Retro: Dredd Versus Death

By Alec Meer on April 7th, 2009 at 2:00 pm.

I recently found myself rereading a whole load of Judge Dredd strips I’d eagerly devoured as a violence-crazed teenager. I’d not questioned the politics or attitudes of them at that age – I’d just cheered when Dredd killed a guy. Coming to it now is fascinating, trying to spot the dividing line between satire and the disturbing inherent implication that a police state is a-ok so long as the police are moral and honest actionmen. Of course, it also made me want to go shoot some perps.

While we’ve got a number of games that are Dredd-esque in their approach – Syndicate, Crackdown and even Half-Life 2 as a sort of you-versus-the-Judges setup – what we don’t have much of is yer actual Dredd games. The most notable is Brit studio (and 2000AD owners) Rebellion’s 2003 FPS Dredd vs Death. This was a game I was ludicrously excited about pre-release, Rebellion being responsible for one of my all-time favourite shooters, Aliens vs Predator. Given a license and a world as rich as Dredd’s, surely this could only be a triumph? Famously, it wasn’t.

In its wake, Rebellion’s star dimmed dramatically. They might have later proven they still knew what they were doing with the Sniper Elite and Rogue Trooper (another one of my list for future retro pieces), but other than that it’s been a parade of mediocre-to-terrible PSP and PS2 games since. They even tarnished their own finest hour with a diabolical Aliens vs Predator title for the Sony handheld. Most recently, a messy sequel to Vietnam FPS Shellshock impressed precisely no one. (Despite all this, they’re reportedly one of the most profitable developers in the country – a depressingly inevitable side-effect of almost everything they’ve made in the last half-decade being attached to a movie license). Was it all Dredd’s fault? There’s a fascinating story to be told, I imagine.

There’s also a fascinating story to be told in terms of how Dredd vs Death ended up being quite such a failure, given the pedigree and enthusiasm behind it. Going back to it now (it rather surprisingly having just shown up on Steam. I shed a single crystal tear every time humdrum fare like this makes Steam, but diamonds in the rough like King’s Bounty or Men at War don’t), it’s really not the disaster legend paints at is.

Now I’m away from the initial gutpunch of disappointment, entirely separate from the hype of two years’ promising-the-earth previews, it’s a lot more obvious what Dredd vs Death was trying to do, even if it clearly didn’t achieve it. There are hints it was headed down a far more interesting path, before some hammer of engine limitations, deadlines or commercial worries fell on it and turned it into the run of the mill zombie shooter it turned out as.

Arguably, there’s something more important to a Judge Dredd tale than Dredd himself. It’s Mega-City One, the seedy, overpopulated future metropolis he watches over: the vast bulk of America’s East Coast consolidated into one impossibly large urban sprawl. For a Dredd game to work, Mega City One needs to be realised: too many people to realistically govern, the endemic crime’n’grime that results, and the brutal police state that tries to control it.

In its first moments, Dredd vs Death seems to get it: Dredd emerges into a landscape of towering megascrapers and garish advertising, to face a horde of democratic protestors. Judges out! Judges out! But this is a city far past democracy. These are not a political voice here – they’re troublemakers. Criminals. The option to arrest or kill perps is introduced, and it seems as though this is what the game will be about – Dredd doling out the on-the-spot sentences his rank and title allows him to. Shortly, he’s gunning down graffiti artists to terrify others into giving themselves up. The death sentence for spray paint: that’s the way Mega-City One works. There’s a challenge system, remisicent of the excellent SWAT IV, with which you can demand perps give themselves up. If they don’t, you’ve got carte blanche to gun ‘em down. Simply gun ‘em down on sight, though, and you’ll end up with the law on your back. It takes a fair whack of random slayings to get yourself in this much trouble, but it’s enough to ensure you do roleplay Dredd as cop, not out-and-out psycho.

It feels like it’s about to become a free-form game of instance justice – GTA through an even darker mirror. Sure the population is weirdly sparse and the character models repeat and repeat, but there’s something in the way the giant buildings loom oppressively, the civilians’ out-and-out resentment towards Dredd, the absurd violence or charges he can dole out to anyone on a whim, the way the adverts are so desperate they’re incoherent (including the paid-for Redbull ads), the functionality of the architecture… It even looks great, even if it was technologically dated even at the time – it’s exaggerated and colourful, values than seem forgotten in today’s muted grey’n’brown FPS landscape.

