I'm very wary of licensed games. It's not just that I've played a lot of bad tie-ins over the decades, it's that the license itself often seems to be used as a veil to disguise tired design, or as the only actual hook. Let's be honest – 'Reservoir Dogs top-down shooter' isn't a tantalising pitch in and of itself, is it?
What a shame it'd be if the license did act as a veil in this case, though, because behind that dubious pitch there's a much more interesting one: single-player cooperative tactical shooter, with time-mangling mechanic. Much more tantalising.
Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days was shown to the press at GDC, behind closed doors, and judging by the conversations I had with other journalists, a lot of people had gone along to see it out of morbid curiosity. How could a film which is mostly dialogue and in which one of the main characters spends almost the entire time bleeding to death be translated into an “action-packed shooter”? Smash TV with sharp suits? Gauntlet with cop generators? Mr Pink shot the food.
Well, it's all about flashbacks. The film, for those who don't know or remember, shows us the aftermath of a botched robbery. The gang are shot to bits, torn apart by suspicions of a rat within their ranks, and hiding out in a pressure cooker environment, waiting for the heat to die down. Bloody Days follows the Dogs (yes, that's what we're calling them) through the jobs that lead up to the fateful diamond heist, and each mission is a rapidly escalating catastrophe, as alarms are triggered, police cars surround the building, and the bodies start to pile up.
For each of the missions I played, two characters are required and I could pick a third from the remaining gang members. Each has skills and traits, but as far as I can tell, the choice of who to take in the third slot isn't going to tip the odds too heavily in either direction. Mr Blue is good at crowd control, being the wise, calming old hand, so he comes in handy on levels where there are civilians to manage. In his vicinity, they stay on the ground rather than running into crossfire, which makes you feel like less of a bastard...and avoids putting a dent in your score combos.
Bloody Days is a score attack game, you see, though it's tricky enough just to survive the levels on a first playthrough. The odds are very much stacked against the Dogs, who are outnumbered by guards and/or mobsters even before everything goes to shit and the cops show up. They're not superhuman but they are protected to a degree. That means that even though they can take a few bullets, a shotgun blast at close range or one pistol shot too many is going to leave them feeling a bit Mr Orange. Rather than overpowering the characters or giving them some kind of slow-mo adrenalin abilities, Bloody Days does the most unexpected thing: it introduces a genuinely smart tactical system.
Given how everything ends for this particular band of bastards, it might seem odd to think of them as a finely honed outfit, but that's how the game presents them. On each mission, you have control of all three Dogs involved, but rather than moving them all at the same time by dragging a cursor around them, you use a twin-stick method (though I played with WASD and mouse aim). Say you're initially in control of Mr Blonde, you could enter a room, take out two guards with their backs turned and then cover one of the doorways. And then you hit space.
That's the key to the entire game. As soon as you press it, you move to the next character in line and time rewinds to the beginning of Mr Blonde's 'turn'. These turns aren't discrete things. You might control Blonde for fifteen seconds before hitting space, in which case you'll have control of the next character for that same passage of time. Blonde repeats his actions exactly as they were the first time around, and you use the second character to support him. And then, when you catch up to real time, the clock rewinds again and you figure out what the third character should be doing during that fifteen second period.
If you're playing smart, you'll cut down the slices of time far shorter than fifteen seconds. Five gives you much tighter control, ensuring that nobody is rushing too far ahead and triggering a bunch of enemy reactions simultaneously. When the bullets are flying and cops are trying to cut off escape routes, you might be hitting space after a second or two, micro-managing every moment. When you find that flow, Reservoir Dogs is essentially a turn-based game.
What really sold me on the whole thing was the realisation that sometimes it's sensible to sacrifice one of your characters. Nothing that happens is actually true until all three characters have lived through the specific timeframe in which it happens, so sending your first Dog into a room to scout enemy positions can be a great idea, even if he ends up riddled with bullets and dead on the floor. It didn't really happen. Not yet. Characters two and three can effectively rewrite events, bursting into the room ahead of their not-dead colleague, and taking down the enemies as they appear, now that they know precisely where to aim.
Enemies will react to characters who wander into their line of sight, interrupting the path set by previous characters. So if Blonde manages to lure two cops out of hiding, shoots them both and then hits rewind, his perfect plan can actually be undone by his buddies if they are spotted by those cops, who might then deviate from the path Blonde set them on and 'accidentally' dodge the bullets. The whole system works so well because it can make you feel like a genius, your team covering one another and firing in controlled bursts that always hit their target, but it can also create marvelous calamities.
Three characters on a five second loop doesn't give you a great deal of information to keep track of, but there were still situations when I'd suddenly realise I'd left one Dog in harm's way and had no way to send help before losing him. Or, more common, I'd have all three Dogs firing on the same guard simultaneously, wasting ammo and time, and leaving them vulnerable to attacks from other directions. Ideally, you want every character to be concentrating on one task, whether it's covering an entrance, picking off a specific enemy or grabbing loot. And once one of them is carrying a big bag of loot, they'll slow right down and suddenly you're locked into an escort type scenario.
Some loot is essential but there are plenty of bonus items to collect along the way. That's where some of the scoring comes into play, though kill combos and efficiency are important as well. The three missions I played followed a fairly basic structure: arrive at building, secure initial objective, get out as the cops arrive. Variation came in the form of time-sensitive sub-missions and layouts that ranged from the closed corridors of a bank to the deadly wide open spaces of the docks. I hope the final game will include more variety in objectives because the time mechanic deserves to be placed in situations that call for as much creative use as possible.
I normally hate having to deal with time limits all of a sudden, but there's something really pleasing about realising that the five seconds left on the clock is malleable. Three people can do an awful lot of terrible things in five seconds.
Right at the top of this article, I said that a license is often a veil to hide tired design. Here, there's a clever design and my concern is that the license veils that as well. Who would expect a Reservoir Dogs game to be using clever tactical mechanics? I certainly wasn't. At best, I figured, it'd be nineties Hotline Miami. Instead, it's sort of turn-based real-time single-player co-op Hotline Miami.
It's not very nineties though. The aesthetic is the weakest part of the game. Nothing about the in-game visuals stands out, though they do a decent job during missions. It's always clear which parts of a level work as cover, and it's perhaps more important not to be distracting than to be over-stylised when it comes to the graphics here. The redesigns of the Dogs did nothing for me though – in-game they're just top-down men, but in cutscenes they look a bit like the Scooby Doo: Apocalypse versions of the Reservoir Dogs characters. Or maybe Extreme Ghostbusters.
It's a clever licensed games rather than a clever use of a license. You could strip away the license and those characters, and what's left is a game approaching squad control in an interesting way rather than a game reliant on Reservoir Dogs now stripped of its raison d'être. It's a game about one big idea – how does a single player control three characters in a tactical situation but with pinpoint shooter accuracy. The solution is smart and, against all odds, Bloody Days has a perfectly executed plan in mind. Whether it'll be good for more than a couple of jobs before it runs out of steam, I can't say, but there's life behind the license.