Terminator: Resistance Retrospective

Style over substance?
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Initial reviews for Terminator: Resistance from traditional media were broadly negative but, within a few hours of launch, positive user reviews emerged. It didn’t take long before comment sections, Reddit threads, and several YouTube channels were full of positive sentiment – ranging from outright praise to cautious recommendations. As someone with a fondness for janky, mid-tier games that would never score higher than a seven, this piqued my interest.

Perhaps as a testament to its underdog popularity, it took a long time for Terminator: Resistance to hit a price point I deemed suitable for a low-risk purchase. I eventually picked up the Xbox One version to play on an Xbox Series S – the release day experience, I guess? – and while I don’t begrudge my purchase, I found it a staggeringly middling experience elevated by one standout element.

The storytelling is dated but it adheres to the canon

Although the storytelling feels last, last-gen, one of Terminator: Resistance’s unexpected strengths is its strict adherence to the canon of the original timeline from the first two Terminator films. The date Skynet acquired sentience; Judgement Day; the formation of the human resistance; the emergence of Terminator Infiltrator models; the Time Displacement Equipment; the endless cycle of diverging futures – all these plot threads are accounted for a worked into its narrative.

I had assumed Terminator: Resistance was going to avoid messing with canon by telling a stand-alone story set during the Future War but, by the midpoint of a 13-hour casual playthrough, it became clear Teyon developed it as a prologue to the films. John Conner makes an appearance (and Kyle Reese in the Annihilation Line expansion), there are references to other important figures in dialogue, and the protagonist – Jacob Rivers – participates in significant events that lead into the opening of both 1984’s The Terminator and 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

The story itself is fine, with a few highlights whenever the game ditches the open-zone approach for more linear set-piece-style sequences, but the entire middle portion drags – especially if you’re tackling side missions. The tightly controlled opening sees Rivers saved from a Skynet ambush by a suspiciously knowledgeable stranger, who guides him towards a ragtag group of survivors that – after a few hours of hunting for clues – finally put him in contact with the local resistance. If you can tolerate the assortment of clichéd character archetypes, the opening provides several tense set pieces and some rapid relationship-building.

The primary missions see you search through abandoned resistance outposts, sneak through a Skynet-controlled hospital to free some captured resistance soldiers, come face to face with the Terminator Infiltrator that has been tracking Rivers, take down an HK-Tank, and storm the central core. The more open zones offer no shortage of rudimentary fetch quests to raise the trust level of the civilian survivors that, in turn, reveal more of their backstory and the current state of the world.

It’s a dated but familiar structure, however, the dialogue- and choice-driven role-playing elements feel half-baked. Regardless of the choices you make, or whether you complete or ignore side missions, 90% of the experience plays out in exactly the same way. There’s always an easy alternative as to why events can still occur as the central narrative and ending sequence is beholden to the first two Terminator movies.

The longer you play, the more obvious it is that the civilian survivors are irrelevant to the overarching plot – yet account for the bulk of the role-playing moments. Any significant changes to their fate are mostly relegated to a narrated montage, while the system feels so transparent that it’s easy to get the “best” ending. When in doubt, be nice and always follow the stranger’s advice.

Ultimately, they felt like an excuse to add “depth” to an incredibly basic choice-and-consequence system and the in-game impact is minimal. Two optional survivors you can save during the prologue just hang around in corners doing nothing. Completing a mission to find a puppy or chalk for the young survivor Patrick leads to a few visual changes in the shelter, but primarily serves to notch up the trust meter of his sister Jennifer. The same logic applies to the doctor, Erin, and mechanic, Ryan – with higher trust levels from completing side missions making it easier to influence their fate leading into the finale.

Of course, no RPG is complete without romance options and both Jessica and resistance leader Baron fall neatly into the “damaged woman looking for a strong man” archetype. Your trust meter is also your ticket to potential romance – with one or both of them, Terminator: Resistance doesn’t judge. If you’re foolish enough to select the dialogue options with a heart next to it, you’ll be treated to some spectacularly bad first-person sex scenes – featuring music and moaning straight out of vintage pornography – serving as a reminder that fade-to-black is always the right choice in video games.

Terminator: Resistance Sex Scenes

A bit of this, a bit of that, all of it average

So I’ve had a dig at the storytelling and limited choice-driven outcomes, but it’s the traditional gameplay mechanics that make and eventually break Terminator: Resistance. The best way to describe it is a scaled-back Fallout 4 set in the Terminator universe.

It’s no open world but you explore smaller open zones sequentially as the story plays out and the situation evolves. You’ll interact with minor characters and even fight alongside small groups of resistance soldiers – typically impervious to harm until the plot decides otherwise. It features similarly janky shooting that never feels as responsive or precise as a dedicated FPS, at odds with the ability to hit weak spots to inflict critical damage. It’s competent enough – and maybe better when using a mouse and keyboard – but the focus is clearly on upgrading Rivers’ abilities and arsenal to produce bigger damage numbers.

