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Shin Force ~ Xbox ~
Headhunter: Redemption
Geoffrey Duke
1x DVD
Import / Domestic
Q3-4, 2004 (USA)
3rd Person
Action / Adventure
     > Enter Headhunter Redemption, Sega's latest attempt at winning the hearts and minds of mainstream gamers (action games can't be any more mainstream -- our self-destructive nature demands that we blow things up with guns the size of cannons) and Amuze's second attempt at making a name for themselves. The original Headhunter was released in the dying days of the Dreamcast in Europe but never made the trip to America until the game was converted to the Playstation 2 not long after where it was underrated by more than a few gamers. When the lifespan of the Dreamcast was tragically cut short by forces beyond Sega's control, Sega quickly started salvaging what it could. There's no denying that Headhunter was a great third person Action/Adventure game with visuals that rivaled almost anything else on the market at the time of its release, and one that had a very memorable orchestral musical score. The gameplay of Headhunter is actually a hybrid of other games. That's why accusing it of being a clone isn't the fairest of accusations. The combat of Winback meets the stealth of Metal Gear Solid which meets the puzzles of Resident Evil to amount to a gaming experience more than worthy of your time. Throw in some motorcycle missions and you have a recipe for fun. Although the game was quite linear, the story alone was almost compelling enough to keep players hooked to the very end. 

     > Metal Gear Solid didn't single-handedly define the entire stealth genre. If we're in the business of giving credit where credit is due then we must also give Tenchu and Thief: The Dark Project the credit they deserve for having a hand in defining it too. So what's my point? My point is MGS received far more recognition because it was a far more marketable concept thanks to its military theme. Deny that all you want. Headhunter: Redemption *isn't* a stealth game per se, so no one should even try to compare it to MGS as if it's some kind of wannabe. It focuses less on stealth than the first game and more on combat, meaning all comparisons should be thrown out the window. The question we need to ask is: does Headhunter 2 have all the ingredients necessary to win over mass market gamers? Amuze have clearly made changes to Headhunter's winning gameplay, but whether or not they are changes for the better or for the worse is in the eye of beholder. As far as third person shooters go, this game isn't bad, even if it doesn't remain entirely true to the original game. 

     > Headhunter: Redemption was released for both the Playstation 2 and Xbox to maximize potential sales. I believe this was a good move for Sega for no other reason than because many Sega fans migrated to the Xbox after the early demise of the Dreamcast. God knows why, but most of Sega's Xbox games have suffered from lackluster sales even though many of them deserved to sell many more copies than they ultimately did, which, needless to say, is unfortunate for both Sega and Xbox Sega fans. That combined with the fact that the Xbox is virtually non-existent in Japan hasn't given Sega (of Japan) much encouragement to support it with exclusive titles (it's simply not worth their time in many cases). Truth be told, very few games companies can actually afford to support either the GameCube or Xbox with exclusive games when the PS2 owns the largest share of the market. This has repercussions which I'll explain further below in this review.

     > Headhunter: Redemption is set 20 long years after the events of the first game in a time when human civilization is still recovering from the outbreak of the Bloody Mary virus. This virus, which originated from the Bio-tech labs, swept across the world, killing all in its path. The Stern cooperation headed by Angela Stern eventually mass produced a vaccine (courtesy of an antidote Jack Wade and Angela acquired in the first game) to stem the tide of the killer virus, but the damage had already been done. After millions died chaos quickly followed with only a few headhunters to bring order back to the world reeling from ever-mounting problems. And as if a killer virus and anarchy weren't enough, an earthquake surged through the city-setting of the original game, ripping the ground apart and causing skyscrapers to collapse under their own weight. The old city was torn apart into two distinct areas: "Above", is a new city built upon the ruins of the old one, and "Below" consists of subterranean caverns housing colonies built out of the remnants of the old city populated by the new city's criminals and other unproductive members of society now serving out the rest of their lives as worker drones for the people of "Above". Naturally, not everyone wishes to live by the rules that govern the new world, and that alone has earned "Above" the wrath of an opposition group aptly named "the Opposition", which recruits people from "Below" looking for a way to escape. To maintain order, freelance bounty hunters known as headhunters are in higher demand now more than ever. Jack Wade, ex-cop turned headhunter and the hero of the first game, is still one of the best headhunters in the business, hunting down criminals and migs (migrants) who have escaped from "Below" wherever they run or hide, and he has the battle scars to prove it. However, Jack Wade is a man cursed with misfortune. The loss of his son (a son who was mothered by Angela Stern, a controllable character from the first game) has left far deeper emotional scars that never stop coming back to haunt him. Hardened by years of experience, Jack Wade is more than prepared to face whatever life has to throw at him.

