GDC09: Terminator Salvation hands-on

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Set two years before the movie bearing the same name, Terminator Salvation's, well, salvation from the realm of mediocre shooter-dom is in the hands of Bionic Commando dev Grin. Embedded within the film's production team from day one, sharing creations back and forth, the Swedish group hopes to set the game apart from every other third-person action game on the market by playing off the toughness and tenacity of the titular robots.

When we sat down to play the game for the first time, we found a functional shooter that didn't manage to terminate our generally low expectations of movie tie-ins.

While we were assured that the game does indeed look like the film on which it precedes in the series' canon, the wash of browns and greens which made up the first level's scenery, combined with its cover mechanic and even the look of John Connor himself, had us wondering if this really was a Terminator title or if someone had played way too much Resistance: Retribution. (It looks eerily similar at times; check out the screens.)

If it weren't for the HK and endoskeletons, we could have been playing any one of a hundred generic shooters.

Grin is no stranger to the field of cover mechanics, having just finished some for the recently released Wanted: Weapons of Fate. We'd have to say that Terminator Salvation's ... isn't as good. Yes, it's easy enough to take cover, but getting out of it isn't so simple -- you can't just hold the analog stick in another direction. You also can't vault cover, at least in the version we played. You're probably asking yourself, "Why is cover so important?" Easy: it's where you'll spend most of your time playing from.

Most of the enemies we encountered were either very difficult or impossible to destroy head-on. This meant relying on our AI squad mates (we're told you can collect up to eight at a time) to draw their attention so you can sneak up behind to hit their weak spots for massive -- nah, not going there. Anyway, you can either do this using your rifle or shotgun (the two weapons we found in the demo) or ... you can just lob a grenade at them while staring them in their glowing red eyes. We're guessing grenades will be rather hard to come by in the final game.

So we ran through a level devoid of any real pacing (or environmental) ups and downs, flanking -- and being flanked by -- lots of walking and flying robots. To be truthful, it was pretty generic. Actually, make that very generic. The health system isn't, though. Rather than take the route of most genre titles and let your health restore over time or with pick-ups, you're allotted a limited amount of life for each checkpoint-delineated scenario. Survive, and it's filled back up. We can imagine this leading to some frustration later on if not handled very carefully by the designers.

Once the initial demo level had finished, we were given a chance to play one of the game's several rail-based shooter segments. This one was set at night in a different part of Los Angeles and, thankfully, looked a lot more like the Terminator future we know and love. Heck, there was even an airborne Hunter Killer to take out while riding in the back of a bulked-up pickup truck.

We found that we had to be extremely precise with our shots; the small flying drones that chased us through the first section flitted around erratically by design, but were remarkably good shots. Then the HK came on scene, at which point we were prompted to take out various bits of it (the engine, the sensors, the cannons) as in an old shoot-'em-up. We did, it crashed, and after quickly dispatching an endoskeleton driving a van, the demo was over. We tried some split-screen multiplayer, which ran smoothly but ... well, it ran smoothly.

We'll be honest -- the demo build of Terminator Salvation was about as flat as a week-old Big Gulp, and nearly as flavorful. If it weren't for the HK and endoskeletons (well, and the occasional reference to our character as "John Connor") we could have been playing any one of a hundred generic shooters. The Terminator vibe was there in the rail-based segment but even that's been done better before in Midway's 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day coin-op. After its Wanted game and our first go with Terminator Salvation, we're really hoping Grin's bringing its AAA game to Bionic Commando.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.