As a game, The Expendables 2 is a throwback to action titles of the 8- and 16-bit eras, where all you needed was a threadbare plot and lots of targets. It's fitting, really, since the film is essentially an homage to the bullet-ridden action movies of yesteryear. Like the movie, the game could have been a great nostalgic trip for those who yearn for simple action and nothing else. Unfortunately, a number of decisions make it another subpar licensed title.
There is a story, but just like the older action titles it tries to emulate, there's no reason to pay attention to it. The only references to a plot are in the cut scenes, and even those are presented as vignettes without any real purpose. It's a prequel to the events of the movie, and you follow four of the group's mercenaries in search of a Chinese diplomat and the $1 million reward. Along the way, you'll fire tons of bullets, create numerous explosions, and increase the body count to near-ridiculous levels as you try to rescue the diplomat.
The gameplay is pretty straightforward and is presented from an isometric viewpoint. You and three other mercenaries traverse each battlefield, blowing up everything in your way. Each mercenary has different weapons, from Hale Caesar's automatic shotgun and Yin Yang's throwing knives to Gunner's sniper rifle and Barney's pistols. Each also has secondary firearms, and all weapons have unlimited ammo, though they still have to reload due to limited clip size.
Should you get tired of the standard weaponry, you can pick up other weapons from the battlefield, though those are limited in ammo, and running out immediately brings you back to your default weaponry. You can also perform melee attacks against enemies. Kills and star pick-ups build up your meter, which grants you the ability to use explosive weaponry like C4 and grenades; a fully powered meter lets you perform a close-up kill against a foe.
Most of the game's 20 levels last a good amount of time, so you'll spend an average of 10 minutes per stage. While a good number of those battles is on foot, you get a few on-rails levels where you'll take control of a helicopter-mounted rocket launcher and machine gun. Drop-in/drop-out co-op is available for up to four players either offline or online, but if you happen to be playing solo, you can switch control of characters on the fly if you want to use their special guns or abilities. At the end of each level, the amount of destruction you cause, along with other factors, is tallied into experience points, which can be used to upgrade elements such as your health and ammo capacity for your default weapons.
For such a simple game, it's amazing how much goes wrong with the gameplay. The first issue is with the heroes' weapons. Considering the number of people you encounter, having a special ability that kills one person with style seems rather wasteful. After seeing it a few times, you'll likely stick with explosives as a means of draining your special meter. Despite dealing with hordes of enemies at a time, none of the heroes has anything resembling a rapid-fire weapon. Yin Yang's knives go too slowly, Gunner's rifle is good for one target at a time, and Caesar's shotgun is only effective at close range. Barney is the only person who has some rapid-fire capabilities, and that's only because he can fire the dual pistols fast enough, making him the preferred choice in a solo game — and everyone else handicapped in a multiplayer game.
Even with this advantage, reloading puts constant pauses in the bullet stream while enemies don't seem to need to reload and always have a machine gun at their side. Enemies react unrealistically to gunfire. It takes almost a full clip to take down one enemy and more if it's an enemy with a red hat. Once they die, they are blown back as if hit by an explosion, making you wonder how they could withstand so many bullets but suddenly feel one that is much stronger than the rest.
AI is another issue, and it affects both heroes and enemies. Enemy AI is rather dumb, as they love to absorb bullets and don't run away when a grenade is thrown at them. There are very few exceptions to this, such as enemies that already appear near a cover spot, but most of them act as stand-ins for targets at a shooting range. Your companions don't fare any better, however, as they also have a fondness for standing out in the open and letting you handle all of the shooting while they occasionally throw in a few bullets. They can usually be considered scenery; the only time they are responsive is when a fellow soldier is down, as they'll immediately drop what they're doing and help resuscitate him.
Then there's the issue of the rating. The game is rated "M" for Mature, the equivalent of the movie's "R" rating, but there doesn't seem to be a need for it since there is hardly any cursing, and the bloodshed is minimal. The lack of blood during the close-up kills makes you wonder if the rating was an accident or if the movie inadvertently influenced the game rating.
Aiming is also a big problem. With the camera pulled back so far and with bullets matching the environment, an aiming system is necessary to ensure that the player is pointing in the right direction instead of pointing blindly and hoping for the best. However, that is exactly what the player must do since there isn't a laser sight, crosshairs or even a steady stream of bullets to let you know where your gunfire is going . The only character who can aim is Gunner thanks to his laser sight, but his slow firing time doesn't make him ideal when you're facing against small battalions. To make things worse, the game has an aim assist that is supposed to help the player, but it doesn't work very well.
Aiming issues aside, The Expendables 2 still has other problems with controls. Though it is modeled after twin-stick shooters, the game has a style similar to Dead Nation or All Zombies Must Die, where the right analog stick aims your weapon while a separate trigger needs to be pulled to fire. With the exception of weapon switching and jumping, every other action requires you to hold down a button to execute. This makes sense when you need to revive a friend, but it's rather cumbersome when you're simply trying to pick up a weapon since you have to endure some enemy gunfire before you can pick up that AK-47 or rocket launcher. The same goes for the grenades; you'll need to juggle aiming with the right analog stick and hold down R1 to chuck them. Streamlining the controls a tiny bit, whether it's with button presses for weapon pick-ups or a simpler firing system, would have gone a long way toward making the game feel less tedious.
Graphically, the game could have been better. The environments look decent, though they don't have a varied color scheme. You'll see a bit of green here and there as well as some yellow, mostly from the bullets and explosions, but various shades of brown and gray are almost everywhere. The character models for the heroes are good likenesses with the exception of Yin Yang, who looks nothing like Jet Li. The same can't be said for the enemies, though, who look like clones when you see them up close during the special move kills and only differ with a few who wear red berets. From far away, both heroes and enemies look the same, and all of them have a tendency to blend in to the environment a little too well. Because of this lack of distinction, don't be surprised if you pump as many bullets into friends as you do foes. On the bright side, the frame rate holds up well even when things get chaotic. As you travel through the level, the pauses in gameplay, while noticeable, aren't very rampant.
The sound isn't nearly as bad as the graphics, but they're far from good. The music fits well with an action movie, but you'll have a hard time hearing any of it due to the overly loud sound effects. One benefit of having more emphatic sound effects is that they drown out the four heroes' phrases, which mostly consist of grunts and one-liners. Since you can barely hear them, you won't mind that they're repeated over and over again after a few kills. The voices vary wildly in quality. Both Dolph Lundgren and Terry Crews reprise their roles from the film and actually deliver good performances despite the scarcity of lines. The impersonator for Stallone has the lion's share of lines, but his performance ranges from really good to pretty bad, depending on whether the dialogue is coming from a cut scene or from an in-game scene transition. Meanwhile, the stand-in for Jet Li is simply bad, as he almost sounds like Lundgren and Stallone with a noticeably bad accent. Not only is it difficult to tell who's speaking, but you'll also want to turn down the volume when you hear Yin Yang's voice.
The Expendables 2 should have been better, especially since the game just needed to get a good handle on shooting. Instead, a bevy of technical snafus and odd design decisions drag down the experience and uphold the belief that licensed games are rarely more than mediocre. The game isn't horrible, but shooting fans can certainly find a better title to play before settling for this.
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