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Terminator Salvation and the Movie Tie-In

By Tom Dann

It’s hard to believe that The Terminator was released 26 years ago, but that fact underscores just how brilliant the film is. Not content with being just one of the best chase movies ever made, the film presents a thoroughly intriguing premise for a future apocalypse, and a world existing after the event. Fans clamoured for information and stories set in this post-apocalyptic world, and in 2009, Terminator Salvation granted that wish: a film set in the 2018 ruins of human civilisation, as “The Resistance” fight for survival against Skynet’s machines.

Unfortunately, Terminator Salvation was good at best. Everything was in place: an interesting premise (Sam Worthington’s Marcus Wright had a fascinating arc), fantastic production design, a mind-boggling budget, and, despite an underwhelming record, a director who proved himself in some fairly restrained yet thrilling action sequences. This was pretty much expected: many background stories in the movies (and other media) are best left in the background, to provide mystery and “what-if” discussion. Despite a phenomenal opening act, Terminator Salvation just couldn’t deliver. Obviously, such a gargantuan production needed a videogame tie-in, and Warner obliged. Arguably, videogames are a better medium for telling background and filler stories, since weak narratives can be fortified by atmosphere and gameplay.

In fact, Terminator Salvation probably would have worked far better just as a videogame project. This is one tie-in that ticks every box on the “why movie tie-ins shouldn’t be made” list, yet there’s so much potential in the game it’s painful. Narratively, it’s set a little before the movie, and sees John Connor on a mission to rescue some fellow soldiers captured in a skirmish. It’s a weak story, and rather clunkily makes an effort to show John Connor as a charismatic leader, one who places his sense of humanity over survival. It would work better if the script didn’t have someone mention it so much. Using a seperate story to the film is definitely the best way to go about tie-in games, it’s just a shame how little thought typically goes into them.

Since narratively and thematically there isn’t much going on in Terminator Salvation, it’s down to the atmosphere, the game world and the gameplay to keep things going. Tie-in games should be used to explore the films universe further, as in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, for example. Unfortunately, there’s never really a sense of place here, considering humanity is on the brink of extinction, there should be some feeling of desperation. Further, there needs to be a balance between revealing the world and holding some back, for the aforementioned sense of mystery. Terminator Salvation misses the mark again, revealing nothing but a few uninteresting areas with little to no context. It’s not all bad: a car chase on a highway littered with wrecks borders on fun, and gives a better indication that this was our world, once.

The third-person action gameplay is remarkably similar to Gears of War, though significantly less polished. It’s typical of tie-in games to apply the gameplay from a popular game to the world of a popular film. It’s a technique that, while not particularly imaginitive, has potential. Unfortunately, the movement in Terminator Salvation is clunky and generally just feels unfinished. Animations seem to be missing (changing guns, for example). You’ll only encounter half a dozen different enemies in the game. Despite this, there is a neat system of cover changing, though this is never really expanded upon.

Overall Terminator Salvation is a great guide to everything hateful about videogame tie-ins: unfinished, poorly designed, short, unimaginitive. You know something’s wrong when the main actor won’t provide his voice or likeness for the game. Obviously it’s no coincidence that the turnaround time for this game was probably incredibly short, and it’s a shame because this is one tie-in that had plenty of potential. It’s fun in places, but is unacceptably short, completable in less than three hours. This is the same story we’ve heard before: countless tie-ins spoiled because developers just aren’t given room to create anything of worth. This just adds to the negative stigma attached to videogames in terms of their artistic merit. Terminator fans will have to wait a bit longer for an adventure set after Judgement Day. Or maybe they’ll take back that wish, and leave it in the background.

Copyright Tom Dann 2010

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Categories: Essays
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