Licensed games rarely take risks. Just look at all the titles I’ve played so far. X-Files: Resist or Serve was a PS1/Code Veronica era Resident Evil game re-skinned with Mulder and Scully, arranged around a few plot points lifted straight from the X-Files movie. Star Trek was a co-op third-person shooter that was somewhere on the spectrum between Gears of War and, hell, Resident Evil 5. Both were such unabashed ripoffs that they prominently featured zombies instead of anything resembling the usual villains of either series. And Sopranos: Road to Respect? While it (oddly) had a few loose elements that could be seen as precursors to systems in Sleeping Dogs and Alpha Protocol, there was nothing meaningful to the game other than a rote brawler. The environmental attacks and dialog system were thin veneers that ultimately amounted to nothing.
Reservoir Dogs is a different story.
This feels like a ridiculous statement, because out of all the games I have played for this series–and all the games I plan to play–there is no license as ill-conceived as Reservoir Dogs. After all, Reservoir Dogs was a low-budget, dialog-heavy nonlinear film released in 1992. While it concerns a robbery, there are only brief segments of action. None of the characters are heroic and the ending is decidedly bleak. There was no reason to adapt this particular property into a video game in 2006. This shouldn’t be the first game to impress me with its vision, but here we are. In the depths of the licensed video game pits, even the smallest spark of creativity can light up my vision.
Reservoir Dogs does the best thing it can do with its inappropriate license. Like the film, it is told in non-linear fashion, jumping between the various characters involved in the diamond heist. You spend most of your time playing as Mr. Pink (not portrayed by Steve Buscemi) and Mr. Blonde (definitely portrayed by Michael Madsen) but all of the robbers get their turn in the sun. Almost all the stages exist as the portions of the Reservoir Dogs story that the film didn’t have the budget to tell. Each level is a shootout or car chase that takes place before, between, or after the scenes of the film.
This idea naturally dilutes the strength of the Reservoir Dogs film–after all, it’s weird to imagine that in the middle of the story, Mr. Pink went on a shotgun-toting rampage through a rail yard and lumber mill–but it makes the best of a bad situation. How else were you supposed to adapt Reservoir Dogs into a game?
The game is divided up into two types of levels, driving and shooting. Driving levels are godawful, almost approaching Sopranos level of bad. The cars control poorly and the map is heavily copy-pasted, meaning that you will see the same turns and intersections over and over again. There is nothing particularly redeeming about these levels other than the very first one, which sees the Buscemi stand-in repeating some of his lines from the movie in hilariously bad fashion.
Fortunately, 2/3 of the game is spent in shooting missions. These are more fun, and far more interesting from a game design perspective. Unlike the other third-person shooters I have covered in this series, Reservoir Dogs tries something new. It fails. But at least it tries.
There are two ways to deal with enemies in Reservoir Dogs. The easy way is to shoot them, and there is literally nothing preventing you from doing that. Unlike many games which encourage a more peaceful or stealthy approach, playing Reservoir Dogs as a pure shooter is barely punished. An “alert” meter is featured in the upper-right corner of the screen, which increases with each police officer/security guard you kill. I think that you are supposed to face more opposition with a higher alert number, but the actual experience doesn’t reflect that. I managed to keep my alert at a solid “1” for one level, and that level was just as populated with enemies as any to come before or after.
Rather than affect the gameplay, your decision to kill or spare enemies is reflected in an end-of-mission meter that grades you from “professional” to “psychopath.” With each mission, your place upon this spectrum changes. And the ending of the game–specifically the fate of Mr. Pink–is dependent upon where you land upon the spectrum when the final shot is fired. I like this, especially in light of the film. There’s no good way for a budget PS2 game to adequately address and expand upon the fate of Mr. Pink in a meaningful fashion, so multiple endings based on your play style is probably the best way to go. But the game fucks it up.
The reason that the game botches this quasi-morality system is simple: non-violence doesn’t work. Outside of a single mission that includes a tranquilizer rifle, there was no way to avoid killing people. The game, through its tutorial, claims that you can do it. It introduces a system in which you can take hostages, threaten guards and police, direct them give up their weapons, and subdue them without taking their lives. But it simply doesn’t work.
Enemies only remain docile–even after you subdue them–if you have a hostage. As soon as the hostage is dead or unconscious, they immediately pick up their weapons (which they drop at their own feet) and resume attacking you. Hostages slowly take damage while you have them in their grasp, so they can’t protect you forever. To make matters worse, police will only drop their weapons if you hit your hostage, which diminishes their health further. Hostages can only take three hits, and these hits aren’t effective to motivate police to disarm unless they are performed in full view.
The game throws enough enemies at you that it is impossible to disarm and subdue all the police with a single hostage, and as soon as you switch hostages (or your hostage merely passes out from being hit multiple times), all the enemies you worked to subdue immediately spring to life. So you have to start the whole ridiculous waltz all over again: grab a hostage, drag him into the view of police, hit him, wait for them to drop their weapons, tell them to subdue themselves, drag the hostage to another group of police, hit him again, wait for them to drop their weapons… And then your hostage dies, everyone gets back to shooting you.
