Review: Not quite hell, but not quite heaven either.
Constantine is loosely based on the Keanu Reeves movie of the same name, which itself is based on the British DC Comics series Hellblazer. As gamers are painfully aware, most games based on movies turn out to be huge stinkers and are nothing more than lame attempts to grab merchandising dollars. And considering Constantine the movie was average at best, Constantine the game is probably as pungent as a rotting corpse, right?
Surprisingly, no. The game is actually quite decent with a lot of potential, but it never capitalizes on that potential and suffers from several issues that make it a bit difficult to justify spending your hard earned dollars on it. It sounds like a contradiction ? much like Constantine the man himself, who struggles to walk the fine line between good and evil.
John and Satan's Excellent Adventure
John Constantine is a dark-haired Los Angeles detective (in contrast to the original blond and British comic character) who smokes and drinks too much ? in fact, he suffers from lung cancer. He is also a demon-fighting mage with the ability to cast cool spells such as Gargoyle, which turns demons into stone statues that will shatter when you hit them; Hunger, which surrounds enemies with a swarm of hungry munching bugs; Exorcise, which forces certain demons to leave the host bodies of dead people; and my personal favorite, Storm Crow, which kills multiple enemies with pretty bolts of lightning. Constantine can also use True Sight, which lets him see hidden items, secret areas, clues to help you solve puzzles, and provides night vision. His most impressive power is the ability to teleport between Hell and Earth simply by stepping into water and making a corny incantation. No more waiting in line at the airport!
To use your spells, you play a very simple ?Simon says? mini-game of button presses and draw upon a reservoir of Magic Power which slowly replenishes over time. But most of the time, you will kill demons the old fashioned way with powerful and interestingly named weapons like the Witch's Curse pistol (which you can dual wield), the Dragon's Breath flamethrower, the SMG-like Crucifier (which shoots crucifixion nails) and something no man of the cloth should be without, the deadly Holy Shotgun. The Crucifier will likely be your main weapon of choice since it lets you scoop up your expended rounds, essentially giving you unlimited ammo. You can also find upgrades that will increase your health and magic bars, as well as the always enjoyable explosive nails upgrade for your Crucifier (just make sure you don't put those puppies in your tool box). You also have secondary weapons like Holy Water Bombs and the Moses Shroud, which will wipe out multiple enemies.
You play in the third-person view as a perfectly rendered Keanu Reeves, so while the temptation to let the demons repeatedly rip him to shreds over The Matrix Revolutions is enormous, it won't get you very far into the game. Ah, to hell with it, go ahead ? it's quite enjoyable in a gleefully morbid sort of way.
After you've had your fill of Keanu killing, you will quickly appreciate the simplicity of the movement system; Constantine will crouch, jump or climb automatically, no extra button presses required. Especially deserving kudos is the camera system, which should be a model for all fixed-camera third-person games. Such games usually suffer from bad zooming angles and blocked views when you get too close to a wall or other object, but in Constantine, the developers avoid this frustrating situation by temporarily zooming the camera into a first-person view if you are beside a wall. As a result, instead of trying to keep the focus on the character, the camera instead focuses on what's more important ? the view in front of you. While the free-rotating camera system of Splinter Cell is still the best third-person set up, the Constantine system works quite well too.
Go to Hell
The story starts off with a slick pre-rendered video that is equal parts creepy, cool and confusing. There is very little preamble ? the developers assume you already know who Constantine is and what he can do. In fact, the whole story (if you want to call it that; Constantine has to look for holy artifacts to fight demons but you're not told why, and the ending really doesn't wrap things up neatly either) unfolds entirely through high quality pre-rendered video shown between levels.
After the opening video, you go straight to Hell ? literally. Instead of the common depiction of Hell as a fiery lava pit, Constantine's Hell is an apocalyptic mirror image of Earth, with crumbling buildings and demolished piles of rubble everywhere. The sky is an angry turmoil of orange and red, strong winds blow around dust, ash and even smashed cars, and huge fireballs crash down to cause even more destruction. And you can tell the temperature is a wee bit on the tropical side thanks to the heat wave distortion effects. It even sounds like Hell with the angry roar of fires and the tortured screams of the damned.
It looks impressive at first but eventually, all of the Hell levels begin to look the same. Unlike Doom 3, which used a lot of creativity and variety in its Hell designs even though they drew upon common mythology, Constantine's version of Hell is limited to a deteriorated version of the Earth levels ? and the Earth levels aren't exactly awe-inspiring examples of level design in the first place. Most of the game takes place indoors, from apartment buildings and warehouses to a police station and mortuary, which means you're basically just running around from hallway to hallway and room to room, be it on Earth or in Hell. The levels are also quite linear so there is little opportunity to explore and there are no alternative routes to your objectives. This is not to say the level design is poor; it is actually fairly well done, but there is nothing really special about it ? in other words, it's competent, but average.
