Judge Dredd: Dredd versus Death

If you know anything about Judge Dredd, you know that He Is The Law. If you know anything else about Judge Dredd, you know that his attempts to cross over beyond comics haven’t met with much success. In the gaming world, his only notable appearance was in a weak platformer based off of the ‘95 film adaptation. Setting out to remedy this, capable developer Rebellion – after purchasing Judge Dredd’s comic publisher, 2000 AD – attempted to give Dredd his due in the crowded realm of PC first person shooters.

Justice has been served.

Here’s the quick setting overview for those unfamiliar: after a nuclear war in the distant future, civilization congregates into “Mega Cities” that contiguously span entire countries. Overpopulation and unemployment are such tremendous problems that citizens turn to crime for entertainment. To maintain order in cities almost half a billion large, “Judges” have been appointed to patrol the streets with the combined authority of police officer, jury, and soldier. The tiniest of minor offenses see years in an Isolation Cube. Major ones get life, or see the perp shot dead while resisting arrest.

Dredd is the most famous of the Judges, and naturally, the one you’ll be taking control of. Mega City’s harsh judicial system is reflected in-game with a basic “arrest” mechanic. All of the game’s criminals have an invisible morale limit. A “challenge” key throws out authoritative lines from Dredd (“Stop, lawbreaker!”), and is often enough to cow lightweights into instant submission. Hitting the “use” key then slaps on the cuffs. Tougher criminals require disarming shots (to the arm or weapon), some liberal application of gas grenades (your only non-lethal option), or simply must be killed (they’ll literally keep pulling new guns each time you disarm them). Though you can’t see the systems governing surrender, it seems fair and practical in application. I especially liked the time when an entire group of bank robbers instantly dropped their guns as soon as I sent one of them flailing around on fire with an incendiary round.

You’re also given some appropriate leeway in how you choose to mete out justice. Any perp shooting at you can be killed without penalty; so you can choose if you want to take them alive – it’s not forced on you. Collateral damage also rarely comes back on you, so you’re only punished for shooting a wandering civilian or a surrendered criminal. A “Law Meter” on your HUD tracks how well you’re following the rules. When it reaches the bottom, a special judicial squad spawns to hunt you down. You really, really have to work to get this to happen. On the flip side, there’s no practical benefit to arresting anyone at all (other than to get your Law Meter back up). You’ll get a sometimes-amusing list of charges (“illegal possession of a goldfish”), and a higher rating at the end of the level. But the only in-game rewards you’ll earn are unlocked characters for the game’s multiplayer mode.

Levels keep some variety going, like this rain shower on the way to the docks.

Dredd’s signature weapon is his Lawgiver pistol, featuring ammunition that adapts to different firing modes. In the game, you get six different options. The Lawgiver’s default mode acts as an automatic burst pistol with decent damage and good ammo conservation. From there, you’re just a mouse-wheel away from Armor Piercing, Ricochet, Incendiary, High Explosive, and Heat Seeker modes. Each of these pulls from the gun’s only ammo clip, but at different rates. Dredd will always carry his Lawgiver, but you can pick up one more secondary weapon off defeated criminals or other fallen Judges. These fill other obvious roles in the game’s total arsenal, like shotguns, sniper rifles, and energy weapons.

Dredd has a weak recharging shield, and a limited health bar. Health can be regained from “using” special Med Judges sometimes found wandering the levels, or is refilled automatically when emptied if you’ve collected medkits. Even at the normal difficulty, Dredd is astonishingly vulnerable to attacks. The meager shield will only stop the first one or two bullets, and Dredd’s health will vanish even quicker – especially to melee strikes. The idea seems to be to push you into using the Lawgiver’s modes. In theory, bouncing Ricochet rounds around corners, or popping out quickly and throwing Heat Seekers, would keep you protected and shake up the standard FPS gameplay a bit. In practice, I can never get the damn things to aim right, and an overall lack of ammo means you’ll want to save the Lawgiver’s most expensive modes for large groups or boss fights.

As the title suggests, Dredd will spend most of the game fighting his nemesis – Judge Death – and the three other Dark Judges. The Dark Judges are supernatural beings from an alternate dimension who, in the ultimate confusion between correlation and causality, have determined that all crime is committed by the living and only the dead are innocent. Dredd must stop Death before he judges Mega City One’s entire population into oblivion. After some initial levels of Dredd on patrol around the city, the rest of the game will be spent chasing the Dark Judges, blasting through the chaos they have caused, and fighting one Judge per level as a boss.

