Released: 21 February 2014
Also Available For: Arcade, PC, and PlayStation 3
In 1972, David Morrell’s First Blood was published; a harrowing tale of the horrors of the Vietnam War, the book was well-received upon release eventually led to a live-action adaptation directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Sylvester Stallone. A commercial success, First Blood (Kotcheff, 1982) is widely regarded as one of the most enduring and influential movies of its genre and was followed by a series of successful and popular action films that helped make Stallone a household name. John Rambo had featured in a number of videogames, most of which were based on the more action-orientated sequels rather than the more introspective First Blood, before Reef Entertainment acquired the rights to the franchise in 2011. Hoping to capitalise on the recent success of Rambo (Stallone, 2008) and the upcoming The Expendables 2 (West, 2012), Reef opted to use voice clips and dialogue ripped straight from the movies for their rail-shooter rather than record new dialogue with existing actors or soundalikes. This was one of many criticisms levelled against the game upon release; critics were equally unimpressed with the game’s over-reliance upon quick-time events (QTEs), the lacklustre enemy intelligence, and the game’s short length and Rambo: The Video Game was generally regarded as being a disappointing and mediocre use of the license. However, since today marks the anniversary of First Blood’s release, this seems like the perfect time to take a look at this poorly-received shooter and see if it truly deserves its overwhelmingly negative reputation.
Rambo: The Video Game sees players take control of John J. Rambo (and one of his allies, if you have a friend to play alongside) and reenact key events from the first three movies. This sees Rambo enduring horrendous torture in Vietnam, battling bigotry in Hope, Washington, infiltrate the Vietnam jungle to rescue a number of captured soldiers, and finally stand against a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Rambo: The Video Game is a first-person rail shooter that places you into the role of Rambo (or the likes of Colonel Sam Trautman and Co Bao) and has you playing through a number of missions that are either based on key moments from the first three films or directly recreate some of the most iconic moments of Rambo’s film career. Since it’s a rail shooter, your control and movements options are a little limited; Rambo moves as the story dictates and you’re left controlling the aiming reticule with the right stick and holding the left stick to take cover from fire. The Right Trigger will see you fire one of your two main weapons, which can be switched with either Y or the directional pad (D-pad), and you can occasionally use an alternate fire mode with the Left Bumper.
Rambo can reload his weapon with either X or the Right Bumper; this will bring up a small reloading wheel and you’ll need to press the button again to reload faster to grant yourself additional ammo (though your overall supply is unlimited). Press it too soon or too late and your gun will jam, giving you less ammo and slowing down your reload time, thus leaving you vulnerable. LB and the B button also allow you to throw one of your limited supply of grenades, while the Left Trigger provides you with an aiming lock to target specific enemies, and you can also use the D-pad to cycle through different types of arrowheads once they’ve been unlocked. As Rambo kills enemies, scoring headshots or disarming them or blowing them to pieces by shooting explosive barrels, he’ll not only earn points but also fill up his “Wrath” bar. When a segment of this is filled, players can press X to enter “Wrath” mode, which slows down time, highlights enemies using their body heat, and refills Rambo’s health for every kill he performs during this limited burst of rage. Rambo: The Video Game allows you to play missions in three different difficulty settings: Private, Sergeant, and Green Beret; each one tweaks the aggressiveness and competence of the enemies, provides a different number of checkpoints, and makes quick-time events (QTEs) either easier or harder. If you’re playing on the easiest setting, you’ll be blessed with an unlimited number of checkpoints but won’t earn as many points for your playthrough; Sergeant or higher will limited your checkpoints to five and three, respectively, and end your game if you run out, though you can lower the difficulty setting from the death screen if you’re having a hard time. As you gun down enemies, you’ll rack up a score multiplier, which is key to increasing your final ranking at the end of each mission; you’ll also gain extra points for your accuracy, headshots, the difficulty setting, and how many deaths you suffered during the mission, promoting more efficient and calculated playthroughs on higher difficulty levels in order to level Rambo up, gain Skill Points, and upgrade his stats and unlock Perks and increase his combat proficiency.
