Hands-on preview / Terminator Salvation

A third-person shooter with a cover mechanic, set in a decaying post-apocalyptic city. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Burnt-out cars? Check. Crumbling buildings? Check. Conveniently placed concrete walls? Check! With every new game that sports these now seemingly ubiquitous design elements, the long shadow cast by the Gears of War franchise over its competitors grows longer and darker. Yet, despite the over-familiarity, our hands-on time with Terminator: Salvation manages to impress if not astound. It may be generic, it may not hit the heights of Epic’s meat-headed opus, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

You are John Connor, part of the human resistance intent on stopping the rise of Skynet and its machine army. Notice we said “part of the human resistance.” This isn’t John Connor, all-round saviour of mankind. By the time he game ends, then you’ll be that guy. But first you’ll have to make a name for yourself.

Set in 2016, two-years before the events of this summer’s movie, the game follows Connor and the resistance members he teams up with in a bid to rescue 3 hostages caught behind enemy lines. Along the way you’ll fight giant, mini-gun wielding T-600s (the pre-cursor to the Arnie-shaped model we all know and love), as well as metallic, twin machine-gun armed ‘Spiders’ and more airborne killer contraptions than you can swing a rolled-up newspaper at.

The core gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has picked up a shooter in the last couple of years; press A to tuck into cover, push the analog stick in the desired direction and A again to acrobatically slide/dive to the next, pull the left trigger to target, pull the right trigger to make your gun go pew-pew. Easy. The cover-mechanic may not be as slick as Gears or as quick as Wanted: Weapons of Fate, but it does what it does perfectly well, the only difference here being the occasional appearance of a reticule above Conner’s head, indicating the direction you intend to move. It’s a redundant addition. In the couple of hours we played the game, the importance of this indicator failed to make itself apparent.

The presentation is pretty good, with a cinematic opening cut-scene that brings us up to speed with the story being particularly impressive. Really, all it lacks is Christian Bale’s presence to give the voiceover that extra bit of heft. Perhaps developers Grin didn’t want to deal with his hissy fits, but the safe money is on Bale’s no-doubt astronomical appearance fee getting in the way. No mater, his stand-in does a solid job. Present and correct from the film, however, are rapper Common as Barnes and the delightfully named Moon Bloodgood as Blair Williams. Ex Marilyn Manson squeeze Rose McGowan also makes a game-exclusive appearance, whinging it up as Angie Salter, a teacher who survives Judgement Day before joining the resistance.

Action takes place with anywhere between one and ten allies, all A.I controlled. They do their job; never getting in the way, topping you up with ammo and even contributing the odd kill themselves. It’s all you can ask, really, yet it is stumbling point for many other games and as such, should be recognised. The capability of your squad is extra important too as the T7-Ts – robotic spider-like enemies with mounted machine guns – are a frequent enemy, impossible to destroy head-on with conventional weaponry. This necessitates one or more members of your squad to draw fire from the front, while another (usually you) slips around the flanks to target their weak spot, the Spider’s unarmed back. Complicating things is the fact that these enemies hunt in packs and do their best to protect each other. You’ll need all the help you can get.

It’s in confronting these enemies that you have to draw on your tactical skills. While the small airborne Aerostats buzz around your head like laser-shootin’ annoyances and the hulking endoskeleton of the T-600 lumbers straight at you, nothing more than a bit of cover and a fair bit of firepower is needed to dispatch them. T7-Ts on the other hand are one of the few enemies we encountered that demand any more than a keen eye and a heavy trigger-finger.

The other notable exception to this is a stand-out battle against a HK-VTOL, a plasma-spewing aerial behemoth you may be familiar with from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Armed with a rocket launcher you must take on the HK-VTOL from inside the shell of a multi-story building, making your way up through the wreckage as you fight. It’s a scene reminiscent of the Combine Gunship battles from Half-Life 2, yet despite the presence of a frankly awesome rendition of the Terminator theme, it fails to hit the dramatic heights of Valve’s masterpiece.

A HK-VTOL also makes an appearance in one of the game’s many on-rails sequences. In one of three such sections playable in the preview build, you must man a mini-gun mounted on the back of a jeep as it screeches its escape out of the city. While also dealing with yet more Aerostats, you must target specific areas of the flying giant, effectively dismantling it piece by piece. It’s a diverting experience, designed to break up the cover-shoot-cover of the main gameplay sections and stop proceedings from getting too stale. It does so to a degree, but there is no hiding from the fact that it’s just another chance to shoot everything that moves.

Which brings us to our main problem with what we’ve seen so far. Combat fatigue. Now we’re not expecting doggie-training mini-games or interactive existential philosophising, but a little more variety would be welcome. The bulk of our 2 hours with the game was spent battling Spiders, Aerostats and the odd T-600, over and over. Once you’ve nailed the tactics needed to take out the Spiders, there isn’t really much else to do. While 2 hours of this is an enjoyable romp in Terminator land, stretching it over the course of a 8 hour campaign may just expose its flimsiness. We’ll have to wait and see what they come up with, but until then don’t just write it off as a generic, lazy movie tie-in. This could be good.