Terminator Salvation (Xbox 360)
I'm not the biggest Terminator fan. I saw the original one about a hundred times when I was a kid. Linda Hamilton was so hot, even with her pillow-like '80s hair. The second one, where the guy turns into mercury; I saw that about 50 times. But after that, I can't remember anything about the franchise.
I assumed that Terminator Salvation might qualify as a guilty pleasure, some mindless pap to while away the late-night hours when I'm finished with the serious-gaming portion of my evenings.
This is post-apocalyptic L.A. What? You can't tell the difference? (Sorry, Gus. Gus hates L.A. jokes.)
Imagine Gears of War but with less soul -- which I wasn't even sure was possible, since Gears had very little soul to begin with. Terminator Salvation looks and feels rushed. And thin. And soulless.
You assume the role of John Connor, a tough-talking, no-B.S. resistance fighter. The game is set in a totally decimated Los Angeles that, honestly, looks a whole lot like current-day Los Angeles. (Only the terrible Saddle Ranch on Sunset Boulevard, where Bethesda inexplicably holds its E3 party every year, has survived the apocalypse.)
The game's plot involves a still-wet-behind-the-ears John Connor going rogue to save some of his friends. As John Connor, your job is to battle "the machines" for about two minutes, endure a windy, nonsensical cut scene, and then battle more machines for another two minutes.
These two-minute battles typically consist of having your artificial-intelligence partner wander off to some remote part of the area to pick daisies or read the paper or whatever, leaving you to take care of everything on your own. Fighting the machines almost always requires two people. See, the machines, for the most part, are only vulnerable from the back. Targeting the backside of a machine is very difficult to do on your own, even for a buzz-cut-sporting, free-wheeling bad-ass like John Connor.
The game was designed to be a cooperative experience. Which means, like in Army of Two (sorry, James Fudge, for invoking the name of "The Beast"), one person ideally distracts the machines while the other fills their soft, vulnerable, cushy backsides full of lead. But your AI-controlled partner, apparently, never got the memo on how this works. So it's up to you to do this on your own.
Let me tell you, it's not easy or pleasant. My Jesus-esque, trigger-happy John Connor died a lot. The screen would go a pinkish hue for a few seconds, as I was treated to the sight of my John Connor corpse collapsing to the ground. And then I was booted out to the loading screen.
A few words about the loading screen, if I may. The loading screen is actually really cool. It's a close-up of the narrow eyes of a T-600. And the pupils in the eyes do this mechanical dilating thing. It's positively hypnotic to watch.
As far as loading screens go, I'd grade it above-average. But the load times in the game are supremely long, as they often are in games that are movie tie-ins and therefore suffer from shortened development cycles. The loading screen also pops up at the end of each two-minute battle area, and at the end of every cut scene. Instead of loading entire levels, as more sophisticated games do, Terminator Salvation only loads discrete areas. So, those now-loading screens? They are ubiquitous. I couldn't walk 20 yards in the virtual, bombed-out, debris-strewn L.A. without the game shifting into a now-loading screen.
Chopping up the game into little pieces like this destroys all dramatic momentum. When I'm looking at my watch, or wondering if "Everybody Loves Raymond" is on, it makes it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief and let the mirage of the game take over.
To make matters worse, the game is short. Even if you're totally farting around, you can finish it in one night. The sad thing is, around 40-percent of the time you'll be watching load screens.
To mix things up a bit, the game also features several vehicular sections. There's an on-rails section where you're in an old train and these evil rider-less motorcycles are after you, and you have to shoot them. "Don't let them pass the train!" the Christian Bale sound-alike says, sounding not even remotely like Christian Bale. There are also several dune-buggy sections where you have to defend an old-school bus -- yes, I said "an old-school bus" -- for reasons that, now that I think about it, are never fully explained.
The game apparently is set two years before the events of the movie. But since I haven't seen the movie, and since the game's plot is a tissue-thin excuse to keep you moving from fight to load screen (those robot eyes again!) to yet another fight, it really didn't matter to me whether the game was set before, during or after the movie. Maybe I need to see the movie to care about any of these people. Or, maybe if this were a better game, I wouldn't need to care about these people, and I could simply enjoy the game.
One final complaint: There is no online cooperative play. It's split-screen-only. And for a game that relies so heavily on working together with others, this is a sad, sorry omission.
Since my mother taught me to always find something nice to say, even when I didn't feel like saying anything nice, I'll say a few nice things about this game. The cover mechanic is its most innovative aspect. While in cover, a half-circle radial-type thing appears on-screen. Using the right thumbstick, you can shift from pie-wedge to pie-wedge in the half-circle. Each pie-wedge represents another point of cover for you. Once you've chosen your piece of pie-wedge, John Connor hustles to your cover point of choice. It's incredibly intuitive. (Note: Developer Grin also put a nifty cover feature in Wanted: Weapons of Fate. All hail Grin as the king of the innovative cover feature. Hooray!)
One more thing: The T-600s (the bipedal robots) are genuinely unsettling to see. When I first encountered one in the game -- it appeared in the distance, walking toward me with that relaxed, mechanical gait as it tried to kill me -- it gave me chills. Forget all the spiderlike robots and evil motorcycles and all the other bullshit; the T-600s are actually intimidating. They are the only thing in this entire operation that has any real honest-to-goodness gravity.
The developers didn't realize this. (Or, more likely, they didn't have the time to realize this.) Grin never capitalizes on the spooky nuance of the T-600s in any meaningful way. Instead, T-600s are littered randomly around each level. Each time I shot and destroyed one, whatever gravity it initially had, and whatever gravity the game might have had, was diminished -- until nothing remained except a hollow, empty place where the game should be.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.