     > The game starts with a flashback from Jack's past in which he saves a young girl from certain death at the hands of her own father. After the brief trip down memory lane, an older Jack intercepts a young woman who calls herself Leeza X after she has broken into a building. He immediately recognizes the pendant she's wearing around her neck and decides to offer her a position by his side as a trainee headhunter instead of bringing her to justice for what appears to be data theft. To Jack's amazement, Leeza is a little uncooperative at first, but being the good man that he is deep down, Jack doesn't hesitate to knock her unconscious and drag her back to his place for her own protection. And thus, they form a partnership that starts with them battling through a battered sci-fi world and ends in them both confronting their past as they work towards redeeming a world that has lost its way...

     > I was hoping this wouldn't happen, but it appears that the Xbox version of Headhunter: Redemption is more or less identical to the Playstation 2 version, which highlights another of the games industry's many injustices. Because many multi-platform games are developed with the PS2 in mind first, they fail to reach their full potential on other consoles. It's cheaper to cater to the lowest common denominator of course, but if that means the PS2 is going to hold games back, then I'm not sure it's a price anyone should pay. I remember when PS2 owners complained about the original Headhunter being a mere port of a game developed for "inferior hardware" as if the Dreamcast was vastly inferior or something, which is a lie (lest we forget, the Dreamcast and PS2 are quite evenly matched when taking into consideration the DC's extra texture RAM and built-in support for full-screen anti-aliasing). Now I'm going to return the favor. Compared to the Xbox, the PS2 *is* vastly inferior. While Headhunter: Redemption's graphics really stand out from the crowd on the PS2, they fall short of the graphical splendor of many Xbox games. 

     > Nevertheless, I should praise the graphics for being above and beyond what we saw in the original Headhunter, which boasted excellent visuals for its time. Playstation 2 owners certainly have no right to complain about the quality of this game's visuals. No right at all. Basically, the graphics are great for the PS2 (if this game isn't a visually impressive PS2 game, then neither is Devil May Cry), but lose marks on the Xbox because we all know Microsoft's console is capable of achieving things the PS2 can only dream of. Having said that, the Xbox version is slightly better with smoother polygon edges (giving it a cleaner look), slightly nicer lighting effects, as well as an augmented frame rate. In the end, however, that's a difference that makes no real difference; you might not be able to spot the differences between the two versions at first glance. Of course, you really need to see the game in motion to fully appreciate the graphics. 

     > Unlike the original Headhunter, which treated us to some jaw-dropping cinematic sequences, most of the cutscenes in the sequel seem to break away from tradition by using the game's in-game graphics engine. The 3D character models look like they belong in CGI sequences though with detailed facial expressions and perfectly-timed lip-synching, so I'm not complaining. The enemies you face look futuristic, as expected. Early in the game you fight masked migrants from "Below" and later you run into robotic spiders that become bigger as you progress, as well as automated machine gun and rocket turrets. None of these enemies look out of place in their respective environments. The mere sight of some of the later enemies may even tempt you to run away (Jack's final boss springs to mind). Even if they don't move with motion captured grace, the animation for all characters is respectable. Characters cast shadows that move with them in real time to bring the game up to today's standards, too

     > The graphics are a lot darker than those of the first game, which should come as no surprise considering the setting of the game. None of the locations are particularly original, as we've seen these types of settings many times before. Does that mean this game isn't worth your time or that the areas are any less visually impressive? No and no. You battle from one solid, detailed and appropriately dark area (especially the "Below" areas) to the next. This game also has its fair share of spectacular special effects such as electrical surges, and flames shooting out of pipes. The weapon explosions are nice but could've been more fiery IMO. There's a subtle haze permeating some areas like a foggy pollutant giving them a faint glow. It actually lends a helping hand in building up the dark atmosphere.

