When it comes to action, Jet Li is definitely the man to see. Martial arts mayhem, spectacular stunts, and gritty gunplay make for a winning combination – as his extensive and successful film career shows – so anyone who has seen one of his movies would probably regard a videogame adaptation of his super-slick action formula with some interest. To those people, and in fact to most others, I would unequivocally suggest giving Rise to Honor, Jet Li’s first foray into the gaming world, a try.
That is to say, give it a rent – not a buy. The game has its moments, and for the most part provides solid action. In the end, though, it is too unpolished, too lacking in innovation, and, in short, does not offer enough substantial game time to make a particularly worthy addition to your collection.
Rise to Honor features a behind-the-scenes video that explains the philosophy of the game and how it was transformed into a reality. Watch it before you start actually playing and it will get you pretty psyched – alluded to are a library of hundreds of moves, a focus on realistic movements and thoughtful choreography, a team dedicated to expanding the boundaries of the genre, and an experience that has Li himself visibly excited about the possibility of capturing the quintessence of his action appeal in an interactive form.
This impressive build-up, unfortunately, will leave you disappointed in the end. The hundreds of moves are technically there, but most of them are only found in cut scenes; and you’re likely to have seen most of the main character, Kit Yun’s, repertoire within the first hour of play. The promised realism is there, but it’s not like this is the first team to make use of motion capture technology (far from it), and realism is not synonymous with entertainment – for the most part, the animation feels somewhat restrained, and you may find yourself wishing they had gone a little more over-the-top to heighten the sense of kicking butt. In fact, many of the enemy characters have more compelling animations than Kit does, not to mention cooler wardrobes. Enemy outfits were a surprising treat, from puffy jackets to visors and mirrored shades to painter’s masks and headphones; they are indeed a stylish bunch of hooligans, and you haven’t seen thugs this fashionable since Final Fight. Kit Yun, meanwhile, sports a drab two-tone outfit (you can unlock two more upon completion of the game, but by then you probably won’t care), and he looks a little too bug-eyed to be a very faithful incarnation of Li himself.
The game’s environments tend to be functional and without flair – most fall into one of two categories: corridor or arena-style. There are some exceptions, of course, but it should be noted that the game also features a conceptual environment sketch that seems to imply a world littered with interactivity. That would have been a great, arguably necessary touch for incorporating improvisational-type martial artistry, and you’ll find some, but not much of it in the actual environments.
Because I think the game really does have some heart, it pains me to say this, but the audio experience in Rise to Honor is sub-par at best. Jet Li, who also lends his voice to the game, does better than the other actors perhaps, but the cut scene dialogue is pretty insipid all around – I always find it hard to believe when some -not all- games claim to have professional voice-acting, because so often timing and inflection are just plain off; admittedly I’m not much of a judge for the substantial Cantonese portions of the dialogue, but the English stuff left me wondering about the reasoning behind mandatory, uninterruptible cutscenes. Guess it’s a pride thing for the writers?
Sound effects could be classified without exception as either uninspired or genuinely annoying, depending on their frequency of use. Grating laughter tracks repeated ad nauseam by cheesy bosses are cause for much seething; and requiring that a certain move be used over and over on a particular enemy, who in turn shouts the same raucous phrase each time it happens, is just poor planning.
Only one music track in the game was particularly memorable for me, a jazzy tune you’ll encounter during one of the game’s better moments early on. The rest of the time the music was, if anything, too ambient and subdued, somewhat in the vein of action flick mood music but without enough presence to add much to the experience.
Game play is where Rise to Honor manages to achieve something respectable, and I certainly applaud it for that. Like Oni before it, Rise to Honor is ambitious among action games in that it takes on both hand-to-hand combat and gun fighting; unlike that predecessor, though, it never allows you to switch between the two at will, instead designating in each area either one or the other for you to use. The result is a little disappointing and constrained, yes – your character will typically just drop his guns for no apparent reason any time the gameplay transitions back to hand-to-hand – but also manages to give the game some personality, and after all, why would you ever realistically use your fists when you could use firearms instead?
Hand-to-hand areas tend to be of the arena-type mentioned above, and while the fighting system has the notable advantage of allowing some nifty multiple-enemy combat, its reliance on the right analog stick feels too imprecise for something as inherently accurate as the martial arts. If you take your time and fully explore the controls you can definitely find yourself embroiled in some fun and frenzied battles; if you don’t, you’ll find that the gameplay here often degrades with disappointing swiftness into mere joystick flailing – a sense of balance and precision is lacking, that may encourage you to do little more than fumble your way through to each successive checkpoint.
When an enemy does prove to be a bit more tenacious, it’s usually because the programmers have decided that he’s only susceptible to one or two moves performed at specific times during his routine, so either way you’re often left with what can be aggravatingly trial-and-error, or just try-try-again, gameplay. The rest of the time, hand-to-hand combat is fun if not endearing – at more than a few points throughout the game I was made to chuckle when enemies received a particularly efficient series of attacks at the hands of my character, and the frequent cuts into a cinematic slow motion often yielded a sense of real competence and, dare I say, street justice.
Meanwhile, gunfights, while not necessarily leagues different than what you’ll find in, say, The Getaway, delivered a more polished experience that was routinely enjoyable in its own simplistic way. Here gameplay consists mainly of hiding, figuring out when to emerge to lock onto targets, and pulling the trigger to take them down, with the occasional, and truly hard-boiled, dive into bullet-time. Again, nothing overly complex, but timing and careful attention is required, particularly in the later stages, and the inclusion of targetable objects like gas cans, hanging televisions and, well, more gas cans, makes for some good old-fashioned fun. Allowing dual-targeting (one lock-on for each gun) is downright innovative.
There are also some other gameplay elements, like stunts that you’ll pull off via a context-sensitive R1 button and that feel so tacked-on and artless that they barely add anything to the gameplay and, if anything, jeopardize some of the game’s presentation value. You’ll find a few stealth sections, too, and these are okay but could probably have been done away with in favor of more gunplay, the game’s strongest suit.
Make no mistake: this game can be quite challenging. Often the challenge comes off as pretty cheap, granted, but never so overwhelming that you won’t want to give it one more shot?and another, and another, until the credits roll. Taking on literally dozens and dozens of foes in one particular scene, that seems to depict a prison riot of sorts, should prove frustrating, yet strangely compelling. Finally, shutting up that goon of a boss with the bad dye-job who keeps laughing that asinine laugh of his will become a matter of personal pride. At the same time, a decent player might still find his way to the finish in a matter of eight hours or so, at which point everything that can be unlocked, will be, with only a so-called Hard difficulty setting left to coax you back in. Like so many games, Rise to Honor could have been a much more worthwhile venture if the levels had been more thorough about exploring the two combat systems. Instead, if you want to keep playing this game after you’ve beaten it, you’ll have to come up with your own reasons for doing so – the kicker being that you probably won’t feel very inspired to do even that. In the end, I can recommend renting this game – it’ll be a fairly fresh experience for the weekend or so it will take you to beat it; but I can’t recommend buying it.