And then the vampires arrive. Ten minutes in, and all that good work’s immediately undone by a crazy decision to introduce swarms of generic undead monsters. The city design and the potential-packed sentencing system is immediately rendered irrelevant in the face of an archaic shooting gallery, and that’s the cheerless path the rest of the game stumbles down until its end, a mere five or six hours later. It’s all Judge Death’s fault – in many ways.

Obviously, the kill-crazed alien zombie is behind the story’s undead plague, but his inclusion in the game at all is part of its downfall. Even in the comics, he was an out-and-out fantastical character in a universe that was largely based on scientific/social theoretical possibility. Making him this game’s key foe practically guarantees it’d become a monster-shooter. Had this been simply “Judge Dredd” it’d have been a very different game. God only knows what pressures Rebellion were under to deliver a shooter that’d appeal to console audiences first and foremost, and one based on a license that most potential players would associate with a terrible Sly Stallone film, but making it about zombies rather than morally ambiguous future-politicking certainly didn’t help.

As it is, it still retains a great What If promise, one that’s weirdly more visible now than it was at the time. There’s the start, the hint of a great Judge Dredd game there, an inkling of understanding as to what a gift of a concept he and his Mega-City offer. Perhaps, one day, someone will make something of it. I’d truly love for it to be Rebellion, but given their recent output I’m concerned they’re just not interested in stretching themselves so anymore.

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32 Comments »

  1. Patrick says:

    I, too, found rogue trooper to be an enjoyable game – even in the face of people who swear blind that gears of war invented cover. It’s a shame the ammo mechanic never got stolen by other games.

  2. Jim Rossignol says:

    Yeah, I remember this being sold really hard by the PR folks at the time, and it initially looked like gold. The more we saw of it, however, the less and less accomplished it seemed.

  3. mrrobsa says:

    Sneaky edit there. Sad email from Rebellion? Or a burst of worried conscience?
    There’s so much potential for a great Dredd game, I hope I see another run at it in my lifetime. I think maybe I had fun playing Block Wars or some such mode in this. Or maybe the swirling mists of half-memories have confused me.

  4. Jason says:

    my memory of this game is a progress halting bug in version 1.0 that meant a door wouldn’t open in level 2.

  5. phil says:

    Interesting choice for a retro. I was similarly feverish with anticipation, though for me the clunky controls, tired gunplay and Doom era textures sapped my enthusiasm before the Vampires showed up (which I thought were actually fine as villians go, it took a fair few clips of lawgiver ammo to put them down, which was unnerving – though I was waiting for Deviln Waugh to show up.)

    For me, a high end Halo clone with Dark Judges would have done the job perfectly (perhaps with Judge Grice as the first boss to during the scene setting, ‘relatively normal day’ introduction). In reality, it was all a bit too Asda.

  6. Steve says:

    Patrick: Pretty certain kill.switch created cover systems.

    I actually enjoyed Dredd Vs. Death a bit.

  7. N says:

    Yeah… I actually own it in a box, dredd vs death. First parts were decent enough but then it goes meh due to crap enemy design and crap pacing. Even the snes game is better, hah.

    Rogue Trooper was bitchin’, way bitchin’… Besides, the genetic infantry dudes put the gears marines to shame. I mean, they go into combat with basically no armor whatsoever. Not to mention they’re so blue they’re like fucking beacons… Then take a look at the gears marines, pussybitches.

  8. Ging says:

    I’d quite like to see an ABC Warriors game come out of the Rebellion / 2000AD stable. It sort of allows for stompy robots and ultra violence, all wrapped up in once nice package.

  9. fulis says:

    I seem to remember the devs for this game saying that they would have some ungodly amount of polygons on-screen due to some space technology

  10. Alex Hopkinson says:

    I guess I don’t regret buying (for £5) and playing this through a few years ago but it’s pretty impossible to recommend to anyone else. I did rather like using the lawgiver though.

    On a brighter note, Rebellion have been great for the collecting of 30 years of 2000AD strips in various lines of trade paperbacks. My shelf of inch thick Dredd Case Files threatens to collapse any day now.

