Which one of us is the law?
I’ve always been interested in Judge Dredd. There are some really interesting ideas behind the character – maintaining order in a lawless world, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and he has that cool gun with multiple settings. That said I’ve never really read comics so this was only a very vague, unformed interest with no real expertise. When the Sylvester Stallone film came out I was very excited to finally learn more about this character, but unfortunately I was stuck in a foreign country at the time. I somehow managed to get my hands on one of those absolutely dreadful novelisations of the movie. I read it and whilst it was absolutely terrible it only helped to build my excitement for the film.
I don’t think we need to stress again what a piece of shit that film is, so let’s just say the book is better than the film.
(As an aside I looked up the book for reviews online. Turns out there are 7 reviews, 3 are clearly for the wrong book and the other 4 are glowing praise from people who also loved the film. Read into that what you will…)
So Judge Dredd has an army of loyal fans, and whilst I couldn’t call myself one of them the consensus is that this is a character that has been mistreated. The Stallone film will probably never be forgiven, although since then the character has had a bit of a redemption in the form of 2012’s really very excellent Dredd.
So I was hoping that Judge Dredd Vs Death would be a lesser known work that gets the character right. There are other things to be excited about: historically I was interested in games that required you to arrest people rather than kill them, I was curious how Judge Dredd would fight one of the horsemen of the apocalypse and most of all he has that natty gun with multiple settings…
I realise now my naivety.
Dredd Vs Death was developed by Rebellion studios, who are best known for their work on the Sniper Elite and Aliens Vs Predator franchises and are probably hoping you don’t remember Rogue Trooper or their enormous back catalogue of largely dreadful hand held movie tie in games. Considering how familiar the Rebellion logo looked on booting up Dredd I was surprised by how few notable games they have released. They did however produce the criminally underrated Largo Winch: Empire Under Threat. When I say criminally underrated, I mean criminally underframed; it was choppy as hell and a massive load of crap. It did have a nice (dreadful) turn based combat system though that provides unintentional laughs.
I like old games, but I don’t usually love them. If we’re honest this is an industry driven by technological advances and as such a lot of the time the newest generation of games improves upon the previous in such a way that looking back is difficult. It’s troubling, because games with fantastic stories or atmosphere are sometimes left behind by their mechanics.
So when you’re playing a game like Judge Dredd Vs Death it’s important to put aside any minor quibbles with the mechanics, or the odd ugly texture or polygon. As expected, bBooting up Judge Dredd Vs Death you are reminded of how far games have come. Basic grey textures, boxy locations, oddly shaped characters, hands made out of a single polygon…
Lets be honest, your jumpsuit probably didn’t need “XXXXL” on it
It’s all a testament to how far games like Half-Life pushed the envelope. You have to cut a lot of slack for games made in nineteen…
Hang on this was made in 2003??
This game was released five whole years after Half-Life??
In fact, if you were unlucky enough to be a die hard Judge Dredd fan and live in the USA it was released a full 7 years after Half-Life and a year after Half-Life 2. Good lord…
The levels, textures and character models are all far more reminiscent of some of the early polygonal PC shooters, such as Sin or Unreal. At least Quake had the good grace to have its colour palette restricted for technical reasons, I can only assume that “grey” was the artistic manifesto for Dredd Vs Death.
I found the controls incredibly hard to deal with – the jump seemed to be intermittent and I am still unclear whether the basic pistol is automatic or semi automatic, as it seemed to make up its own mind when it wanted to fire. (edit: I subsequently noticed a puff of steam which makes me think that it was overheating but I’m not sure and I still wouldn’t call it consistent)
There is also a lot of incredibly sticky geography in the game, none more so than the auditorium about 30 seconds into the game. During this intro and tutorial mission Judge Dredd growls “they called me back for this?!”, which is a rare piece of fourth wall breaking commentary where the player character shows insight into how terrible his own game is. Whilst I share his frustration you can’t help but have a certain amount of sympathy for the MegaCity Justice Department; more training is probably a good idea for a man who can barely drunkenly navigate a small staircase in an auditorium and then can’t jump over a two foot wall.
There’s also a weird bug which means running straight up to a character often results in them standing on top of Dredd’s head, allowing a perfect up skirt view.
He may be the law, but no means no.
