When my girlfriend and I cracked open our copy of G. I. Joe: Rise of Cobra last week, we weren't really sure what to expect. On the one hand, we know that movies-turned-video games have an abysmal quality record. On the other, there are appallingly few two-player same-screen cooperative games in the Xbox 360 catalog, and that's how we like to play games. We'll spend dozens of hours playing games that no one else seems to enjoy (Sacred 2, I'm looking at you) just because we can sit on the couch and play them together. Would this be another?
During the game, you and another character (either controlled by a friend or by the game's A.I.) run through a narrow, linear map level, shooting enemies and taking cover behind boxes and crates. Killing certain enemies will cause power-ups and point-multipliers to appear on the level, placed just so that your girlfriend can pop out from behind a crate, steal it from you, and jump back behind cover while you're getting nailed to the wall by fourteen Cobra troops and a ninja of some sort.
The camera is not controlled by you, but instead moves by itself in a fixed pattern depending on where you are in the level. This can be an issue, especially when you pass enemies by, either accidentally or for tactical reasons, because they will then be firing from offscreen. The game automatically targets enemies for you as well, so there's very little skill involved there, clearly a choice that was made to further streamline gameplay. The cover system is simple and functional, though it is not as satisfying as it is in, say, Gears Of War.
As you progress, you can unlock a great many G. I. Joe characters which can be used on missions. Each character has its own standard and special attacks, which range from intensely powerful to completely useless. This disparity is particularly acute in 2-player co-op, because the player who gets the last hit on an enemy scores the vast majority of points. So when the other player -- let's say it's your girlfriend, just as an example -- constantly keeps picking the characters with heavy weapons that do splash damage and winds up nearly doubling your point total on every level, and then taunts you for being better at videogames than you are, it can be a bit frustrating.
Sometimes you "get" to drive around in vehicles. I put "get" in quotes because using vehicles in G.I. Joe is so painful and annoying that eventually I started avoiding them altogether. Because of the way the semi-fixed camera works, controlling the vehicle can be very confusing, and when driving them I spent much of the time stuck between obstacles, moving back and forth while being shot at, like an orangutan in Driver's Ed during the Vietnam War. Worse yet is the co-op vehicle experience. When you enter a vehicle, one player drives and the other fires the gun, which is a totally reasonable division of labor, except for the fact that the person who is firing does all of the damage and therefore gets all of the points. I don't know how it was that my girlfriend always wound up firing the gun and therefore getting all of the points. I suspect it was because she would always wait until I jumped into the vehicle first. It is possible that I have underestimated her craftiness.
Many of these drawbacks may not be held in such disregard by the people that I think will form the most satisified of G. I. Joe's customers: children. Despite being rated "T" for Teens, the game seems most well suited for children around age 10. There was no cursing that I could remember, and the violence is very stylized and not particularly graphic. Being able to unlock so many of their favorite characters from the film and others from the old show that they may not be familiar with will undoubtedly grab their interest, and the ability to team up with friends, siblings, or parents will heighten the game's appeal.
All this isn't to say that there ain't some fun to be had with the game even for adults. The basic gameplay is acceptable if workmanlike. The character variety is good, because it keeps you wanting to unlock new ones to see what their attacks are and if they're better than the one that your girlfriend keeps picking. Using the accelerator suits -- a power-up in which you run around basically invulnerable for twenty seconds while the G.I. Joe theme music plays -- actually kind of gave me a charge, I'll admit. The kill-Cobra-soldiers-using-lasers-fired-from-satellites-minigame is a fun diversion from the main gameplay. And I have to give props to any game that offers a solid non-split-screen 2-player local co-op experience. I don't know why this form of play is so underemphasized, especially in the wake of the success of Guitar Hero and its soundalikes, which demonstrate that people do want to spend time together in the same room playing videogames, and not just alone playing with someone over the internet. Okay, I know I've been complaining about the issues playing the game with my girlfriend, but co-op play really is the highlight of the game. And we're fine, honestly. We just had to agree to try to split the experience point power-ups evenly and alternate driving duties from now on. It'll work out, as long as she keeps her side of the bargain.
This review might be quite different if Rise Of Cobra had been a downloadable XBLA title priced at $20. I'm tempted to say that this would have forced the producers to focus the game to its essential elements and perfect them, rather than try to throw everything in. The game might have fewer but more balanced characters, fewer environments with more detail, and streamlined gameplay without the poorly implemented elements like the vehicles. Epic's very excellent Shadow Complex is a testament to what you can do with those kinds of constraints.
But at a retail price of $60, it's a bit more difficult to justify. If you're a big G.I. Joe fan or collector, or you're buying for your young or undiscerning children, you may be happy with your purchase. Everyone else should consider that for $60 you can acquire an original Nintendo Entertainment System and a copy of Contra and still have enough money left over to buy a cheap bottle of whiskey to drown your sorrows in after your girlfriend whips your ass at that, too.