STAFF REVIEW of Wanted: Dead (Xbox One)

Tuesday, February 14, 2023.
by Adam Dileva

Wanted: Dead Box art Depending on your age or when you started playing games, ‘classic’ generations of consoles may be a distant memory or something you look at and wonder how some of us older gamers managed to play given the graphics at the time. Games have certainly come a long way, and each generation of console brings new leaps and bounds of what’s possible from developers. There’s a certain charm though when I play an older game, as it’s not going to be anywhere near as mechanically extensive or visually impressive when compared to releases now, but they can have a certain charm to them due to this. This is what small developer Soleil is trying to capture with their latest release, Wanted: Dead.

With a handful of developers from the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive series in their ranks, Wanted: Dead aims to create an ‘old school’ experience, specifically being a love letter to classic consoles from the 6th generation: Sega Dreamcast, Playstation 2, Gamecube and the original Xbox. Games from this era had something special about them and many fond memories come from this generation of gaming regardless of console.

A hybrid slasher/shooter, Wanted: Dead is sure to remind you of some older titles, but the one that kept coming to mind was Oni or Devil's Third. With a cyberpunk backdrop, you’ll be running, gunning and slashing your way through near endless enemies as you try to survive just one more day. Expect a lot of bloodshed, swearing and even more blood. You can certainly see some of its Ninja Gaiden roots in its unapologetic violence.

You play as Lt. Hannah Stone, a grizzled Hong Kong cop that is but just one member of the Zombie Unit, an elite squad that gets called upon for the most dangerous and impossible missions. Also in your squad are your teammates Cortez, Doc and Herzog, each with their own unique personalities and combat talents. Your Captain, Simmons, is the one that leads your crew, but you’ll meet a handful of other cast as well, namely your Gunsmith, Vivienne, a former Olympic gold medalist and celebrity chef. If she happens to look and sound familiar you would be correct, as it’s the same actress who played Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Stefanie Joosten.

The main narrative revolves around massive corporation, Dauer Synthetics, and you’ll soon come to realize that they’re at the heart of a major conspiracy. Doing so won’t be easy though, as you’ll have a literal army standing in your way that you’ll need to destroy. With a cyberpunk backdrop, you’ll certainly see a different Hong Kong setting that you may be used to, one where the police force is essentially privatized and use Maserati’s for their vehicles.

The story itself is compelling enough if you’re able to keep the game going without too many deaths and restarts, but I’ve had numerous times where I’ve been stuck at certain sections for quite some time. Most cutscenes will be as you’d expect, taking place in-game, but every so often there’s a hand drawn anime style that I found done quite well and signify flashbacks, even if a little jarring going between the different aesthetics.

As you begin your adventure you’ll first need to decide if you want to play on Normal or Hard. Now, I’m not great at difficult games, as they frustrate me. I know, I know, ‘git gud’, but I simply don’t find enjoyment in dying numerous times to slowly make progress. That said, even on Normal, Wanted: Dead is quite challenging, especially the first portion when you’re still getting used to your moves, abilities and different enemy types, figuring out the best strategies for each.

Taking on mercenaries, private security and even synthetics will feel overwhelming, even in the opening section, as you’re almost constantly outnumbered a good 5 or 10 to one. Hannah is armed with a razor sharp sword, pistol and assault rifle. I’ll admit, I initially tried playing this like a third person cover based shooter, as you automatically duck or crouch behind when nearby walls and objects, but that won’t work long with your limited ammo. You’re going to have to get your hands dirty, more specifically, bloody, as you’ll need to rush enemies to slice and dice them apart. You’re going to die, a lot, and it will take a good handful of hours before you start to feel really comfortable with the combat, as I was trying to play more defensively, but that simply won’t work here when you’re constantly outnumbered and surrounded.

Even though you have a squad with you for most missions, don’t plan on them actually pulling their weight. Sure they do fire their guns and offer as some slight distractions sometimes, but they tend to stick nearby you, so if you retreat to try and get a breather they’ll too come in tow. You have a set amount of health packs that you can use at any time, though you need to become proactive using them, as they won’t be automatically used when you’re downed, and there’s nothing more frustrating than dying with a handful of health packs that you forgot to use.

Certain missions will have Doc with you on your team, and he’s by far the most useful, as he can revive you once per checkpoint if you get downed and forgot to heal or ran out of health packs. Doc is basically a free revive which is fantastic to have when he comes along, but there’s a good amount of missions he’s not with you, so you don’t always have that safety net. The other issue that is that most checkpoints are incredibly far apart, so when you do inevitably die, you’re going to redo lengthy portions over again, numerous times. I can’t tell you how frustrated I became near the very end when I was stuck on getting to the next checkpoint, redoing a good 20+ minute portion numerous times until I finally progressed by some miracle. For those wanting a good chuckle, each time you get a loading screen it’s based on a popular meme, showing that it doesn’t always take itself so seriously.

