The 1980’s animated series G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero famously featured a series of good-natured public service announcements. These PSAs taught youngsters safety lessons, like not to play with electrical wires and to be careful with campfires. They did not, however, tell you not to play G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, so if you need an official warning, let this be it: Don’t do it! Even in the realm of licensed tie-ins, this monotonous third-person action game is particularly poor, managing not only to screw up the mechanics it rips off from other games, but also failing to get even the basics right. An awful camera, atrocious vehicle sequences, and dreadful storytelling are just a few of the inhumanities you’ll face on this mission to spoil the latest scheme from the terrorist group Cobra. Local co-op play eases the tedium and frustrations, but even the closest of friends can’t rescue you from this snake’s venomous fangs. So now you know–and knowing is half the battle.
G.I. Joe borrows liberally from Contra and Gears of War. You and another Joe (controlled either by another player or the AI) run through a series of 3D environments, blasting everything in sight to earn points and occasionally taking cover and popping out to fire at the more resilient nasties. Bringing enemies down consists mostly of holding down a trigger to shoot and hitting a button to tumble or hide behind conspicuously placed barriers. There should have been fun here. With more than a dozen different characters to unlock and play, G.I. Joe could have delivered action enthusiasts some fast-paced gunplay, or amused franchise fans with a fun and entertaining story. Instead, you get ugly cutscenes, bad dialogue, and deadpan voice acting that expresses all the excitement of a long yawn. And the gameplay itself is not only sloppy and boring, but it fails to get a number of essentials right.
G.I. Joe’s fixed camera is the first example of a simple ingredient gone sour. You get absolutely no camera control. As you traverse the environments, approach downward slopes, and turn corners, the camera will swoop around to give you what is apparently intended to be a proper view of the proceedings. But it leads to disaster. You’ll be shot at from offscreen enemies, or have to run toward the camera, unable to see where you are going. When the camera view suddenly flips while you are moving, the controls often won’t adjust properly, so your Joe may go running off in some direction other than the one you intended. Plenty of games with fixed or semifixed cameras (think Devil May Cry) have managed these camera shifts properly; there’s no excuse for the issues here. Things become even more disastrous when you jump into any of the game’s slippery vehicles. You always push the stick forward to move the vehicle forward, but your view of the action may be from the side, from slightly above, or even from in front. And the camera will move about as you drive, forcing you to constantly rethink which direction you need to push the stick in to make the tank move in the direction you want it to go.
Another standard component done poorly: the targeting system. The Rise of Cobra selects a target for you automatically. You can switch targets using the right stick, but if you take cover and select any enemy other than the default target, the game will automatically switch your target back to the default if you don’t fire for a few seconds. Why? Who knows. The fact that you can fire at certain power-ups to reap their benefits only complicates matters. The game doesn’t distinguish among foes that can hurt you, buildings that cannot, and these score-enhancing cubes. Thus, you’ll be surrounded by Cobra grunts but firing at some offscreen power-up because the game can’t prioritize a dude with a gun over a harmless cube hovering in the air. When an enemy does fall, the targeting may not lock on to nearby foes because they are behind you–which happens often, given the rotten camera. If you play on the middle or upper difficulty level, you may die once or twice, almost always because of the awful camera or the awful targeting.
The bits stolen from–er, inspired by–Gears of War don’t fare much better because they don’t feel right in this context. For example, a single button sticks you behind cover, but it also makes you tumble. Given that the action is generally quick and the camera view is constantly changing, the one-button-does-all approach might cause you to take cover when you want to roll and roll when you want to take cover. Or you’ll take cover on the opposite side of an obstacle, thereby turning your back to the enemy and proving that cover systems like this only work when the player is always viewing his or her character from behind. These oddities make battles feel loose and messy, though the game still manages to scatter in a few moments of fun anyway. When you get room to move about and don’t need to worry about cover all that much, the simple action isn’t notable, but it’s decent in small doses. The action kicks up a notch for boss fights, but the rampant invisible walls and predictable mechanics knock it back down a few pegs.
In addition to a basic melee attack and a basic ranged attack, each character can perform a special attack or skill, and some of these are amusing to unleash. Unfortunately, some of these abilities are also imbalanced. Ripcord’s turret-laying ability, for example, will make mincemeat of standard enemies and minibosses. And speaking of imbalances, if you are playing with AI teammates, you’ll want to take Gung-Ho along. The friendly AI is invincible but does very little damage, no matter whom you take along. However, Gung-Ho’s missiles will knock enemies down, which is a lot more helpful than an AI-controlled Joe that just soaks up damage. Things pick up a bit when you replace the AI with another player. Your AI teammate doesn’t really take cover in competent ways or try to avoid fire, but it doesn’t matter because he can’t die anyway. At least with another player, you can coordinate attacks and try to steal power-ups from each other in hopes of getting the higher score. You’ll want to stick close together, though, because the camera may get hung up if you veer too far apart.
The most enjoyable moments Rise of the Cobra offers are those that involve the accelerator suit. Every so often, you can temporarily activate this parka of power, which makes you invincible and lets you move about with blazing speed and do lots of damage. More single-button double duty may cause you to activate the suit by accident (the same button opens doors and activates computer terminals). But assuming you mean to use the suit, you’ll probably get a bit of glee from the results, if not from the great power you wield, then from the tacky, awesome music that you trigger. That vigorous short theme is the one aspect of the game that gets the G.I Joe vibe right; it’s too bad that the rest of the sound design doesn’t follow suit. The soundtrack is fine; the sound effects, however, range from mediocre to outright terrible. The tinny din of the weapons is enough to make you reach for something spongy to shove in your ears, and other sound effects don’t sound right at all. For example, when you break open crates, the flying debris sounds more like the whirring of a computer in a bad 1960’s sci-fi movie than ricocheting rubbish.
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is full of things that make you go “hmm.” Why do midlevel checkpoints update your score but not save your game, forcing you to restart from the beginning if both characters die? If you’re going to steal from Gears of War, why steal the slow-walking, earpiece-cradling mission updates? The game isn’t all bad; there are a few moments of fun to be had with the simple combat system. But G.I. Joe doesn’t do much beyond the fundamentals, and sadly, it gets very few of them right.