  11. Dominic White says:

    Rebellion are one of the most baffling studios out there. You might as well flip a coin when they make a game, as there’s no real way to know whether it’ll be good or bad until it’s out.

    Dredd Vs Death? Bad. Rogue Trooper? Good. Shellshock 2? Very Bad. Sniper Elite? Very Good (and it still maintains a bizarrely large multiplayer community to this day, as it’s the best sniping game EVER).

  12. Sunjammer says:

    I guess that makes me insane then, since i really really enjoyed it. I played it through to the end, which is more than i can say about a lot of games these days. To me it caught the hard edge of the license really well. And arresting people and throwing them away for all eternity for minutia never got old to me.

    I agree that it wasn’t a particularly great game, at least not from a technical perspective. But it was definitely enjoyable entertainment.

  13. CdrJameson says:

    We wanted something full of Dredd, and we got something dreadful. A complete waste.

  14. Matthew says:

    @ Alex Hopkinson – Storage of Case Files in inappropriately designed system: 3 months in the cubes, perp!

  15. danielcardigan says:

    I liked it, though I never finished it. The last few levels were a bit mental. I think I liked the challenge levels which you could play aside from the main SP game. Killing x amount of zombies in a limited amount of time etc. Worth seven quid off Steam, IMO.

  16. Alex Hopkinson says:

    Caught by old stoney face again. :-(

    Hmmm, all this is going to make me replay the game, I can just tell. I can’t imagine 1920×1200 is going to do it many favours…

  17. Kalle says:

    I loved the premise of the game, but as you said the zombies killed it. There’s not much else that can be said about it because while it shows amazing promise it is just beyond redemption for the most part.

    I’d love to see a retrospective on Rogue Trooper though. Now there was an underappreciated gem of a game.

  18. OAB says:

    Odd to read this the day after .

  19. JonFitt says:

    I played this on my brother’s PS2. It was a below par shooter at the time, and I do remember the initial level(s) looking good, but it quickly deteriorated.

    A Dredd themed GTA clone would be great though.

  20. Po0py says:

    I could swear thats Ian Brown under that Judge Dredd helmet

  21. Solario says:

    Gaze into the face of fear, indeed. I’d love a good Judge Dredd game.

  22. Kieron Gillen says:

    OAB: That’s a great piece. I was going to link it myself.

    KG

  23. Parado amancebado says:

    Amen brother.
    Judge Dredd is still waiting for a dignified place in the videogame universe (and in hollywood). It´s not easy to adapt all that lovely satire and black humor from the brilliant comic but Rebellion did not care at all about their final product.

  24. Diamond Lil says:

    I played it, was good, not great. and the use of the lawgiver was decent

  25. George says:

    Judge Dredd’s engine was supposed to be an AvP sequel. If you look at the zombies/vampires and understand that they were originally built as aliens, it makes more sense. That and Rebellion has long suffered under poor upper management, whose only redeeming trait is striking profitable deals.

  26. Shadowcat says:

    I was likewise excited about DvD, and pretty disappointed by its demo. It still showed some potential, but the thing which guaranteed that I wasn’t going to buy it was the shameless product-placement. Advertising in games is a horrid advent, and in DvD it was beyond a joke.

  27. juice says:

    DvD was a definite disappointment back in the day, and I’d love to understand the background story behind the way it turned out – I’d guess a key factor was the decision to port it to the home consoles, which would have limited both the engine technology and the controls – I still firmly believe that FPSs should only be played with a keyboard and mouse (give or take the odd flash of inspiration from the Wii)!

    One interesting point was the claim that DvD’s game engine (Azure, IIRC) was a new, super-flexible engine – as far as I could see, it was a relatively straightforward update to the engine used in Aliens vs Predator (still one of the greatest FPS games ever) coupled with a ludicrously buggy physics engine. Half the fun in the game was in playing pinball with dead bodies :)

    Ah well. It could have been so much more – and it’s odd that Rebellion don’t appear to have bothered doing any more with their 2000AD IP. Rogue Trooper was a reasonable effort, but where are things like ABC Warriors and Strontium Dogs. SD especially would seem to be a perfect fit – licenced mutant bounty hunters taking on ne’erdowells across multiple planets in a post-apocalyptic future, complete with time-manipulation weapons and an overarching “racism politics” plot? There’s definite potential for something like Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath or GTA3 there…

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