Part brawler, part shooter, you’ll need to lean more towards the offensive to proceed. While you could try to play it like a third person shooter, this won’t get you far, so you’re going to need to run into the chaos and utilize all your abilities to survive. Being mobile and constantly moving seems to be the best strategy, as once I adopted a more non-stop approach, I was doing much better. Cover is available, and will be needed in certain portions, as picking off a few grunt enemies is a good way to thin the herd, but this won’t work for every enemy type effectively.

Speaking of your enemies, there isn’t all that much variety. Sure they look somewhat different when you start fighting against synthetics, but you essentially only have a few types. Grunts are your easiest ones you’ll begin fighting, taken out with a few good slashes or headshots from your weaponry. You then have stronger versions that generally need to be taken out up and close or they’ll try to come at you direct. You’ll eventually take on ninjas that vary in strength and difficulty, the bane of my existence. Then lastly you have the massive brutes wearing a Juggernaut-like suit with a Gatling gun. I’m not going to spoil the best strategies to take out each, but when you’re fighting all different types at once, you’re going to wish the rest of the Zombie Unit pulled their weight instead of basically letting you do all the work.

Your sword is going to be the base of your damage, but sometimes you’ll need to rely on your other weapons. You do have a pistol, but this is meant more as an interrupter or countering specific attacks rather than causing big damage, even though it has unlimited ammunition. You always have your assault rifle, but this is limited in ammo, good for taking out a few lower ranked enemies or quick damage to the harder enemies. You can also carry one enemy weapon and swap between the two, such as different rifles, SMG, LMG, Shotgun and Grenade Launchers. These are limited in ammo but enemies will generally drop ammo for either your assault rifle or picked up gun, so it’s a matter of finding what’s best for each situation. Where the problem lies is that basically every enemy is a massive bullet and sword sponge, even on Normal.

Combat is brutal. Even early on you’ll be slicing and dicing your enemies in half or even literally disarming them. An ‘unarmed’ enemy is still dangerous, so always be sure to finish them off. There’s over 50 brutal finishers that can be triggered, and these look incredibly stylish and over the top, generally leaving Hannah covered in so much blood she’s pure red. As you take out enemies your adrenaline meter will fill that once full and used, you’ll do some wicked looking Matrix-like moves that will deplete the stamina of enemies nearby, allowing for chained executions. The first time you pull this off, it’s quite badass to witness.

Combat moves are based on different combinations of your blade and pistol, but you’re going to have to be quite defensive at times as well, blocking with your sword or doing a parry if timed perfectly right. I’ll tell you now, get proficient with parrying early on, as you won’t be able to complete the adventure without being skilled at this move. You’re able to dodge out of the way and use limited amounts of grenades as well in a tight situation. As for the enemy AI, they are easy to exploit once you figure out how dumb they can be individually, but where the challenge comes is when you’re surrounded by numerous types and always outnumbered. One ninja rushing you is no big deal, completely different story with three, some grunts shooting at you in the distance and a heavy using its Gatling gun as well.

Stone will earn skill points (SP) when defeating enemies, so the flashier the kill the more points you’ll get. Earn enough and you can spend them in any of the three skill trees. Here you’ll improve your offense, defense and utility skills. About three quarters through the game I had maxed out the skill trees, and had thousands of extra unspent points near the finale. I don’t know if it was a specific skill or upgrade that helped, but there was a certain point where all of a sudden either the skill points made a huge difference or my own skill instantly improved. Either way, from this point on I felt at times invincible; Not always, but some boss fights I even beat on the first try, whereas earlier bosses took a good dozen tries before being successful.

If you need a break from the high adrenaline combat, there's a good handful of minigames and other things you can partake in when you're back at the police HQ between missions. You'll be able to play a crane game to try and grab different collectable statues and balls containing new audio tracks. An in Yakuza-like fashion, there's even some odd wacky games you can play like matching buttons to certain songs to eat bowls of ramen or having a karaoke sing-off with the Weaponsmith. There's also a sidescrolling shooter you can play for high scores later on as well, so there's other things to fill your time when you just want to chill.

Visually, the cyberpunk backdrop and emphasizes violence simply looks cool. While it won’t wow you, it performs quite well and smoothly other than the odd few sections where there was simply too much going on at once, hitting me with some framerate slowdown even on an Xbox Series X, but this was pretty infrequent. The slickness of the combat and shooting is stylish even if much of the level design is corridor based an in enclosed area.

Where I struggle is with the audio. The soundtrack is fantastic across the board, but the dialogue is something quite different. Kind of like a terrible B-movie you just love, it has an endearing charm regardless. I’m not sure if it’s trying to emulate the early 2000’s games that it draws inspiration from or not, but you can expect numerous one-liners and death screams over and over again. The dialogue is cheesy and even though Hannah’s delivery is unique at times, I do think that’s what they were intentionally going for oddly enough.

Even though I think the difficulty can be a little over tuned at times and the checkpoints are a little too spread out at times, for every moment I had frustration, I was still compelled to move forward and try again and again. Sometimes you just need a game where you turn off your brain to slash and blast everything in your way and can have fun doing so with some over the top violence, Wanted: Dead delivers that, even if it does feel way over the top with its style.

**Wanted: Dead was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 6.5 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 7.5 / 10


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