It’s hard to believe that Judge Dredd turned 40 this year. That’s older than a lot of Twin Cities Geek readers and writers, myself included. The perpetually grumpy lawman’s comic first appeared in the March 1977 issue of British comic magazine 2000 AD, where it is still published to this day. In honor of the anniversary, it seemed like a good idea to look back at one of the few Judge Dredd video games ever made—Judge Dredd: Dredd vs. Death was released in 2003, developed by Rebellion Developments, who had purchased 2000 AD magazine five years prior and is still its current publisher.
For the unfamiliar, Judge Dredd takes place in Mega-City One, a sprawling metropolis that occupies the entire eastern US seaboard, one of three American population centers remaining after a global nuclear war in the year 2070. The political system is run by the fascist Justice Department, their enforcers being judges. Judges patrol the streets and act as judge, jury, and executioner, having sole authority to immediately pass out prison sentences or carry out the death penalty according to the heavy-handed law. Joseph Dredd is one of these judges; ruthless and unforgiving, he is the law.
Dredd vs. Death begins with Dredd on standard patrols, arresting graffiti artists and fighting gang members. Then a plague breaks out, turning infected citizens into zombies and vampires, and the Dark Judges, led by Judge Death—judges from another dimension bent on destroying humanity—break free from imprisonment. You, as Judge Dredd, must set out to find a way to stop the plague and recapture the Dark Judges. Along the way, you receive help from a few characters that fans of the comics will recognize, such as Judge Anderson and Chief Judge Hershey. For veteran readers, the story is standard Dredd fare, nothing groundbreaking, but a solid story. That being said, you don’t need to have read that comics (or seen either of the movies) to enjoy the story.
If your only familiarity with Dredd is the 2012 film starring Karl Urban, you’ll find the comic universe to be much more boisterous, a society ravaged by consumerism as much as it is by unemployment, in which gluttony is a pastime to the point that citizens get so gigantically obese they need motorized wheels to carry their extra fat. It’s a world where, on your first mission, you’re tasked with breaking up a prodemocracy rally, with Judge Dredd snarling about “bleeding-heart liberals.” It should, perhaps, be noted that Judge Dredd is purposefully over-the-top in this way, being satirical of the rise of right-wing politics of late-1970s Britain out of which the comic was born.
Mechanically, Dredd vs. Death plays like a standard first-person shooter. Lawgiver, the standard judge’s sidearm that has appeared on numerous Judge Dredd comic covers, will be your main weapon, complete with its variety of built-in ammunition types such as ricochet, heat seeking, and armor piercing. There are only a handful of other weapons available, which is a bit of a let down, but Lawgiver does so much that there’s not much reason to switch away from it very often. Another downside is that the weapons all have very little impact, with enemies barely reacting to being hit, leaving little satisfaction in combat, and from a sound-design perspective, they all sound like pea shooters. Similarly, the voice acting, while passable, leaves something to be desired. Dredd’s voice in particular lacks a certain commanding quality that one would come to expect from his character.
One unique feature is the law system. Even judges aren’t above the law—commit too many violations and the Special Judicial Squad, a group of elite judges, will be sent after you to put an end to your career. That means not firing unless fired upon first, attempting to arrest perpetrators before attacking them, and not shooting perpetrators who have surrendered. There’s a dedicated “challenge” button to yell at enemies to surrender; some may give up right away, others may not until they’ve been wounded or some of their friends have died, and some may fight to the end. After the fight is over you can slap some handcuffs on them, often accompanied by a Dredd one-liner about going to the “cubes” (isolation cubes, or essentially solitary confinement), which is followed by a list of charges and a sentence. Often it will be a life term, as for the attempted murder of a judge, but for petty crimes civilians will go away for a month or two. Post-level statistics will show you how many total years you’ve amassed in perpetrators’ sentences, which often total in the hundreds of years.
The game’s graphics are nothing to write home about, and that was true even when the game was released. Character models are extremely limited, and each level you’ll repeatedly see the same two or three zombies or gangsters That being said, everything looks like it came out of the comics, from the bizarre fashions of Mega-City One to the Smokatorium, the one place where citizens can legally smoke. With 11 levels, you’ll get five or six hours of play time out of it. You’ll also find an arena mode to play against bots and arcade mode, a handful of one-off story missions that boil down to clearing a level of enemies as quickly as possible. There are also multiplayer modes if you can manage to round up a few friends.
Judge Dredd certainly deserves a better video game, and with the resurgence in popularity and the recent announcement of the Judge Dredd TV show, maybe we’ll get a new one. For now, Dredd vs. Death is the best we’re going to get. It’s not a bad game, just a low-budget production from the early 2000s that shows its age. And for $8 on Steam, it’s no great risk. Whether you’re already a Dredd fan or looking for a cheap way to take the first steps into the mean streets of Mega-City One, consider checking out Judge Dredd: Dredd vs. Death.