It simply doesn’t work, and it’s a shame. Because Reservoir Dogs is clearly trying to do something unique. It is utilizing the plot of the film–a diamond heist–to add to the typical third person shooter formula. Reservoir Dogs wants to give you a strategic option to avoid killing the dozens of police officers that challenge you throughout the game. In theory, the hostage system should give you a non-lethal way of disposing of them. But since it doesn’t dispose of them–merely makes them crouch down for a moment until your hostage has given up–there’s almost no way to proceed through the game without killing everything in your path.
Maybe that’s the point–the impossibility of a clean heist. That was certainly a theme of the film. But I’m not quite ready to give Reservoir Dogs the credit for botching its own mechanics on purpose. Especially since it’s trivial to get a good “professional” rating on the driving sequences, no matter how sloppy you are. I finished one driving sequence with a sliver of my health, having slammed into multiple civilian cars, and still watched as my overall rating crept up away from “psychopath.” If the developers intended to foster a theme around the impossibility of a non-violent crime, then surely they would make it a lot harder to complete the driving segments with a good professional rating. Who knows? All I can say is that it undermines any benefit of the doubt I’m willing to give them regarding the failures of the hostage system.
The studio behind Reservoir Dogs, Volatile Games, has something of a tragic backstory. Volatile waas a subsidiary/label of Blitz Games, a British developer that existed from 1990 to 2013. Volatile was formed in the 2000s as Blitz’s label for mature games. At the time, Blitz was known (to the extent it was known at all) for family-friendly fare. With violent, adult games turning into such a profitable venture that someone greenlit a Reservoir Dogs game, Blitz figured they needed to get in on the M-rated (or PEGI-18) racket.
You probably haven’t heard of Blitz games. You probably haven’t heard of its founders, Andrew and Philip Oliver. But the Oliver twins, as they were known, could be called Europe’s minor league Shigeru Miyamoto. They were creators and developers behind the Dizzy series of games for the ZX Spectrum, the Armstrad CPC, and other platforms that you probably think I’m just making up off the top of my head. The Dizzy games were puzzle-platformers that never really caught on in the United States but were a Big Fucking Deal in the UK. I’ve even mentioned them before on this blog. Dizzy–The Ultimate Cartoon Adventure and its successors in the series were developed and published by Codemasters, but the Oliver Twins struck out on their own to form Interactive Studios, which would become Blitz Studios.
While the Oliver Twins had been innovators in the early days of European video games, Blitz Studios quickly found its place as a development house for quick, licensed titles for family-friendly intellectual properties. Blitz developed games for iCarly, Barbie, Bratz, The Biggest Loser, and other licenses that even I’m not willing to touch for Bad Games Played Badly.
Don’t get me wrong: there are a few bright spots in the history of Interactive/Blitz. They were the developers behind the first Fuzion Frenzy, as well as the sublimely creepy Sneak King–a licensed game given away with Burger King value meals based on an ad campaign that cast the Burger King mascot as a terrifying stalker. And with the Nintendo 64 version of Glover, Interactive/Blitz approached the quirky sensibilities of the Dizzy series in a 3d platformer. But most of their output was licensed games for kids or, on the Volatile label, edgy adults.
In 2012, Blitz launched a Kickstarter for the Dizzy series, one of the most popular franchises in Europe during the late 80s/early 90s. Less than 1000 backers pledged money to revive Dizzy. Blitz asked for £350,000. Only £26,000 was pledged. The kickstarter failed, and in 2013 Blitz (and Volatile along with it) folded.
At least from what I can tel by poking around online, there was a happy ending for the Oliver Twins. While Dizzy Returns is still in limbo, Andrew and Philip Oliver went on to found a new studio, Radiant Worlds to develop Skysaga, an upcoming multiplayer PC game that looks like someone spilled Animal Crossing dressing all over Minecraft to make a family-friendly survival MMO. Survival MMOs are big right now, so maybe this is the route back to success. As someone with little interest in Minecraft, MMOs, or the DayZ-alike genre, I am hardly the person to judge the output of Radiant Worlds.
What does all this have to do with Reservoir Dogs? Nothing, really. But the very first name you see in the credits is “The Oliver Twins”, as the founders of Volatile/Blitz, which threw me for a hell of a loop given that their legacy is the Dizzy franchise, one of the most innocuous and least edgy video game properties of all time. The fact that their names were attached to a game in which one of your lead characters cuts off the ear of a police officer and douses him in gasoline is, well, a departure.
Reservoir Dogs is a failure. Not just because the core mechanic of taking hostages and subduing enemies non-violently breaks over half the time, but also because it takes approximately three-and-a-half hours to finish (eat your heart out The Order:1886 and the shooting/cover system is rough as hell. Also, let’s face it, Reservoir Dogs shouldn’t be a game. But for all of those problems, at least Reservoir Dogs is an interesting failure. Somewhere along the line, the developers wanted to make a game that could be something other than a mindless shooting rampage. They wanted to capture the tense nature of a hostage situation because a heist that ends with gunfire is usually a failed heist. It didn’t work, but it is still way more fun to play something that made an effort.