However, it’s not just about going in all guns blazing; Rambo will also need to take up his bow and arrow or his iconic knife and sneak through the woods, jungle, or under cover of darkness to take out enemies undetected. This means completing a number of QTEs, which award additional points for pressing the onscreen prompt at the last minute or tapping the button as fast as possible; while QTE time is severely reduced on higher difficulties, the onscreen prompts are always the same so you can simply memorise their order and concentrate on your timing. Sometimes these will crop up mid-mission to have you avoid incoming bullets or mortars, and one particular mission offers you the choice between a stealthy route or a more action-orientated path. You’ll also come across “Cautious Enemies”, indicated by a ! prompt, who will one-shot you if they spot you; enemies can also lean over or shoot through your cover and be bolstered by “Commanders”. Gameplay is given a little variety by the few times you take control of a mounted gun or a helicopter to wreak havoc on the immediate area. These sections are timed and involve blasting at the Hope police station, assaulting a Vietnam base from above, destroying mines and boats while sailing down a river, or blasting away at Soviet forces and their vehicles. These moments of intense action are where the game really excels, though the controls are a little slippery and it can be difficult to aim at your targets with the crosshair slipping all over the screen. This crops up again as Rambo is tasked with disarming and wounding Hope’s police officers for extra points; you can kill them as normal, but you get more points for disarming the cops, which is difficult to do without taking a lot of damage so it’s probably best to turn off the aiming assist option for this mission to make things easier. While sneaking through the Soviet base in Afghanistan, you’ll also have to follow onscreen prompts to arm explosives and can shoot at glowing sections of the cavernous environment to crush your enemies under boulders. If you’re playing alone, you can share your ammo with Co Bao in Vietnam by pressing Y at the right time and she’ll help you out with cover fire, and you’ll even have to take out snipers from afar in Afghanistan. Although the game starts of pretty simply, with you blasting at Viet Cong and diving to cover to reload and catch your breath, things quickly ramp up and get very frustrating and unfair as combinations of the game’s most formidable and annoying enemies ambush you, leaving you on the back foot if you’re out of grenades; things are made all the more maddening by some wonky hit detection than can see your point-blank shots miss or enemies hitting you through normally impenetrable cover.
Graphics and Sound:
I’ve played Rambo: The Video Game in the arcades before; there, on a big screen with a real (albeit plastic) gun in your hand, the game looks and plays pretty well for a standard light gun shooter. However, on home consoles, the game is pretty much an embarrassment from top to bottom; while the missions do a decent enough job of bringing to life the dark, dank jungles of Vietnam and recreating the town of Hope and the Soviet cave from the films, there’s a lot of graphical pop up and corners cut here as it’s simply a rail shooter and you’re not really meant to be stopping and taking in the details around you. Similarly, enemy models are decent enough, but ragdoll all over the place at times and you’ll see the same enemy types again and again with very little variation.
The actual character models are pretty laughable; Rambo himself looks more like an off-model action figure than the surly Stallone thanks to his ridiculous mane of a haircut. Trautman doesn’t look too bad, but hardly any of the corrupt cops from Hope resemble their onscreen actors. The game’s story is framed as a series of flashbacks at Rambo’s “funeral” as some nameless, unknown military man gives those in attendance a rundown on Rambo’s career and reputation in order to afford him some anonymity for his excursion into Afghanistan. This allows the game to recreate the most memorable moments of the films with the absolute bare minimum of effort; the music is dreadful, repeating in embarrassing loops mid-mission, but it’s the voice acting where the game really falls flat. Stallone and Richard McKenna’s audio are ripped right from the films, making their words distorted and wildly inconsistent and hilariously out of context at times, and only emphasising the cheapness of the title.
Enemies and Bosses:
Rambo will gun down a whole host of nameless, faceless, interchangeable groups of enemies themed after each of the game’s missions: Viet Cong, Hope’s police department, and Soviet forces all try to fill Rambo with holes, popping up from the background, the sides of the screen, and rolling in to take shots at you. Enemies make use of cover to avoid your shots, can have their hats shot off, and some can even be disarmed to render them harmless to you but, for the most part, they are easily offed with just a few shots. Soon enough, you’ll encounter more formidable and annoying enemies, such as grenadiers (who take cover and toss grenades you can shoot out of the air), “Heavy” enemies covered in armour and vulnerable only in their face masks, and “Flamers” who wield flamethrowers and force you to shoot at their flame tank. Commanders will bolster the morale and efficiency of all onscreen enemies, so you should prioritise taking them out, though you must duck behind cover when turrets are rolled out into the field as they’ll shred you pretty quickly. Snipers, armoured enemies, and groups of these foes can whittle your health down in no time at all so it’s best to make use over cover, shoot any nearby explosives, and try to get off some one-shot headshots to off your enemies as quickly as possible.