Speaking of Doom 3, Constantine feels a lot like a ?lite? version of id Software's epochal shooter. The game is filled with many ?gotcha!? scare moments like creepy noises that will have you spinning around like a jittery rabbit to see if any demons are afoot, objects (like dead bodies) that suddenly crash through windows or doorways, and lights that suddenly explode in a shower of sparks. When demons materialize in front of you, you can bet another one will be right behind you, and if you're not sure where enemies are, just stand still because the basic enemy AI means they will always run straight at you. It was a simple formula that worked in Doom 3 because they made excellent use of sound, had some truly nasty demons, and wrapped it all up in a horrifyingly dark atmosphere. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work in Constantine because the game doesn't capitalize on its creepiness potential; for example, where are the massive smears of blood, eviscerated bodies, the remains of tortured souls, and pitch black rooms that so scared the crap out of us in Doom 3? Instead the levels seem too bright, barren and empty, with the occasional dead body here and there to remind you that something fishy is going on. The atmosphere simply isn't that scary, a big omission for a game that should be giving you goosebumps.
But perhaps the game's biggest fault is that it is way too easy. There are 14 levels in all, split roughly 50/50 between Earth and Hell, and you can easily finish in only 10-12 hours. Your goal is pretty basic: kill every demon in sight, which isn't hard to do since enemies are quite weak ? a couple of shots and they're dead. Since they run right at you, you can basically stand in one spot and fire away ? which is actually a good thing because your character moves like his feet are stuck in molasses, and he can get caught on low piles of debris. If you're facing multiple enemies, all you have to do is use your Storm Crow spell to easily wipe them out ? that is, if you don't mind enduring the same overly long spell animation repeatedly. You also quickly learn to ignore the creepy ambient noises because the music will change whenever enemies are near, even if you can't see them yet; it's as if the demons yell out, ?Hello! Yoo-hoo! Here we come!? before they decide to attack you. The game also gives you blatant hints in the form of John talking to himself, even though in many instances it's pretty obvious what you're supposed to do.
As well, you will never have to worry about running out of ammo or health because the maps are littered with powerups ? and if you use the Crucifier or the Purger crossbow and remember to pick up your expended ammo, you'll never need to look for powerups in the first place. To replenish your health, you drink from your blessed water flask that can be continuously refilled at any sink or water cooler. If you lose health, just run back to the nearest source of water, refill and you're back to 100%. In Hell things are a bit more difficult since there are no sinks or coolers, but water bottles are scattered throughout the levels in strategic locations ? so unless you've really screwed up, you should be able to finish each level with plenty of health left over.
The demons are appropriately scary looking but with a few exceptions, they all tend to look alike since they are derived from the same basic rotting corpse design. As a result, it feels like you're fighting the same demon all the time; in fact you do
fight one particular demon boss about half a dozen times, which gets really annoying. He's relatively easy to kill, but Constantine's sluggish speed usually means you will be unable to avoid his attacks and will have to retry several times. Even the main bosses at the end of the game are way too easy to kill.
To help add some variety and challenge to the game, the developers included puzzles you need to solve in order to advance. However, except for one particular puzzle that will really have you thinking, all of them are pretty darn easy as well. In many instances you can turn on your True Sight to find hints ? if you want to call something that basically tells you how to solve the puzzle a ?hint?. Games that are too difficult are frustrating, but games that are too easy are boring. Of course, of the two I would prefer the latter, but in either case you will not have a particularly enjoyable experience.
The developers also added bonus material that you can unlock by finding special tarot cards scattered throughout the maps. Besides the ubiquitous concept art, the bonus material includes comic book covers, video storyboards, the rendered game videos, and even a complete Hellblazer comic book. Also included are video interviews with Tilda Swinton (Gabriel), Gavin Rossdale (Balthazar) and Max Baker (Beeman), the actors who reprise their roles from the movie. The movie's star didn't participate, so instead the developers used an actor who sounds like a dead ringer for Keanu Reeves, right down to his wooden acting style. In fact, he does such a good job it sounds like Keanu doing a parody of Keanu ? yet oddly enough, he still does a better acting job than the real thing. Whoa.
On the list of Annoying Things About This Game are a few hit detection problems; most demons use melee attacks and although it may look like you're out of their reach, they will still be able to hit you. Conversely, shots that appear to hit them dead on will sometimes not register. There is also no way to skip through the spell animations (which feel like they take forever) and skipping through video cutscenes is hit and miss. The music is appropriately creepy, but gets repetitive when you hear the exact same tune throughout the entire game.