The Expendables is all about elite mercenaries, intense action sequences and a lot of meat-headedness. Seems like it could be the perfect fit for a trigger-happy group of friends to virtually tear through an onslaught of enemies, no? The shooting would be rampant and fun. The characters would be amiable, muscular soldier types with a penchant for appropriately cheesy dialogue. Right?
Well, that's the intention anyway. The execution, however, is another story entirely.
The Expendables 2 seems to incorporate all the right things. There are four characters—Barney Ross, Gunner Jensen, Hale Caesar and Yin Yang—to choose from, mirroring the film, each with unique, upgradeable skills. Whether you're a sniper, knifer, or straight shotgun blaster, there's a skillset for you.
The sniper is absolutely useless. It takes way too long to aim for what is too frequently an imprecise shot. The goal here is to be killing enemies as rapidly as possible, not to have your teammates rack up kills while you're down on one knee still lining up the shot. Throwing knives were surprisingly awesome, considering that they're a one-hit kill within close range.
But I picked my favorite weapon combination—a shotgun in one hand and a grenade launcher in the other—and embarked on a public game to go serve some baddies their well-deserved bullets. I wasn't expecting the storyline to pull me in. I guessed the characters' interactions would be chuckle-worthy at best. But I was expecting the shooting to be fun. Ubisoft has been boasting how "over the top" the game would be, just like the movies. Instead of the third-person, top down shooter I was expecting, The Expendables 2 felt more like a less chaotic twin stick shooter.
In The Expendables 2, you move your character with the left joystick and aim with your right joystick. There's no directional guide to where you're shooting. Your only indication is a trial and error whereby you wait to see if your enemies are leaping back dramatically to their deaths when you pull the trigger. You can switch between weapons, pick up heavier fire dropped by enemies on the battlefield, and collect boosters to deal extra damage. Or you can punch a dude in the face, and even finish him off with your character's special, cinematically-emphasized finishing move.
Sometimes the twin stick experience will zoom out for targeting practice on helicopters, ships and trains, while you're seated higher up in a chopper or driving fast in a car. Think the arcade experience of Time Crisis, but without the charm of being in an actual arcade. This is all theoretically fun. You have an assortment of weapons and landscapes. Granted, they're all fairly tightly wound and rarely diverge from the "move right, move forward" directive. But all the basic components for a great, chaotic group shooter seem to be present. So what went wrong?
The problem is, all the spray and pray is just not that fun. While walking through the bland browns and greens and blacks, everything eventually becomes habitual. Ok, there's a moving object. Lemme swing my thumb in that direction, trigger finger still pulling in tightly. Stop to let the gun reload when it decides it's time. Rinse and repeat. The biggest excitement was finding a sequence that led you and your teammates crawling up rooftops and jumping between train cars. "Oh wow, something different!" doesn't really add credit in the grand scheme of the game, though.
The most fun I had was in alternating weapons quickly between reloads, and throwing down frag grenades while running energetically back and forth. This tactic often got me killed, but I managed to push the limits of how many enemies I could take down at once. I basically invented mini challenges for myself, which are kind of replicated in the game's challenge mode (read: timed mode).
Even ignoring the clueless attempt at light-hearted, meatheaded dialogue, it's hard to enjoy the boring pathways set aside for you. You aim at what feels like nothing. It's easy to lose track of what you're doing when your thumbs lean into a habitual push forward. At a point of time I was literally multitasking, consoling a heartbroken friend on the phone while spraying aimlessly into the wild, knowing my bullets would hit a stray soldier or a tank or something. I never felt challenged.
There's just not much to enjoy when you're being led on a monotonous trail to rescue the same elusive hostage. Trite storyline aside, all I know is that it's my mission to kill things that move on screen, and to do so at a more rapid pace than my teammates so that I can gloat by the end of each chapter level. Plus, building up those experience points ensures a heavier clip, better movement and/or increased health depending on how you want to level your characters up.
The Expendables 2 is not a broken game. It doesn't commit any gaming faux pas. You won't yell in anger at a dumb feature. You may fumble with the awkward cover function a bit, and find a few other messes laying about like an annoyingly unpredictable camera focus, but it's nothing your trained hands haven't encountered before. But while The Expendables 2 doesn't provoke me with faulty game design, it also doesn't invoke any excitement in me. After a while I was merely going through the game's paces, pushing forward because I had to and not because I wanted to. At that point, I'd take a crumbling, yet good game over this workable, bland one.
Even with all the ingredients for a complete third-person team shooter recipe, The Expendables 2 is a flat, blah experience. There's nothing that speaks to that over the top excitement you should expect out of a title based on the explosive adventures of a team of 80s icon mercenaries. It's all the same, repetitive motions of shooting aimlessly at everything on the screen.