Each of the game’s missions includes a timed sequence where Rambo must destroy parts of the environment, usually by making use of a large cannon or a helicopter but, in Afghanistan, you’ll also be hounded by helicopters and tanks that you cannot destroy and must either avoid by taking cover or run past by eliminating all onscreen enemies (and objective the game makes frustratingly vague) and completing some QTEs. Each mission culminates in something that can be generously described as a boss battle; after laying waste to the Hope police station, you’ll need to avoid Sheriff Teasle’s gunfire by pressing the onscreen prompts when it’s safe to move around, then desperately shoot at him when he peeks out at you from his elevated position. After laying waste to his base with your explosive arrows, you’ll find Lieutenant Tay far less of a challenge as you simply have to fire an arrow at him to blow him up, but you’ll need to take the controls of a helicopter and frantically fire your bullets and rockets at an enemy chopper to finish Rambo’s redemption in Vietnam. Finally, after a harrowing rescue mission in Afghanistan that sees you struggling past formidable and frustrating groups of various enemies, you’ll take the controls of a tank and get into a ground-to-air firefight with Colonel Alexei Zaysen. Jeeps and soldiers run around distracting you, but your primary concerns are Zaysen’s missiles and the tanks, which can severely reduce your vehicle’s health and destroy it in one shot, respectively. You’re thus forced to frantically fire your main gun and your cannon like a madman, desperately hoping to shoot down the missiles and destroy your targets before they can do too much damage, before finally ending Zaysen’s threat in this surprisingly aggravating final showdown.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Aside from your Wrath state, there aren’t any in-game power-ups to make use of beyond being tossed a grenade or making use of explosive barrels or other environmental hazards. You don’t need to worry about picking up ammo and health is restored in Wrath mode, so your primary focus should be on staying alive, killing as many enemies as possible, and keeping your multiplier chain and accuracy high. This will net you the Skill Points you need to level-up and improve your efficiency; these can be spent upgrading your resistance to damage, your grenade inventory, the power of both light and heavy weapons, and extending the duration of your Wrath bar. When you level-up high enough, and complete certain requirements (known as “Trautman Challenges”), you’ll unlock additional weapons to take with you into each mission, which can definitely turn the tide in your favour in the game’s tougher stages. You’ll also unlock up to three Perk points and a variety of Perks that allow you to perform perfect QTEs or gain increased health and ammo while reloading or killing enemies in Wrath, for example.
There are twenty-seven Achievements on offer in Rambo: The Video Game; the vast majority of these are tied to you getting at least a two-star rank on every mission, which will require you to beat the game in at least Sergeant mode, while others include maintaining a high chain multiplier, using every weapon in the game, completing it on Green Beret mode, and killing a total of 3000 enemies. Sadly, none of this is easily accomplished and meeting these criteria quickly becomes a very laborious and needlessly frustrating process as achieving even a two-star rank can be more trouble than it’s worth at times. The game can also be played in two-player co-op, which is very much appreciated and probably makes some of the tougher sections a bit easier, but there’s no head-to-head multiplayer mode and Trautman’s “challenges” amount to fulfilling certain objectives (which you can’t review in-mission) to unlock new weapons. If you simply must have more Rambo, there was some downloadable content released for the game that included some additional missions and Achievements, but I can safely say that I won’t be checking this out any time soon given how infuriating this game can be at times.
I’d heard nothing but bad things about Rambo: The Video Game; however, even after my last few attempts to play the arcade version resulted in my coins being eaten by the machine, I maintained that it would be an inoffensive enough rail gun shooter to blast through and rack up some easy Achievements. Instead, what I got was an absolute slog of a gaming experience; bland environments which, while somewhat faithful to the movies, are way too dark, unimpressive and frustrating enemies, and a lack of variety really bring down the otherwise enjoyable enough gameplay. The stealth and QTE sections are okay, if painfully simple, and the parts where you’re in control of heavy ordinance and vehicles can be a lot of fun, but the presentation is just so cheap and rushed. The muted dialogue ripped right from the movies is the most glaring offense, of course, but the lack of gameplay options, the stringent criteria for unlocking stuff, and the odd little glitches and annoyances peppered through the game definitely don’t make it worth investing your time and money in when there are far better first-person shooters out there. It’s a shame as there’s definitely a lot of potential here, but the execution screams “cheap cash grab” and you really won’t be missing out on all that much if you skip this title, which I’d argue even die-hard Rambo fans would struggle to find enjoyable.
Have you ever played Rambo: The Video Game? If so, did you enjoy it or were you as disappointed by it as I and many others were? What did you think to the Wrath system and the recreation of the film’s moments? Were you also disturbed by the poor quality character models and audio clips? Which Rambo videogame, or videogame appearance, is your favourite? Which of the Rambo films is your favourite? Whatever your thoughts on Rambo, drop them below or leave a comment on my social media.