Incendiary rounds burn vampires nicely.

It also means that the early thugs and cultists are quickly replaced with zombies and vampires. These monsters are created by an unstable doctor named Lazarus (natch), and end up functioning as the Dark Judges’ minions. I don’t know if any of this is ever referenced in the comics, but it sure seems like a contrivance to fit the FPS mold. It also means that the game’s only really unique characteristic – arresting perps – gets dropped fairly quickly in favor of bog-standard FPS action. You can’t arrest zombies and vampires, after all.

Luckily, the comic’s style is what keeps the game fresh. Mega City One is rendered beautifully, and there are no shortage of impressive sights and vistas throughout most of the levels. You’ll see various districts of the city at day, night, and in the pouring rain, and it always captures a dingy, neon, future style (more The Fifth Element than its own film adaptation). Shiny textures and excellent lighting abound. Later levels, taking place in facilities and the underground ruins of old New York, aren’t quite as pretty or interesting, but this is mostly unavoidable due to being contained boxes or hallways. There’s a wide variety of locales in between, from hospitals, to shopping malls, to a foggy “smokatorium” where smokers go to get their nicotine fix. Naturally, Dark Judge Fire is attracted to this spot, and his plans foiled through judicious application of the sprinkler system.

Character design is also pretty sharp, and highly satirical. Civilians frequently amuse, from geriatrics wearing a mish-mash of “hip” clothes, to women so obese they need a squeaky roller wheel to support their massive guts. Gang members wear outfits suggestive of strange futuristic trends, and advertising billboards hawk products parodying gross consumerism. Vampires all seem to look the same, but are at least distinct from other foes at a distance. Zombies come in a few forms of varying levels of decay, and so feel a little less repetitious. The Dark Judges are surely the stars of the show, and introduced by pretty solid cutscenes. Each Judge looks true to their comic rendition, and behave appropriately – kill one before you’re supposed to and you fail the mission as their essence escapes in search of a new host.

Other guns are rarely “better” than the Lawgiver, but do fill specialized roles.

Multiplayer is included, and still tries to stay true to the comic, but feels like an unnecessary addition. It’s arena-style deathmatch, with Dredd weapons. Levels are large and loop back into each other well, and it’s certainly competent, but nothing particularly special. Players use unlocked models from the single-player campaign, and collect weapons spawned around the levels. There are standard variants on deathmatch, along with Dredd-appropriate variations of VIP, King of the Hill (set in the narrative trappings of one of the comic’s block wars), Capture the Flag (capture the Umpty), and Tag. The only exclusive variation is “Judges vs Perps” where members of the Perp team can’t pick up a fallen Judge’s weapon, or it blows up in their hand – another nod to the source.

There are also single-player “Arcade” challenges, also unlocked as you proceed through the campaign. These are matches against A.I. bots, using the multiplayer levels and unique sets of criteria. In one level, you have to survive waves of rushing zombies, where only headshots count. In another, you’re a participant in a “block war” trying to kill as many of the opposing team as possible. In another, you’re a member of the Lugosi crime family, trying to blast your way out of a Judge raid. These are more interesting than the extremely standard multiplayer, but again, these are just bot matches. The A.I. intelligence is mediocre, and the lack of human competition is boring. I wish these modes could have been included in the actual multiplayer, but they weren’t, so there you go.

I can’t say that I knew much about Judge Dredd going into this game, and I can’t say that anything about it has inspired me to check out the comics. It is, however, far more interesting that Stallone’s movie, and I suppose that’s a good start for Dredd fans. Gameplay is competent enough to hold the interest of any FPS fan, but it’s unfortunate that the direction trends toward the generic after some strong initial levels. Worth checking out if interested, no loss if not.


The Good

True to the comics (as I understand it).  Lovely rendition of a futuristic city.  Competent gameplay.  Arresting perps is certainly different.

The Bad

Shooting zombies to gruff Dredd quips isn’t particularly inspired.  Story’s a throwaway as these kinds of crossovers usually are (They can’t fundamentally change the world of the comics, so Death escapes and gets caught. The end.)


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