I want to take you on a journey back in time to the era of the OG Xbox and PS2… Back in those halcyon days when memory and processor speeds were the limiting factor for game developers, we were treated to a glut of third person action titles where the core focus was on looking cool and fighting lots of bad guys, rather than storytelling or eliciting an emotional response. As hard drive space and raw computing power increased we saw the shift away from these compact shooter/brawlers as open worlds became the main playground, and FPS games dominated the online space. Sure, we’ve had many third person games over the years, but not really the tightly defined experiences that used to release nearly every week. Now Wanted: Dead has arrived and it’s looking to carve out a place for itself in this market gap with its shiny blades and John Wick-esque combat. Does it have enough substance to back up its flashy conceit though?
Developed by Soleil and published by 110 Industries, Wanted: Dead is a homage to the action games that graced all platforms around 20 years ago, and it keeps its influences front and centre. Taking the role of Lt. Hannah Stone in the elite Zombie Unit of the Hong Kong police force, you and the squad are caught up in a corporate conspiracy that’s threatening the existence of the team both figuratively and literally. It’s your job to investigate the corruption and misinformation using your signature methods – chopping every MoFo into little pieces! Yes, there’s a story here about androids, augmentation, humanity and past decisions impacting future consequences, but it’s so disjointedly told that even after the credits have rolled I’ve no clue what was really going on. That’s not important though because this is all about dashing through levels and causing chaos with a blade and a gun, at the same time as trying not to die.
The game is structured into 6 levels, each a classic setup of section, checkpoint, section, checkpoint, and every one culminating in at least one boss battle. It’s never more complicated than running forward and battering the AI enemies until they’re a bloody pulp of a twitching torso, and there’s always more them for you to shake your pointy stick at. I think even your team starts to comment on that in the later stages of Wanted: Dead when you’ve sliced and diced 1,000’s of the blighters. Combat is what it’s all about, and it’s a blend of shooting and melee that needs to be switched up on the fly to take out the different enemy types, as well as stopping yourself from mashing the same combo over and over. One button slashes, another pulls the trigger, and a third blocks… it’s up to you then to combine them and work out what does the most damage in the shortest space of time.
Combos build up Hannah’s adrenaline meter which brings access to a couple of abilities, and that only comes from using the sword attacks, so hanging back and playing it as a standard cover shooter won’t get you all that far. Some of the enemies won’t like that either and will soon have you fighting blade to blade. That’s not to say that the shooting doesn’t have a place – Lt. Stone snaps to walls and barriers easily and pops out when aiming to take a couple of shots, and there’s the option of changing fire rates as well as nabbing enemy guns to supplement your own arsenal. The shooting side is done with the secondary weapons only as the handgun she’s rocking is much more suited to the “gun-fu” side of the combat, and once that clicks along with its place in the rock, paper, scissors attack patterns, Wanted: Dead starts allowing you to revel in how bad ass you can be.
Fighting with the sword is clearly where all the production energy has been channelled, and even if it’s not quite as deep as you might like, it certainly gives you enough to play with. When you switch into melee it becomes about reading the moves of your opponent and figuring out what’s going to work best. Some will crumble under the weight of an unbroken onslaught, others will shrug that off and just wait for an opening. The particularly vicious will maximise that exploitation and swipe half (or more) of your health in a single hit, so knowing when to block, dodge and counter has to come with practice. In an interesting move Hannah doesn’t always lose all her health and you can gain a portion of it back if you complete a finishing strike on the enemy that caused the damage, and this can help prolong her life in some dire situations.
Finishing moves are easily the highlight and never get boring, especially with over 50 unique ones to be seen. These moves are pulled off with a simple press of two buttons whenever you’ve managed to stagger an enemy. They look stunned, start to flash, and you fly in with some ludicrous wrestling moves that end with either a bullet to the head; pushing them against a wall and impaling them; exploding their noggins from a distance; or simply decapitating them. It’s here that the game earns it comparisons to Keanu’s latest action franchise, and they work really, really well. And yes, body parts fly at all times in Wanted: Dead, and that’s even an aid to triggering a finisher as you buy additional skills along the way. Impressively, you and team get drenched in claret as the fighting gets more brutal, and it’s not uncommon to see Hannah head to foot in red after a particularly busy section.
Breaking up the intense action – it is properly hardcore, don’t go into it thinking it’s an easy ride – are sections in the Hong Kong police station that see you exploring to gain background details, or just relaxing with the rest of the squad. In a touch reminiscent of Suda51’s bizarre interludes, there are karaoke sections, side scrolling arcade shooters, a crane grabber toy cabinet, and even ramen eating competitions. Some of these are good fun and make a nice change from the constant pressure of the action, though the rhythm action sections are admittedly dire because the timing is all over the shop. Add in the fact that the game presents itself in a blend of standard pre-rendered cutscenes, real life video, in-engine events and even dropping to full Manga style sections; and you can see that the mix of styles certainly makes it unique. The hand drawn cutscenes are fantastic to watch, and there’s some wonderful editing to make use of them at unexpected times.
Where Wanted: Dead does some really interesting things with the combat and presentation, it does have an early 2000’s vibe throughout, and it can feel sparse and a bit lifeless in the environments. The heavily accented lead characters don’t help sell their parts with enthusiasm either, sadly, though the support cast are decent enough. What most will struggle with though is the difficulty and how punishing it is. Fortunately it does recognise if you’re having a tough time and downgrades the challenge – not massively – and that helps for the most part. I’ve said it feels like a homage to previous generations games, and it does, yet at the same time it also comes across as different and unique, and that’s quite a feat to pull off. Anyone looking for a bit of mindless fun over a weekend will have a blast with this, and are likely to be left wanting a bit more life from it at the end.
A PS5 review copy of Wanted: Dead was provided by Soleil’s PR team, and the game is available now on PlayStation, Xbox and PC for around £50.
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