You know what it's like when you're playing a game and you just want to skip all the story and dialogue to get to the action? Well, Wanted: Dead is a little like that in reverse. It is very much an action game, and with its mix of gun and sword play, fancies itself a bit of a John Wick. Except it's all rather wonky and repetitive – and the stuff in between the combat, while also pretty wonky, is far more entertaining.
Wanted: Dead secretes a trashy charm from its opening cutscenes. First, you meet cybernetic super soldier protagonist Hannah Stone, who's serving a life sentence in prison for something or other. She's a cool customer, with her facial scars, cigarette habit, and casual demeanour as she accepts a deal to skip jail in return for joining an elite police 'Zombie Unit'. But the production values are already struggling to convince, with some strangely stilted voice overs leading the way.
Next we fast forward to a diner where Stone is relaxing with her fellow zombies – a trio of action men whose names I've already forgotten. Their macho chit-chat has all the flow of a bad cough, peppered with awkward pauses, unplaceable accents and non sequiturs. But perhaps because it's so off it remains captivating, from these beginnings to exchanges that erupt apropos of nothing during missions. "How does it feel to be a grumpy alcoholic?" one asks another out of the blue. "I don't know, how does it feel going down on your sister?" comes the reply. "I'm from Wisconsin," the first retorts. Fin.
Meet the team
But only after the opening mission does this stream of consciousness really go into overdrive. Honestly, it's difficult to remember the full chain of events back at the station once you've beaten the first boss, like trying to recount a dream where people and locations kept morphing inexplicably. A debriefing scene with the captain – a sort of angry Danny Glover who's getting too old for this shit – is followed by a gathering in the canteen where the team discuss the state of the food, then a flashback anime sequence, then a switch to a noodle bar where a bizarre conversation segues into a ramen eating contest. It all lurches together, with other bits in between, in a way that's impossible to take your eyes off.
The ramen contest is a fun little rhythm game too, and an even better one turns up later as Stone is pulled into a karaoke duet with the station's gunsmith, Vivienne. The pair launch into a cover of 99 Luft Balloons with beaming out-of-tune gusto, which oozes warmth and matches the peaks of silliness in Sega's Yakuza series. It's a shame there aren't more songs to try out, not least because the soundtrack features belting versions of retro-pop anthems like Maniac and She Works Hard for the Money.
Most fascinating in these sections, however, is how they bounce like a rugby ball between dumb cliché and sharp self-awareness. At times, Wanted: Dead could be an astute parody of revered '80s action films. Placing Stone at the head of a team of unreconstructed musclemen reframes their schoolboy banter as something to endure rather than enjoy – a point underlined in a scene where Stone and Vivienne get to chat with none of the lads around, and for once simply talk about life outside work. Even the game's marketing material helps to recontextualise dated tropes, with this promo video (opens in new tab) adding dimensions to the waitress character who's subject to sexual objectification in the diner scene.
If Wanted: Dead serves up some crispy satire about women surviving in a man's world, though, it's still raw in the centre, making no real attempt to follow through on these roughly sketched themes. The game is caught ultimately between playful pastiche and a desire to deliver on a traditional action formula, and by the halfway point the latter takes over completely, with the characters, the knock-off cyberpunk story, and all the quirky extras shoved aside to focus on the fighting.
Many Scrappy Returns
So, the fighting. It's actually quite proficiently constructed at the core level of character control and move set. Stone is as comfortable with an automatic weapon nestling against her shoulder as she is swinging a katana, and switches one for the other in the blink of an eye. Mixing up short and long range assaults is the order of the day, then, aided by Stone's ability to close space quickly on foes, by sprinting, rolling, and stunning them with blasts from her backup pistol. The sidearm plays a part in hand-to-hand faceoffs too, as you work it into blade combos to stop your target from winding up a counter strike.
Adding to these basics is a responsive parrying mechanic, which you'll often need against more powerful foes. As ever with these things, it's all about risk-reward, and it's not easy to time, but the payoff is substantial when, say, you bait a riot soldier into lunging with their shield only to block it out of their hand. There's also a wicked joy when your counter sees Stone cleave the enemy in two, or lop off an arm or a leg. You may also stun an opponent, leaving them prone to an execution move that puts a stylish full stop at the end of a tricky duel.
But your efforts often rub up against rough edges and flimsy systems. You might argue that Wanted: Dead harks back to the early '00s golden age of character action games, but frame rate drops and animation glitches are surely not a welcome part of that homage. Nor did Ninja Gaiden ever crash, which can't be said for Wanted: Dead. Rather than retro, it looks and sounds cheap and disjointed – chunks of dismembered enemies are left floating in the air, for instance, while the audio track is plagued by assailants yelling two or three phrases in a loop.
Battles also struggle for coherent flow on many counts. Teammates and opposing soldiers mingle together, all dressed in dark grey. Grenades are lobbed with abandon, and while one of your allies will helpfully shout a warning, much of the time you have no idea who's thrown the thing or where, so you run and hope for the best. Enemies spawn in unexpected places then can't decide where best to take cover, or how to act. Pick up a chainsaw and a group loiters idly, as if waiting to be chopped in half (the gory details obscured by a 'Censored' banner). Then a single ninja arrives, or a soldier with a grenade launcher, and strips your health in a second if you don't react instantly to a split-second visual cue.
And that's if the camera happens to be pointing in the direction of the threat, which is far from guaranteed. Indeed, the most effective tactic close-range opponents have in their repertoire is simply to sidestep offscreen, allowing them to strike as the camera stares dumbly ahead. The lack of any kind of lock-on is a killer here, doubly so because moving away from an assailant means turning your back on them. So you best get used to dodging and parrying attacks you can't see coming.
Extra salt is rubbed in the wound here because Wanted: Dead sells itself as an old-fashioned hardcore experience, but struggles to manufacture a satisfying challenge. In a fair fight, it's not too tricky to dispatch a whole room full of enemies at a time, and even some of the five main bosses are barely worthy of the name (especially when one got stuck in a wall). But Wanted: Dead's idea of difficulty in later levels is to stretch checkpoints further apart, until you find yourself fighting for ten minutes or so only to be unceremoniously killed and having to do it all over again. And when death comes thanks to a sticky camera or barrage of unforeseeable attacks, supplies of enthusiasm quickly deplete.
The biggest issue, however, is that even if Wanted: Dead fixed all of its execution faux-pas, it would still be short on memorable scenes and level design. For the most part, sequences and events in the five long missions blur into one another, propelling you linearly from one goon-filled space to the next, with no variance in pace or scale. Five levels may not sound a lot, but it's a relief there aren't more, because the well of ideas (and enemy types) runs dry all too soon.
There's still a certain swagger to Wanted: Dead that makes it hard to dislike. Perhaps because it feels unpretentious, and seems to revel in its wonkiness. But when you recall the fragmented diner conversations and karaoke sessions with a chuckle, you might wish that more of their unrepentant oddness had rubbed off on the rest of the experience.
Wanted: Dead was reviewed on PC, with code provided by the publisher.