The first glimpse I got of Dead to Rights: Retribution was of Jack Slate stuffing the business end of a shotgun in some downed bald guy's mouth and pulling the trigger even as the guy held up his hands in a pleading gesture. Blood splattered the ground beneath what was left of his head and made little splatters on the "camera lens" that is the player's 3rd person view. It caused the tiny cluster of games journalists to collectively murmur, "Oooohh…"
I ditched my plate of canapés before nausea could set in. It was going to be one of those demos…
The hands-off demo began with Chapter 1 – Temple Tower, an introductory mission where Jack Slate has yet to pair off with his K-9 companion, Shadow. There's a hostage situation in a massive high-tech sky-scraper built on top of an 18th century tower. Jack starts outside where the rain adds a gritty, dystopian feel to the streets of Grant City – an obvious film noir homage. Inside the pristine lobby of Temple Tower, Jack meets a security guard who catches him up on what's going on and calls an elevator for Jack to use to get to the hostage-takers.
Then the slaughter starts. Jack exits the elevator to two generic-looking terrorist types – one bald, one beefy – trying to rush him. Having no gun at this point, Jack settles for boxing the baddies with a mix of fast attacks and strong attacks; like three quick jabs and a rough uppercut that adds a small splash of blood to the screen. Other attack possibilities include brutal takedowns like where you stomp someone's knee and then throw him down a flight of stairs, disarms that don't automatically shoot the NPC from whom you gank the weapon and a new system called "clinching" where you can grab a guy and just start pummeling him.
While doing the lattermost move to the bald guy, the beefy guy rushed Jack and the demo master explained that developer Volatile Games never wanted you to feel safe during combat situations. Every takedown, every clinch move and every time you slow down a bit to center a headshot, you're taking a risk that nearby enemies won't completely mob you.
That's why I think you're going to want to mix up hand-to-hand with armed combat. In theory, the two types of fighting will be seamlessly integrated – but this is hard to judge without a proper hands-on. It certainly looked pretty smooth when Jack flung the bald guy over a railing and then disarmed the beefy guy and shot him in the gut with his own gun. To finish him off, Jack did what's apparently a "transitional" move: pistol-whipping.
Gun in hand, Jack went up another floor via the stairs to where several hostages were actively trying to flee while terrorists came from a room behind them to rush Jack. Pistol-whipping the first guy (who could have been the bald guy's twin), Jack spun him around to use as a human shield ran across the room. This is quite possibly the fastest human shield mechanic I've seen in a game – but nothing's a good substitute for good cover.
After entering the room beyond the first hostage-laden lobby (somewhere near the 15th floor, according to the demo master), Jack dispatched his human shield and ducked into cover behind one of those square corporate-looking planters. He shot one guy with a shotgun, but couldn't pick it up because Jack doesn't drop guns until they're empty. Targeting another bald bad guy taking cover behind more corporate furniture, Jack scored a headshot, ran out of bullets and tossed the gun and then was able to pick up the shotgun. Three more terrorist guys rushed him from a different room – Jack shot one, punched another and then did that gun-in-the-mouth move that first popped my Death to Rights cherry.
I noticed then whenever something particularly gruesome or bad-ass happened during combat, the game went into slow motion. Apparently, the game decides to do that for certain moves if you did them especially well and it's the only time during combat when bad guys can't interrupt your flow.
UPDATE: So both Alicia and I are right — the game does decide for itself when to slow down one of your badass action moves during a kill AND that meter fills up over time and can be activated by the player to slow down time so you can do more combos or take better aim with a gun.
ETA: PR Manager Alicia Kim emailed me the following clarification on how the awesome move/slowdown system really works — "The slowdown in action you mentioned isn't actually dictated by the game. It's a meter that fills up on the lower left screen as you battle enemies. In the game, you trigger it yourself and have limited use of the meter at a time, where it slow downs the action to help you get more time to perform complex moves or glory shots."
About halfway through the mission, the demo master decided to switch gears and show us a Shadow level. Shadow and Jack will be together for most of the game and levels will switch between which character you control depending on the chapter. When playing as Jack, Shadow is alleged to be pretty self-sufficient and even fetches guns for Jack to use (take that, Fable II Dog!), so you won't have to babysit him. However the lone Shadow mission we were shown is all about Shadow babysitting Jack.
At this point in the story – Chapter 7 – some serious shit has happened to Jack. His shoulder looks dislocated, he's bleeding from a head wound and he's dazedly ambling down a shady-looking waterfront toward a bar. As Shadow, players run ahead of Jack to clear the path of bad guys who would otherwise shank, shoot or detain him.
I'm not familiar with how Shadow played in the original Dead to Rights, but Shadow-vision in Retribution looks almost like what you'd expect a dog to see: a colorless view of the world from the perspective of about crotch-height. The only glaring inconsistency is that Shadow sees Jack as a sort of fuzzy blue and enemies to Jack as red. He can also see people through objects, which comes in handy when trying to stealth kill people.
Your combat options with Shadow look a little more limited than Jack's hand-to-gun-to-hand style. As Shadow progressed through the waterfront level, he would either pad around behind cover softly, creeping up behind unsuspecting bad guys and lunging for the jugular – or he would go barreling down narrow alleyways at high speed to tackle a bad guy with enough force to bash his head open when he hit the ground (but he'd still maul ‘em anyway, for good measure). The "stealth" part comes in whenever Shadow locks his jaws over the face of a takedown victim to stifle their screams while he gnaws them to death.
Shadow can also protect Jack from harm by drawing bad guys away from him with well-timed barks. The one instance we saw of this was Shadow circling behind a box, barking twice to draw a red-colored baddie away from the blue-colored Jack. When he came within range, Shadow did the mouth-covering stealth kill and then took off down another alleyway for what I call a "bowling kill" on two other terrorist guys.
The waterfront level was less finished than the Temple Tower mission – cover items were in awkward places and the camera would periodically wig out whenever Shadow was standing too close to a corner – so we spent less with Shadow than we did with Jack. Certainly not enough time for any Okami/Twilight Princess comparisons.
The demo concluded with the demo master answering a couple of questions. From these, we found out a few tidbits not touched on by the sight of the game itself:
1) No mention of multiplayer, but singleplayer should take an average player about 10 hours to complete with three difficulty levels and unlockable content for replay value. You can change difficulties during a level, just in case you get to a particularly nasty spot or want to speed along the Shadow levels to get to the Jack levels (and vice versa).
2) The developer spent 18 months on the story alone and there's only one ending.
3) Throughout the game, Jack and Shadow will encounter different gangs which require different combat strategies to defeat.
4) The game's engine was built from the ground up, which might explain why Jack runs kind of funny.
But even without those snippets of information, it's safe to say Dead to Rights: Retribution left quite an impression – the kind that comes in blood splatters all over a level in the game or puddles of vomit all over your carpet. Look for it in late 2009 and look for the screens below.