On Playing ‘Wanted: Dead’ on PS5 at 2AM on Valentine’s Day

I wanted to play Wanted: Dead because there’s a woman protagonist speaking English in a Swiss accent, and that’s unusual in this space, and it’s a real cool accent, whether or not I know what a Swiss accent actually is.

It’s a new video game from the makers of Ninja Gaiden that is basically about (from my small-but-burgeoning sample size) a cyborg police squad in future Hong Kong that shoots a bunch of enemies, and also attacks them with a sword. You know, how John Wick is always shooting people while also punching them in the head?

No, there aren’t, so far, any obviously Asian people in Hong Kong. There is a Madame Wong in future Hong Kong, who is mysterious, and apart from that the iconic East Asian city is there as a neon-nifty backdrop. We know how that goes. (This is not a formal review, as I haven’t progressed very far in the game; my impression is, the pan-Asian-futuristic setting exists to motivate elements like karaoke, ramen-eating minigames, and anime-style cutscenes.)

BUT, it’s a vibe. You play as Hannah Stone, who has metal limbs, superior sword- and gunfighting skills, and seems to be eight feet tall. And no, I’m not posting any videos of my actual gameplay. No one cares. I’m not really too good at video games. I just enjoy playing them.

To wit, I spent some time stuck on the combat tutorial because I couldn’t get the square-triangle combo in exactly the sequence required by the tutorial. But then I plunged ahead into the first mission and defeated the initial wave of enemies anyway, because in those magic minutes of starting up a new action video game, you are always gonna be pretty invulnerable.

The game’s developers describe Wanted: Dead as a love letter to the PS2/original Xbox era of console games. During the height of this era (say, the early 2000s) I was busy working a job and making art, so I don’t really know. These days I play PS5 games all the pandemic-extended time. Having missed the exact era of reference, the intentional retro aesthetic is still appreciated. The main font is heartwarming, it’s that blocky computery text that was the only one there was, before computers had fonts. The music suggests an ’80s John Carpenter movie. There’s a giant robot tank like in Ghost In The Shell.

And it doesn’t look like a 2023 video game, which is to say, it looks like an astounding animated film featuring gorgeously-detailed characters moving with superhuman grace through impossible camera shots. What I mean is, video games have all looked amazingly great since, oh, I dunno, Obama’s presidency. The visual experience has somewhat plateaued, and now people fuss over framerates as if they really make a storytelling difference.

There’s a trashy fun to the whole presentation, and I believe I mean “trashy” in a good way. Hannah and her team sit in a diner and order platters of comforting breakfast fare. Stefanie Joosten, who played the lethal and hyper-sexified Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V, has a prominent role, and a cute cat, and talks a lot. The rooms don’t require the picky poring-over as in sprawling open world games; instinctively, one figures out that the main point is just to keep moving.

I prefer the third-person view to a first-person POV. I like to see the character’s whole body move in relation to the bodies of oncoming swarms of opponents. Wanted: Dead’s combat system is more difficult than the one-button elegance of Arkham Knight or Spider-Man’s fighting schemes (and more absurdly bloody) but the acrobatic animations are similarly thrilling.

That said, I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s a dark building and I can’t really discern between the enemy goon’s body armor and my squad friends’ body armor. I attack my friends, just to make sure. On some nostalgia-drunken level, I love this game.

For Valentine’s Day, the desire was to slip into an immersive escapist adventure by myself, with junkfood violence and overpowered flashy avatars, ideally somewhere between Sleeping Dogs and NieR: Automata. I don’t think I quite found it. But then again, I am stuck on the first level.

(This post may be updated in the future to reflect actual completion of the game.)

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