     > The controls can seem quite overwhelming at first, which necessarily means it will take some time to adjust to them to a point where controlling your character becomes second nature. The third person view shouldn't give anyone any cause for alarm, as any third person camera issues can be solved with a touch of a button after which the camera repositions itself behind and above the character you're currently controlling. Sneaking can pose a problem because when you approach a wall while attempting to sneak, you'll hug it. This can be both good and bad depending on your current situation. Holding the right trigger button automatically aims forward (the camera will always swing around to look ahead of you) where a targeting recticle will appear over an enemy if one happens to be nearby. Pressing the right stick in whatever direction you see fit will switch between targets. Pressing and/or holding the A button will shoot, making the firing controls easy to master. Many people seemed to complain about the gun recticle/cross-hair used in this game to aim mainly because it circles around erratically as Leeza fixes her sights on a target. The aiming recticle gradually locks onto a target for an accurate shot, but if you lose sight of a target, the recticle has to go through the whole slow process of locking onto the target again. Gamers may find this more frustrating than anything else. While the recticle is moving erratically all over the place you're just as likely to miss as you are to hit (unless you time your shots). You'd think that this was because Leeza was a rookie who still needs practice to perfect her aim, meaning her aim wouldn't be the best in the world at the start of the game, but Jack's aim suffers from the same problem. Recoil from gunfire also causes your aim to veer off-target, leading you further into the realm of frustration. As you progress Leeza will eventually find laser sight upgrades for certain guns to alleviate this problem. Afterwards, Leeza's aim becomes steadier and she locks onto a target (moving or otherwise) noticeably faster. These are the main stumbling blocks. Once you've adapted to the control scheme a good game awaits; don't be deterred. 

     > Hugging a wall to stare around a corner is still here. When peering around corners you can lock onto a target without them necessarily noticing or firing back. Of course, darting back and forth around a corner while firing is as fun as ever (needless to say, walls serve as the perfect shields to protect you from incoming fire). Wall hugging isn't just essential for peering around corners - you'll have to walk across narrow ledges every now and then too. The camera can also be moved around to gain a better view of the scenery above and below. Not only does this feature give you the opportunity to truly appreciate your surroundings, but it ensures that you're never blind to whatever might lie in your path when climbing ladders. Leeza and Jack can roll which comes in handy when the time comes to move through moving lasers and electrical currents or quickly move out of harm's way. Leeza can even perform a cartwheel while aiming to avoid incoming fire. All in all, both characters have quite a few moves at their disposal. Leeza and Jack can also collect a wide range of weapons to help you clear a path to the end of the game such as machine guns, grenades and mines (not to mention the usual shotguns and rocket launchers found in any other third person shooter). It should also be noted that you can save at any time, but not anywhere, because the game will save your progress whenever and wherever you reached a checkpoint.

     > Unlike the first game where the sunglasses Jack wore were worn for no other reason than vanity purposes, they have a more practical purpose in this outing. They serve as a scanner called IRIS, a combat computer (the same computer that does your aiming), which when used switches to a first person view. You sometimes need to use your IRIS scanner to scan the environment to locate interactive objects. For instance, you might need to scan the padlocks on a gate before they can be targeted for destruction, or you may need to scan the surface of a nearby wall in order to find a weak spot that can be obliterated with an explosive. Later, an enhanced vision mode becomes available in which you can see enemies behind walls and spot objects that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye (like laser fences and proximity mines). The best new feature is the code breaker software. Certain doors will require access codes that need to be bypassed before being permitted to reach your next destination. The codebreaker will break these codes after you've competed a mild puzzle that involves guessing the next sequence in a pattern.

     > The game has an orchestral sound track that almost lives up to the standard set by this game's predecessor. The music changes whenever you engage an enemy in combat to intensify the on-screen action. I loved the original Headhunter's soundtrack because of its heavy use of instruments like violins to carry the mood. To that end, Redemption's soundtrack definitely has its moments too (there are even one or two remixed tunes from the first game to bring back memories). Richard Jacques knows how to compose great music. That's all there needs to be said on the matter.

     > The voice acting is far from bad. Jack Wade uses the same voice actor as the original game (James Livingstone), but Jack's voice has become gruffer and more gravely with age, which is something you'll notice when you see him as a young man in the introduction sequence when he saves a young Leeza from death, and later when he apprehends Leeza as an adult. Although the voice acting sounds realistic enough to be convincing (that is to say, the voice actors spoke their lines convincingly), the characters themselves might not qualify for a place in your fondest memories. Jack sounds like he's trying to do a Clint Eastwood impression while Leeza's voice is spirited and cocky. She has more in common with a teenager who still has some growing up to do than anything else. Players will have to be the judge of the quality of the voice acting.

     > Sound effects are crystal clear. Bullets explode out of your guns and the rest of the game's sound effects sound more than appropriate. In some of the "Below" areas you're bombarded with weird futuristic advertisements that always manage to make me laugh.