I feel part of that initial post-launch positivity has a lot to do with the opening hours. You’re stuck with an assortment of conventional human firearms that are fine for spider scouts and drones, but larger robots force you to get an angle on their weakspots to do significant damage. Although encounters are rare and heavily scripted at first, the hulking Series-800 Terminators are invulnerable to standard firearms and need to be stealthed past or, if you’re flush with crafting resources, pipe-bombed.

If you up the default difficulty a notch to make all mistakes potentially fatal, the opening hours force you to explore the semi-open environments carefully, use the rudimentary stealth system to get a good angle before attacking, engage in hit-and-run tactics against groups of foes, and scavenge continuously to craft explosives and healing items. It feels like the kind battle resistance fighter would be waging and the Terminators prove a particularly terrifying enemy that, as a bonus, requires no complex AI. Once detected, they march doggedly towards you at a brisk yet unhurried pace, their red eyes and plasma shots emerging from the distant gloom.

Terminator: Resistance Optional Stealth

Of course, Terminator: Resistance has RPG-lite mechanics integrated into the gameplay too, so you’re constantly earning XP towards new levels and investing skill points into three branching but straightforward tech-trees (Combat, Science, and Survival). There are some powerful abilities at the end of each branch – think health regeneration or the ability to use Terminator weapons – but most are just incremental upgrades to damage done with weapons and explosives, increased toughness, more effective stealth, and improved efficiency when crafting, lockpicking, and hacking.

In theory, this gives you some control over your character build but it doesn’t pan out that way. Firstly, skill upgrades are level-gated so you can’t super-specialise early on. Secondly, while you can prioritise your point distribution within these level brackets, there’s more than enough XP to unlock all but one or two skills by the finale. You become a powerful all-rounder irrespective of your preferences. Another unbalanced mechanic is the ability to upgrade plasma weapons by creating a sequence of three circuits, which offer buffs like increased damage, clip size, and fire rate. They come in different rarities and the connector types you need to line up is randomised, but you can eventually loot or buy dozens of them, letting you tear through many Terminator types with ease by the mid-game.

If I wanted to be harsh, I’d describe Terminator: Resistance’s mechanics as wide as an ocean but deep as a puddle. However, that relative simplicity in tandem with the short runtime work in its favour. Although the mid-game drags on for too long and returns you to the same regions too often, it remains a more-ish experience. Every outing means XP for new skills, access to new weapons, and a few new upgrades.

The importance of looking the part

So far, so six out of ten – but Terminator: Resistance has a trump card.

Even accounting for the increased resolution and texture quality offered on PC, Terminator: Resistance is not a technically impressive or beautiful game – but it does have some style. I earlier compared it to a scaled-back Fallout 4 and that holds true for the visuals. The environments look dated and lack fine geometric details but the overblown volumetric lighting and depth-of-field are used to create an oppressive atmosphere and mask many limitations, like distant scenery. Although missions set during the day can look flat and washed out, most of your excursions are after nightfall when the world is drenched in shades of cold blue, lit by the harsh glare of fires, piercing spotlights, neon plasma colours, and glowing Terminator eyes.

Character models are not particularly well-animated or expressive, but humans look suitably detailed and, most importantly, a lot of attention has been placed on recreating the iconic Series-800 Terminators, other recognisable machines like the HK-Aerial and HK-Tank, and the Resistance weapons.

The soundtrack – unfortunately not available officially – is the true star of Terminator: Resistance. It feels like a diverse original score, not just a reworking of Brad Fiedel’s iconic themes, and could have been a perfect fit for the 1984 original or the sequel. It’s one part electronic rock, one part marching band drum beat, one part moody synthwave, and consistently incredible – well, aside from during the aforementioned sex scenes.

It elevates almost every moment, regardless of whether you’re skulking through ruins hiding from the spotlight of an HK-Aerial; circling around the world’s least competent HK-Tank in an otherwise dull boss fight; or charging the defenses around Skynet’s Time Displacement Equipment with a reprogrammed HK-Tank, dozens of resistance fighters, and neon plasma bursts crisscrossing overhead.

Style over substance?

Wrapping up, I can now appreciate how Terminator: Resistance has cultivated a modest but vocal fanbase, especially among fans of the original timeline movies. Hell, I’m even tempted to pick up the PC version at some point – though damn you Teyon for making that a requirement to play the Annihilation Line expansion.

Terminator: Resistance reaffirmed my belief the audiovisual experience can’t carry a game, but it sure can elevate it. Sadly, in this case, it’s from a middling six-out-of-ten game to a mildly entertaining seven-out-of-ten – the sort of game that’ll always find an appreciative fanbase that might keep it popular enough to warrant a better sequel at some point.

Between its adherence to events in the original timeline, neon-soaked colour palette, and satisfyingly authentic soundtrack, it’s by far the best Terminator game – or at least the best FPS Terminator game if you’ve got a soft spot for the 8- and 16-bit crossover titles. However, if you’ve got no nostalgic hook or limited playtime you’d rather fill with only quality titles, you can easily give it a skip.

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