The first mission proper sends Dredd out to break up a protest and arrest some graffiti artists. This is the first proper time the arrest mechanic is put into use. Sadly it’s as simple as pressing F when a “perp” assumes “the position” (no – not the upskirt position). There is some nice on screen text that pops up to give the crime and sentence, including some amusingly spurious crimes such as “lack of hamster permit”, and I like how graffiti is broken down into subsections.
“You’ll spend longer in prison than that hamster spent alive, perp.”
There are a few NPCs that I assume are innocent bystanders, but they can all be arrested, often for the pettiest of crimes. The game didn’t seem to mind me doing this which I was pleased about but it does have a small morality meter for wantonly shooting innocent people. If you act like enough of a dick then you fail the mission and a load of judges are sent after you. I love this kind of game design – allow the player to be a complete prick and try to break the game, then punish them in an amusing way for it.
I quite enjoyed these early arrests, but they felt completely unnecessary in the context of the game; you can just run past any ‘perps’ patiently waiting to be arrested and they will sit and wait endlessly for your return. The arrests don’t seem to have any purpose beyond an end of mission score board and boosting the morality meter in case you’ve been accidentally slaughtering civilians.
That said at this early stage the game is not without its own charm. There are some nice sky boxes, there is a nice sense of scale to these initial environments, some of the artwork for the advertisements on the walls is charming… There is also a feeling of this hinting at being a living city, which is a phenomenon specific to old games. I think it comes from the promise of what games would one day offer rather than the actual level of realism of something like Grand Theft Auto 5. That having been said considering this came out in the same year as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic I’m sure I’m being kinder on it than reviewers at the time.
“DRINK IT… …IT’S ALL YOU’RE GONNA GET!” (then why advertise?)
There is also a nice streak of dark humour, such as the fat people with a wheel to support their stomachs. The dialogue is consistently hilarious in its delivery, but I’m really not sure whether this was intentional or not.
Sadly this first level is the highpoint, and after this everything gets considerably more mundane and monotonous, not least in the colour palette, which seems almost entirely grey except for garish early OpenGL light sources and some really ham fisted product placement…
“I thought all I was going to get was Synthi Caf (sp??)”
Kudos for having a Dawn of the Dead inspired level in a mall, but the satire is so heavy handed it makes you think the developers also had single polygonal blocks for hands. Levels somehow manage to be simultaneously disorientating and largely linear affairs that involve moving from point A to point B, either killing or arresting everything on route. The game initially presents you with two types of perp – one that sidesteps and one that is more of a slower tank. Far too soon the game introduces vampires (who charge at you), zombies (who charge at you) and genetically engineered mutants (who charge at you).
Except for this awesome villain, who does still life poses for his own direction signs and also presumably has over a hundred different laboratories.
The other feature that the game has is variable ammo types (aka Judge Dredd’s natty gun – yes!). This is shown to you in the tutorial and then promptly forgotten. The standard gun has multiple ammo types such as standard, heat seeking, explosive and armour piercing. This kind of mechanic can work incredibly well (Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath built a game around it – a far better game than this that also featured a far better arrest mechanic) but here there simply isn’t enough in the way of pros and cons to each ammo type to make changing meaningful. In addition the animations to change between ammo types are so long winded that changing mid gun fight is always a bad idea, especially considering the gun seemed to periodically be in standby mode.
In fairness some of the technical issues I experienced like the pistol fire and jumping could be due to the GOG port (I’m being generous I’m sure) but certainly not all of them. I also note that this was initially released for Gamecube and I wonder whether that was also responsible for holding back the game (sorry Gamecube fans).
Finally the game was originally released as a budget title. I think it’s a real shame that the budget game market has died in recent years, killed by a combination of more discerning buyers, the proliferation of internet reviews and the rise of the indie scene. I feel I should give it credit though for being at least partially aware of its limitations and asking less money as a result.
However this is a deeply flawed game at the end of the day that has not aged well. I suppose the kindest thing that I can say about Judge Dredd Vs Death is that it has charm, it has respect for the character, and I can absolutely imagine how somebody who was the correct age when it first came out would have loved it.
If you’re a fan of first person shooters: no. If you’re a fan of Judge Dredd: no. If you have very fond memories of it from days gone by: probably no. If it’s dirt cheap and you’re curious: yeah, maybe (but probably no).
Rank at time of review:
2 – Worst game ever made. Or second best.