If you're a wannabe-Bond villain and your accountant tells you it's great value for money to send wave after wave of useless henchmen after four hard-nosed soldiers of fortune – don't hesitate to press the button to send your spectacled advisor tumbling into the shark pit. When Sly Stallone and his crew of muscle-bound bullet-jockeys come knocking on your door reflect, before your brains make friends with the wallpaper, that you were the expendable one. The irony will literally be killing you. Literally. Ha ha.
It’s The Expendables 2: The Videogame on the digital XBox Live Arcade, PSN and PC and to ensure we are all on the same page yes, this is a video game based on the film The Expendables 2. Film tie-ins are standard fare these days, and if you were expecting dodgy character models and dodgier Stallone accent impressions you will not come away disappointed. This particular tie-in is a fun enough run-and-gun rampage but the gameplay is repetitive and overall package feels fairly uninspired.
In each of the campaign missions you fight your way through hundreds of hapless soldiers, switching between the four playable characters to use their different primary and secondary weapons. It's an arcade-style romp where you view the battle from a isometric camera high above that follows you along, occasionally switching angles to give you a new point of view. The levels proceed along fixed paths and the rhythm of play does not really vary throughout the game – there's an initial section in each mission where you settle in, a mini-boss half way through (a tank or an armoured personnel carrier or similar), and a conclusion with a bigger boss encounter or a period of time in which you have to survive an all-out assault. To mix it up you sometimes take the bad guys on from a distance, exploding trucks and jeeps with helicopter or boat-mounted heavy weapons. Why all this death and destruction? Well, the story isn't that clear, but does it really matter? Of course not.
The four basic tools with which you make men into meat are a sniper rifle, a magnum, a small machine gun and an automatic shotgun. A simple tap of the D-pad changes character and you're ready to fire. The sniper rifle is initially satisfying but it ultimately feels strange in an action game to spend your time hiding behind cover and picking enemies off one at a time. It's also the only primary weapon with a laser sight and it's useful - the screen is often so hectic with explosions, NPCs and bullets that knowing where your character is pointing is really helpful. What's problematic is that in comparison aiming the other weapons at anything other than point-blank range tends to feel at best a process of auto aim and at worse complete pot luck, especially when there are a lot of targets to choose from.
The power of the weapons is a mixed bag – sometimes a close-range shotgun or a sniper bullet will leave an enemy standing whilst a knife throw almost always will put him down. The weapons feel underpowered overall and there might be more than one occasion you wish you had Doom's BFG rather than a popgun: grinding through a platoon of grunts just to have to grind through another one immediately afterwards can rapidly feel like work rather than pleasure. Perhaps this is a more accurate simulation of the life of a mercenary than was intended – it’s possible some gamers may experience a sense of disappointment when they recall they aren't going to be paid.
Throughout the levels you can pick up other sorts of boom-sticks, AK and Kalashnikov-style machine guns as well as rocket launchers. These add some variety, but the aiming mechanic plus slow reload times - and the fact you have to put half a clip into anyone before they kick the bucket - does not provide a big incentive to change your arsenal. As you build up your kill count and collect grenades a power bar charges that when full lets you pull off a special execution which is accompanied by a close-up animation of something suitably stabby and shooty, yet sanitised and lacking in any really gruesome detail. Gears this ain't.
The Expendables 2 is not a hard game and the challenge is a matter of surviving the huge numbers of baddies. It is so straightforward on easy difficulty you can almost stand in the middle of a crowd and shoot – or use melee attacks – and get by without taking too much damage. On the harder difficulty setting (there are only two settings, casual and hardcore), providing you don't stand still, the game isn't that much more difficult to beat, though the pace is slowed down by the fact you have to hang back to clear areas out to avoid being overwhelmed by opposition firepower and numbers.
If you're playing online, other human players occasionally sub into your game – or you can use the matchmaking function to leap into other peoples' sessions - which makes for a more interesting experience than playing with bots. You can choose which mission or sub-mission to play, providing you've unlocked it in the campaign mode. Alternatively you can load up a number of discrete challenge sections which see you playing through specific sections of the campaign against the clock. At the end of each mission you get experience points to spend on upgrading the weapons and abilities of the characters including such classics as faster reload times, increased movement speeds and increased resistance to damage.
The game looks OK, if a little rough about the edges. It's got a very basic title screen (like something from a 1990’s DOS game) and the in-game text is very heavy on the pixels around its edges. It's a shame because the text is used in an original way - early on when you're being given play tips the words are combined and aligned with the scenery cleverly, rather than just popping up in the corner. The missions are set in different parts of the world - from the Balkans through Somalia to Borneo - which generic and are marred by an occasionally half-baked camera that sometimes hangs back whilst you become a speck in the distance. The big explosions, of which there are many in the helicopter levels, are giant caterpillars and starbursts of fire which look decent, even if there are only a few types of them. The soundtrack comprises mostly of gunfire and guttural action movie clichés which is fine, because that's what this game is all about.
In conclusion, then, The Expendables 2 is not bad, but it’s far from good as well. It only has one trick – which is keeping the body bag industry in business - and after a while that gets tiresome. The generic superficiality of the experience gets in the way of drawing you in and the lack of variation doesn't provide much incentive for replay.