During the early 2000's, Jet Li had surpassed Jackie Chan as the international marital arts action star for the United States. Gaining attention following his American film debut in the stunningly mediocre Lethal Weapon 4, and capitalizing off the success of films like The One and Romeo Must Die, Jet Li (born Li Lianjie) and his lighting fast strikes and streetwise action was a more suitable contrast to Mr. Chan's blend of comedy with his combat. Chan had video games, so fans were salivating at the thought of the Wushu practitioner starring in his own interactive piece of software.
One of the more innovative brawler games, Jet Li: Rise to Honor was developed by Sony's in-house Foster City division in 2004, and was one of the earlier action games to feature free-flowing 8-directional combat. It was also crafted to emulate the movies and style of action Jet Li is known for, which blends quick-time events and reactionary counter attacks, breaking away from the prototypical button-mashing meta that made the genre a staple. Raymond Wong (Kung-Fu Hustle) lends his talents as composer, and marital artist Corey Yuen, who worked with Li on movies like Cradle 2 The Grave, Kiss of the Dragon, and War, provided motion capture to give the game a more authentic cinematic presentation. Jet Li stars as Kit Yun, an underground Hong Kong officer hired as a bodyguard for his friend's father, Chiang. However, the way OUT of a life of crime involves going back in.
The aforementioned combat in Rise to Honor utilizes complete control of the right analog stick. Pressing it in the direction of an enemy in rapid succession will unleash a flurry of offense. Some action games have tried this, like Star Wars Obi Wan and Death by Degrees a year later, and with proper implementation, it can be a pretty fascinating spin on combat.
While it's pretty responsive, easy to use, and boasts some aesthetic flash that might catch the eye of passersby, it can get a little on the repetitive side once you've seen the same flourishes of strikes. The L and R buttons/triggers come into play for blocking, grabs and counters, opening up combo and juggle windows. For breaks in the fisticuffs, there are these gunplay portions where Kit has unlimited ammo ala Devil May Cry, and you can run through a section of map full of pistol-wielding gang members. They're abrupt, but not overly jarring. There is some excitement in maxing out your Adrenaline bar and performing a bullet time-esque leaping move. At the very least, tilting a stick in various directions to make Jet Li kick air could hit a threshold of not being exciting after a period, it does look really cool while you're doing it.
The quick-time events can be a little clumsy, I found myself stumbling about with Kit, trying to find the right point of engagement for seconds too long before I'm gunned down. To think there was a period where QTEs didn't completely drive me to the point of wanting to tear my own skin off in video games, but when used correctly, they can serve their purpose fine. They're about as responsive to the prompts in Jackie Chan Stuntmaster, it's just annoying having to do them over and over again for failing.
By the time period, the visuals for the in-house PlayStation games were starting to truly grasp the console's horsepower. The details in Rise to Honor's character models look pretty good, and perhaps the slight comic book style keeps them aged fairly well. The backgrounds are on the drab side in the early stages, there's a lot of garish grey walls and tan-colored rooms, but the lighting is stylish and the black levels add to a more theatrical presentation. Even the game's DVD style chapter select menu for missions gives it some self-aware flavor. The physics also don't stumble about in that early Xbox period "ragdoll" mess all that often, leaving Rise to Honor looking pretty clean.
While some studios experimented with this style of action game controls, it never seemed to catch on, leaving Jet Li:Rise to Honor one of the few that carried it successfully. Perhaps The Matrix: Path of Neo can be seen as a decent successor, fitting the universe of the format, but with more robust controls.
Rise to Honor was designed to be a sprint, not necessarily a deep or complex game. There's a lot about its atmosphere and the action that puts it very much in the mind of a Jet Li movie (by the way, it's a fun game to spot the Easter Eggs and homages to his films scattered throughout), but as a gameplay experience, the combat might get a little too monotonous to hold one's attention beyond a novelty. Not a very deep game, and in the age of the over-the-top action that a Devil May Cry may provide, but an adrenaline-pumping ride that hearkens to a time in cinema when action wasn't reserved by Disney slapping actors in spandex.