During Renegade Ops' first moments, it's tempting to think you're in Panau. The opening level's shimmering sea, perfect beaches and lush foliage sell the game as a sort of top-down Just Cause 2; the return of developer Avalanche's signature explosions merely reinforces that feeling. While Rico Rodriguez's adventure was all about his grappling hook, however, the focus here is on bouncy vehicle physics. Whether turning on a sixpence, drift-strafing a tight cicle around a tank, or wrestling to get the back wheels on track as you boost down a long straight, you're always just about in control, and should it all go horribly wrong, the game kindly respawns you on safe ground. The sadly infrequent helicopter sections, meanwhile, will leave you pining for a Jungle Strike reboot.
Renegade Ops casts players as one of four operatives sent behind enemy lines to stop Inferno, a cackling villain lifted straight out of the '80s action movie playbook who is – what else? – trying to take over the world. Each of four playable characters has their own special ability – shield, airstrike, EMP or mounted gun – and on top of that sits a levelling system that gives points to be spent on offensive, defensive and tactical upgrades. While the system tacitly encourages experimentation, it doesn't explicitly reward it, and some upgrades are noticeably more useful than others.
Each level has a series of primary objectives – which see you criss-crossing the large maps, driving back over skidmarks you left minutes previously – and a single secondary objective, typically based on gathering collectibles dotted around the level. With no idea of how many there are, and the game's insistence on arbitrarily presenting you with a three-minute countdown timer when you dally for too long, it enforces an occasional and unwelcome sense of urgency. Yet the biggest disappointment is that the opening level's bright colour palette fades as the game progresses. Too many levels are set at night, and by the end you're driving through an industrial complex comprised entirely of right angles. By the time you're a third of the way through the nine-level campaign, you've seen almost every type of enemy – raising the odds is instead a matter of just throwing more of them at you at once.
Ennui quickly sets in during long sessions, but Renegade Ops' core mechanics – those wonderful vehicles, their meaty weaponry and the dazzling explosions that ensue – are best experienced in short bursts. The cracks are far less prevalent in fourplayer co-op, too, especially on Hardcore difficulty, as tactics, teamwork and mad scrambles for loot drops come to the fore. Yes, it's repetitive, but so were the '80s arcade shooters from which it takes so much inspiration. Renegade Ops sees Avalanche successfully putting a thoroughly modern spin – and more than a few spin-outs – on well-worn mechanics. If you're reading, EA, we know just the team for that Strike reboot.
Xbox 360 version tested.