A Blast from the Past review
FBT remembers when he was a Mexican not a mexican't.
My memories of TO are good. I spout on about insane gameplay, a DGAF attitude and feeling like I was in a Mexican GTA. I also remember I picked it up solely because it’s tagline was ‘Chili Con Carnage’; You knew what you were in for. I recalled TO as the granddad of Bulletstorm and Saints Row III, games that let you play insane.
But when I try to remember specifics, I struggle. I take this to mean it wasn’t important, I was too busy living a Rodriquez movie; I can’t really remember what GTA 3 was about either, beyond the fact Claude never spoke (Or maybe he did and I don’t remember), so not recalling any detail doesn’t make a game unmemorable … it’s the experience you took from it and I would describe TO as great, but have no demonstrable specifics to back that up. It was great though, honest.
Thinking about it though, if I consider TO so great why’d I only play through once? It came out in 2005 and the budget edition a year later (big seller then) and within that time there were a few other distractions; Star Wars’ Republic Commando and Battlefront 2, FEAR, Quake 4, Gun, King Kong, Just Cause and TES Oblivion to mention a few, many of which are still being mentioned ten years on yet TO is long forgotten; was it Bulletstorm, one of those underground games only a few knew about or was it best forgotten? Deadline Games, the devs weren’t high-end but it was shepherded by Square Enix who’d overseen Tomb Raider and Thief so it had pedigree. Plus, my copy had avoided the great eBay purge of 2007 (when Steam started releasing major non-Valve games and I figured everything would be on there soon - Still waiting, NOLF) so something about TO stopped me from parting with it. Time to work out what’s going down in Mexico.
Shoulda stayed there?
So after two production credits that feature Day of the Dead characters dancing in skeleton outfits (one in a sombrero) I already wish I’d played this hundreds of times. I can tell this is going to be awesome. Mexican rap plays over the menu and I feel like I’m in Desperado. Then I’m into the story. I’m a DEA agent whose cover has been blown, attempting to escape some airfield and being shot at by drug runners. I begin by sliding down a zip-rope uzi’ing the smugglers and then take out everyone between me and my plane; which once aboard, I’m promptly thrown out of by my double-crossing extraction team, bought out by the drug kingpin I’ve sworn to bring down. Given how heroic I’ve just been, I expected to have expected this, but I didn’t and I’m actually dead. The action then switches to later and I’m now playing my son, also a DEA agent who is also in deep cover in the same kingpin’s crew to prove dad didn’t die of an ‘overdose’ - what kind of drug gets you so high you die from the fall? Let’s not worry about it, the game is either joking around or doesn’t care, and that’s part of its appeal - As the son, I’m instructed to drive a car towards a gas truck and use a ‘stunt exit’ option. I slo-mo out of the car as it crashes causing an explosion, then I wipe out everyone around me. Finally, down to me and one last guy who taunts me with a grenade, in cut-scene I shoot him between the eyes then stand about looking cool, before realising the grenade landed by a petrol pump. It goes up and so do I. Does every mission end with the death of my character?! No, I survive although with a broken leg. I’m then transported into the son’s wayward twin brother who has been released from prison on the understanding he’ll pretend to be who his brother was pretending to be and continue his (their father’s) work to bring down mr kingpin. Got it so far? In return, my sentence will be reduced (so, I’m in prison and the DEA sends me to a country with no extradition order and expects me to infiltrate a drug business filled with criminals in return for reducing my sentence? Again, don’t sweat the small stuff). Cue opening credits. What a start!
Once in the Mexican city, I do various small criminal jobs to attract the interest of the Kingpin then work my way to his side by doing missions alongside various side quests to build up health and xp. So far, so typically free-roam but the initial fun has worn off and I start to see how old this plays (despite being built on Renderware, the same engine that underpinned GTA SA the year before); the cars drive worse than Driver which was 6 years old and the on-foot sections are less refined than GTA 3, 4 years earlier. I try to remind myself it’s a decade old but it plays like a decade before that. It’s not from some deep-pocketed dev so you can forgive some creakiness, some unrefined gameplay but you'd expect more than this. By 2005 driving, running and general mayhem were, if not a fine art, past blocky characters and wobbly car behaviours. It’s just not fun to play and worse, not nice to look at.
Deadline Games seem to be on their first major free-roam game here, but whereas Stainless Games managed to pull off Carmageddon, DG seems to have made a vanilla GTA; but it’s actually softer than that; this is Midtown Madness meets Blake Stone; not mad or bad enough to actually be anything but a Clone and a largely inoffensive one at that. Worse, the world is tiny with very little to interact with or get lost in. There’s nothing to see and all too soon I give up wandering. You never feel like you’re in a Mexican town let alone one controlled by a drug cartel, it’s a bland featureless concrete area with no interaction, where running is preferable to driving and the side missions are all races or brawls, which get dull quick.
While many story missions are great in their layout (a level in an abattoir is a standout) and there’s some nice cinematic cut-scenes, they’re hamstrung not just by the featureless look but the shootouts themselves aren’t especially exciting. Baddies stand and shoot or run at you, they’re hidden in areas they couldn’t possibly have chosen to stand in unless they knew you’d walk past and every single door will have someone behind it; it's so simple it’s like playing a shooter from the Doom era. To spice it up you have bullet-time and insane power-ups including reversing time, onscreen graphics congratulating good kills and comments from our hero (‘spicy move!’, his favourite phrase is uttered over and over) but it all comes across as set-dressing, gimmicky after a while and irritating soon after. This is one of those games where the engine and development just couldn't compete with the concept and spirit and that's best illustrated by the launch trailer that still makes TO look like the game you always wanted someone to make.
Maybe much of this banality could be overlooked if it was great shakes with storyline and characters - a gaming element not curtailed by budget or graphical constraints - but while in the game’s head you’re Antonio saving a feisty Salma-alike, the reality is a cliché story and strained, obvious dialogue.
When TO came out in 2005, Free-roam (Sandboxing, nonlinear, open-world, whatever) was in its most exciting period. We’d had three GTAs, Morrowind and Far Cry building up to Boiling Point, Oblivion, Gun and Just Cause and barely a year after that Assassin’s Creed, Crysis and STALKER. TO was dead in the centre but there's none of the reckless enthusiasm that pervaded those games; if TO’s limitations were down to a budget constraint, then they should have constrained themselves to a clean linear game and dropped the free-roam. Released around TO was Call of Duty 2, FEAR and Doom 3 – not suggesting TO should have reached for those lofty heights but how much more immersive could TO have been as a straight shooter with all the free-roam work funnelled into a real Drug Cartel experience saving a Mexican town.
In the end, Total Overdose isn’t just dated, it was five years too late to the (open) world. Despite my disappointment at finding my memory lied to me, it had its moments; our hero yells lines other than Spicy on rare occasion that get a snigger, flies descend on your kills, if you shoot a guy wearing a hat, it’ll fly into the air. Position yourself under it and your hero will be wearing it until it gets shot off. It has flashes of brilliance that makes TO feel like an unfinished game, like it's still in beta phase. It’s frustrating because it could have been so much more; it’s got a lot to give - but there’s no world to be given it in.
2005 | Developer Deadline Games / Square Enix | Publisher SCi / Eidos Interactive
Platforms; Win | PS2 | XBox