another slightly odd feature is Constantine's "True Sight" ability, which switches the game from third person shooter to first person. Colours are distorted in this mode, and all enemies glow, allowing the player to pinpoint them in the dark. True Sight also reveals glowing sigils which are placed on the wall whenever a secret or important location is nearby. The secrets and bonuses are present whether True Sight is used or not, though, and since they're always in the exact places that experienced game players would expect them to be, True Sight acts as more of a training mode for novice players than anything else. It was clearly supposed to have a third, much more interesting use: revealing the true nature of demons. One of the more common types of demons in the game are 'Half Breeds', demons that look human until Holy Water is thrown on them. The player can also use to True Sight to see the Half Breeds' real visage, a feature that was obviously intended to allow the player to figure out who in a group of people was human, and who was a demon. Unfortunately, there is only a single opportunity in the game to do this, which leaves True Sight an only partially implemented feature, perhaps even the last remnant of a stage in the game's development where it was a little more investigative and a little less combat-intensive.
One place that the game really rises above average is in its CGI cutscenes. The game is absolutely packed with CG movies, in which the vast majority of the plot is conveyed. The cutscenes are better directed and acted than I was used to as well, which I can only assume is a function of their association with a feature film. Featuring many of the actual actors' likenesses and voices vastly increases the game's production value, but it's a little too bad the game was unable to secure Keanu Reeves to do the main character's voice. It's a little disconcerting seeing a well-modeled CG Keanu head while listening to a soundalike. The cutscenes are impressively restrained, as well, and have enough sense to let the story speak for itself and not try to accomplish anything too flashy. The best example of this is the death of a major character that occurs halfway through the game—while an inferior game might have tried to make it excessively gruesome, or perhaps have drawn it out with a ten minute dying speech, Constantine just kills the character off in a flash and them moves on, and it's far more unsettling as a result.
Constantine really doesn't stand out as a videogame. It doesn't try to accomplish very much, and it succeeds at almost all of its very modest targets. It's a little strange for me to write about, because I honestly can't tell if I'm recommending it or not. It's a smooth, well-constructed experience that started fading from my memory the moment I finished it. Contantine doesn't have any fantastic peaks, but it doesn't have any real valleys either. There's just nothing exceptional about it, and while that can't be considered a failure, per se, I can't help but think that no one ever sets out to make a game that's just sort of… there.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.