     > On the downside, there are no virtual reality missions and no bike sections. I can honestly say that I missed both. The game lays out a pretty linear path for you to follow all on foot (in the form of one mission after another) which is a step backwards, not forwards. Combat seems to be the main focus now as well (stealth is not always an option). You are left with no choice except to run into a hostile situation with your guns blazing in the majority of cases. You just have to stay out of harm's way in the process. On the upside, this game is a lot longer than the first game with many more puzzles to keep you occupied. When you're not dodging surges of electricity you'll be avoiding moving laser beams (the invisible laser fences I loved from the first game are back with a vengeance as well). And when you're not hacking into computers and solving mild math puzzles, among other hand-eye coordination puzzles (generally involving the player pressing the right commands seen on-screen in the right order in the time allotted), you will be finding passwords, scanning the environments for destructible/moveable objects, and replacing battery fuses etc. On top of that, you'll occasionally do some jumping, climbing and hanging/scaling to travel from one place to the next. The fun isn't limited to mindless violence.

     > I won't lie, the shaky targeting recticle has the potential to ruin this game for anyone. If you can see past this, though, you may find a gem beneath. You may even view the targeting controls as all part of the fun. If pumping people full of bullets and blowing things up while avoiding bullets with your name on them isn't fun, then I don't know what is. The generic enemies benefit from good AI directing them to swarm you from all angles and even take cover in the middle of a firefight, which provides a nice challenge, and there are some challenging bosses who really test your dexterity to overcome. You'll play as Leeza for the first half of the game (a rookie headhunter with an attitude problem) with Jack only entering events on a few occasions to move the plot forward, and the self-same Jack for most of the second half. To say that Leeza is rebellious would be an understatement; she blindly follows her instincts wherever they lead her, even if they lead her into trouble. Jack (the real hero of the game) is far more serious and far less reckless than Leeza. Jack also has a rather grim sense of humor that endeared me to his point of view, and seeing how he changed over time is a nice bonus for fans of the first game who were eager to know what became of him (since he aged realistically). I actually wonder why we didn't play as Jack for the majority of the game. Maybe Amuze felt that a young curvaceous female lead character trapped in a tight shirt would resonate with mainstream gamers more than the witty hero of the first game. I don't know. On second thoughts, should I be so quick to criticize? I liked the twists in the story and the cutscenes do a great job of telling that story. Players might be frustrated by some of the long pauses between plot development, but this is a game, not a movie. The story also becomes a lot more engaging towards the end because your motivations become clearer.

     > Amuze should have made Headhunter 2 less linear than the original game instead of more linear. Maybe they will keep that in mind for Headhunter 3 if Sega ever gives it the greenlight. A part of me finds nothing wrong with Amuze trying to take the old gameplay in a new direction, but the rest of me wishes that they had expanded on the gameplay of the original Headhunter rather than change the winning formula. Imagine how the bike sections found in the original Headhunter could have been improved. Amuze could've included riding gun battles, car chases etc. The possibilities are endless. This is what I call a missed opportunity. *Sigh*.

Bottom Line
     > Just imagine the first Headhunter but without the virtual reality missions, and without the bike sections (removing the illusion of a non-linear game), less stealth, more combat, more puzzles, potentially frustrating controls, and enhanced graphics. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? That's a matter of opinion. While not quite as good as the original Headhunter, Headhunter: Redemption is not as bad as many reviewers claim it is. Regardless, the game will still provide many hours of action for fans of this already crowded genre. The good graphics (by PS2 as opposed to Xbox standards), music and story save this game from being a complete waste of time. Fans of the original Headhunter in particular and Action/Adventure games in general might find this game a worthwhile purchase (I suspect that fans of the original game will either enjoy or hate the sequel the most). It's certainly worth buying if you can find a cheap copy. It seems that all of the media outlets online gave this game poor reviews even though both the graphics and music in the game are noteworthy. Doesn't that count for anything? Maybe I just haven't played enough games like this to know what an "average" game is when I see one. I enjoyed Headhunter 2 for what it was (a linear story-driven third person shooter), and that's all that matters in the end. Once you weigh the game's strengths against its weaknesses, it turns out to be just above average with enough unique elements to set it apart from other games in its genre.
Overall: 8.0 | Graphics: 9.0 | Control: 7.0 | Sound: 8.5 | Fun: 7.5
~ Geoffrey Duke ~
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