When the third game in your series is a reboot, that’s a sign that something went horribly wrong with your sequel. That’s exactly what happened with the fledgling Dead to Rights series. Namco’s first entry combined fun, over-the-top melee battles with John Woo-inspired gunplay. Dead to Rights II: Hell to Pay was a monotonous rehash that delivered broken gameplay while practically choking on its own stupidity.

It would be understandable if Namco called it a day and moved on, but the publisher saw signs of life in the Dead to Rights concept even after the body bag had been zipped up and slammed into a mortuary drawer. The third entry in the series, Dead to Rights: Retribution, shows that the franchise still has a pulse.

Some of the game’s more interesting elements were there from the start. Players still fight criminals with the help of a dog named Shadow. When enemies get close enough, hand-to-hand combat is an option, with deadly moves designed to disarm and dispatch anyone foolish enough to get close to protagonist Jack Slate.

Most importantly, Retribution developer Volatile Games used those things as a starting point, adding much-needed refinements and tweaks along the way. The lock-on system has been replaced with a more fluid targeting system. Slate is a crack shot, and gunplay is satisfyingly accurate. Both he and his opponents can take cover during these battles, which leads to plenty of pop-up-and-fire moments. Tougher enemies can blast chunks out of those supposedly safe places, so it’s critical that players find a balance between hiding out and charging into the crowd. A focus mode helps during those moments, temporarily slowing down time and letting Slate line up shot after devastating shot.

Shadow provides plenty of aid, too. Slate can command the dog to attack enemies – ripping out their throats, digging through their ribcages, or chewing into their groins – or just flush them from cover so Slate can take them out himself. Slate’s the kind of guy who discards weapons once they’re out of ammo, and Shadow can fetch new weapons while his master stays safe. Shadow is also an effective scrapper, but he’s not invulnerable. Enemies can escape from his jaws, and groups are more than happy to stomp the canine to death. Of course, players can use those moments where enemies are distracted to his advantage, setting up ambushes and ripping into the crowds.

Dead to Rights: Retribution is a brutal game, and it wears that title as a badge of distinction. Slate shows his mean side during execution moves, where he might systematically snap someone’s arms before kicking their face in. He’s not supposed to be a particularly sympathetic fellow, but watching him blast someone’s kneecaps before executing his pleading victim at point-blank range it makes tough to cheer for him.

The story is typical revenge fodder, with Slate using a shocking death as motivation to expose a shady paramilitary police organization. During his investigation he crosses paths with a number of seedy types, including dirtbag bikers and Triad gangs. It’s all an excuse to explore the ruined buildings and construction sites of Grant City. A fair amount of backtracking is required in the beginning of the game, but there are enough “hell yeah” moments near the end to make up for them. Playing as Shadow is particularly satisfying; I loved sneaking into bases and taking out an entire gang one oblivious foe at a time.

It’s clear why Namco bothered checking for a pulse in the first place, even though it made little sense then. Dead to Rights: Retribution isn’t subtle or refined, but it excels at letting players move from one sleazy place to another and scouring it clean of life.