"At first, such encounters are thrilling because you don't know what's going on and it's easy to die. Any battle is epic. Then you learn how to utilize cover and you discover that you can basically just draw fire from behind a barrier while your allies shoot everyone from behind. That strategy works most of the time and when it doesn't, that only means that the roles have reversed. You're never required to do anything more mentally challenging than sneak and shoot."
First, I suppose that I should make a confession: I have never seen a "Terminator" movie. Throughout my entire life, I'd imagine that I've viewed a total of 30 seconds' worth of non-trailer footage. Like many, I also never watched the recent series on Fox television. Though for years I've said "I'll be back" in my irritating attempt at an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent, it's been with the lack of personal knowledge that you might expect from someone comparing breasts to bags of sand. Until just recently, I was a 30-year-old "Terminator" virgin.
That changed when I played through Terminator Salvation. Now I know more about the world of John Connor, the devastating T-600 machines, mankind's fight to survive in a near-future world that has spiraled out of control... that sort of thing. I get what I've been missing and now I'm kicking myself for playing the game first. Unless I succumb to Alzheimer's, the memories of my first moments experiencing "Terminator" will forever be tarnished by the recollection of the video game's nasty glitches.
Consider an early stage where you must work your way through a series of set pieces featuring spider-like machines and metallic wasps. That could describe just about any level in the game after the first, really, but this one is special because partway through, one of your allies trots on ahead to see if the area is clear. It's not. A machine bursts out of the wall to the left, caps the soldier with a quick head shot, then turns toward you with mischief in its gleaming red eyes. At least, that's what it does if you chose to stay behind while using a car for cover. If you instead sought out other shelter--a perfectly natural thing to do, given the stage layout--the spider may remain in a recess where you can't hit it, forcing you to move closer and blast it with grenades or possibly to run around to the overhead awning and hope that eventually your target moves out into the open. Odds are good that it won't.
Assuming that you manage to destroy that particular spider, you can then expect two more of its fellows to saunter into view. Hopefully. Sometimes, one will try to do that but will spawn inside a freaking wall. Then you can't kill it because the inexplicably indestructible plaster shelters it from your grenades and machine gun fire. If you're lucky, you can walk up close and let it shoot you until you die--which will happen eventually, thanks to the fact that your energy doesn't refill except at one of the checkpoints sprinkled liberally throughout each stage--or you can reset the system and try the stage again. How delightful!
To the game's credit, a lot of areas don't suffer from that specific glitch. Though I had to reattempt that particular stage several times, most of the rest of the game was free from such unintentional hazards. This left me free to come to understand the main system, which is "duck and cover" at its, well... not its finest. "Functional" is the word I'm looking for.
As I hinted a moment ago, stages are difficult to distinguish from one another. That's because they all unfold in much the same fashion: talk, shoot, talk, shoot, repeat as necessary. You start out walking down one corridor or another--there are a lot of those, whether they look like actual hallways or underground tunnels or just pathways leading between bombed out buildings--and your current comrades will start chatting. Maybe they miss a hot shower. Or they think that you're too depressed. Or that you're on a suicide mission. This discussion actually does establish a mood and highlights perfectly the dreary environments. As a gamer, I was able to form connections with my team members and hope for things to improve. Then machines would attack.
At first, such encounters are thrilling because you don't know what's going on and it's easy to die. Any battle is epic. Then you learn how to utilize cover and you discover that you can basically just draw fire from behind a barrier while your allies shoot everyone from behind. That strategy works most of the time and when it doesn't, that only means that the roles have reversed. You're never required to do anything more mentally challenging than sneak and shoot.
The repetitive nature of combat perhaps wouldn't be so bad if there were some environmental variety. Good third-person shooters realize this and provide you with all sorts of eye candy. Terminator Salvation isn't genuinely the sort of project where "good third-person shooter" frequently rings true, though, so what gamers get instead are a few redundant environments that are technically proficient but rather dull. For every moment where there's a fine effect like a rusted tricycle that signifies a slain child (those robot bastards!) or ash-black papers floating in a chill afternoon breeze (uncultured heathen machines!), there are five or ten corridors so redundant that one of the in-game characters even comments at one point that everything starts to look the same. In better titles that sort of thing would be cute, but here it's just a painful reminder that you're playing an unfinished game.
Those on-rails sections that I mentioned serve as another reminder, mostly because they suffer from many of the same issues as the rest of the game. Colors are washed out--or in one case, monochrome--and it can be difficult to see any of your targets. You just have to move the cursor around and hope for red highlights, at which point you can blast and pray that your sensitive gun doesn't overheat and leave you defenseless. Restraint allows you to avoid that particular circumstance, but I don't want to restrain myself from blasting robots. I want to nuke 'em and then shoot their scrap-metal corpses a few more times just because I can! The developers were too busy making it clear that you're a weakling battling against overwhelming odds to provide much gameplay of that sort, though. As if to punctuate the point, there's even a particularly bad moment where you have to escort a school bus through a gauntlet of machines... because you knew there had to be an escort mission.
With bland environments, repetitive level design, a total of maybe five enemy types, a short campaign that shouldn't last you more than five or six hours and game-crashing bugs, one thing is perfectly clear: Terminator Salvation shouldn't serve as anyone's introduction to something as awesome as "Terminator." If you can look past that laundry list of flaws and just want an interactive version of the story you love, it'll make a perfect rental, but as a purchase it falls too short to warrant a recommendation. Its developer can and has produced better titles, so take my advice and play one of those instead. That or just watch a "Terminator" movie. I hear that they're great.
Staff review by Jason Venter (June 03, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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