A man of constant sorrow.
When you acquire the rights to make a game based on a movie, you also acquire a long, storied history of unoriginal games to emulate. It's like there's a template for these things - just replace the names of the characters, change a few guns and whammo, instant movie-game (come to think of it, that might be an easy way for me to review games in the future.)
Constantine, as you might suspect, unfortunately follows this formula and ends up being exactly the unsatisfying licensed experience any veteran gamer might have expected.
Admittedly, there are additional pressures on a developer who wants to make a licensed game. There may be limitations on how you use someone else's character. Batman doesn't use guns, and you can't just slap a shotgun in his hands even if you think it might be a good addition to a game. Probably the biggest pressure is timing the release of the game to the release of the movie, which gives you literally millions of dollars worth of free advertising. If the game isn't finished when the movie hits, tough luck – you still gotta ship it, mate.
So let's check out the ol' cookie-cutter movie-to-game formula and see how closely Constantine matches up:
1. Follows The Plot Of The Movie
Yep! The Chronicles of Riddick managed to gracefully sidestep this pitfall by relating a whole new chapter from the life of Riddick that had nothing to do with the crappy movie. Constantine just regurgitates the film, a fact made even more disappointing when you consider the title's rich backstory. John Constantine is the main character in a comic book series called Hellblazer, so the developers had literally hundreds of potential plots to choose from that would have been much more original.
Instead, you play as the protagonist through sequences lifted from the movie. It's a bad decision made even worse by the fact many of the CG cutscenes are simply shot by shot recreations of events from the film. It's a phenomenal waste of time and money, if you ask me, that could have been used to improve other portions of the game.
In a wise move by the director, rather than have Keanu Reeves do a bad English accent, the movie (and the game) takes John's origins out of England and drops him in Los Angeles where Keanu's whispery voice fits right in. I'll try not to give away too much, but it seems the Spear of Destiny has turned up in Mexico. As this is the spear that was used to stab Jesus (if you believe that sort of thing), it is an artifact of tremendous power. Meanwhile, the demons of hell, in defiance of a heavenly treaty, seem to be entering the earthly realm and causing havoc. Is there a connection? Is Keanu a dreamboat?
2. Third Person Action Game
Check. It doesn't matter if you're The Terminator or The Incredibles, 95% of these things turn up as third-person action games. Along his linear path, John also frequently travels between Earth and Hell. Like the Silent Hill series, the hell world is a parallel, messed up version of whatever Earthly location you are in. In either case, you run around shooting things, possibly kicking them, likely punching them, certainly hitting them with a sword, occasionally collecting some powerups and new weapons, all in an effort to beat the boss and then sell the whole thing back to GameStop.
In Constantine's case, you shoot things with an assortment of demon-hunting weapons. The Dragon Fire flamethrower and the hilariously cross-shaped Holy Shotgun come straight from the film, while the matched revolvers and the crossbow do not. My favorite is the nailgun named "The Crucifier." Man, I gotta get me one of those for the Second Coming. (Note: Send religious hate mail here.)
Water was a big theme in the movies and no less so here. John heals whenever he drinks from his "Flask of Enlightenment" which can be refilled from any water source. Hell is conveniently littered with handy water bottles; any sink or a water cooler becomes a source of unlimited health (and a handy cheat). That's way better than Perrier.
John can also cast some powerful spells to zap, exorcize or confuse demons. This is done by hitting a series of buttons while John chants out the incantations and works pretty well. It's handled better than the rest of the control, which is just a little too loose. Jumping, shooting and whacking things isn't as tight as it should be.
But of course. Charm Books will increase John's health bar, Relic Books increase his magic bar, and Voodoo Dolls increase the magic energy John gets when he kills demons. Nothing, however, manages to increase the creative spark.
4. Mario Coins
Sonic had Rings, Crash had Wumpa Fruit and Rayman had Jewels. In a daring twist, John has Tarot cards. Collect enough of them and unlock bonus material.
So Constantine follows the fold pretty tightly, but that doesn't automatically make it a bad game. There are a couple bright spots that save it from utter obscurity. Most notable is the level design, which is particularly well done. Buildings feel authentic and otherwise boring locations are given pizzazz by startling, poltergeist-like events. Things whisk by barely out of view while books hurl themselves off shelves, giving the game a spooky edge. Hell's outdoor levels are some of the coolest in the game thanks to a brilliant fiery wind effect. Unfortunately, Hell is truly hell in the PS2 version of the game; the weaker system just can't stand up to the brimstone and the graphical slowdown can get bad.
And other than the Hellish highlights, the rest of the graphics are terribly bland. Colors tend to be washed out, textures are simple, and the Doom-inspired enemies just aren't very interesting. The uncooperative camera won't help you much either, occasionally making you downright dizzy.
The sound fares about the same, with a decent Keanu impersonator leading the voice actors. Demon noises are good and scary, but the weapons are unsatisfying. The music isn't too bad, but it runs on very short loops and should have been used far less often as it tends to ruin the atmosphere.
As a movie port using the oldest recipe in the book, Constantine is about as average a game as you can get, which is actually better than most licensed translations. Neither Heaven nor Hell, Constantine is merely a short stay in Purgatory.