Games based on the music genre are nothing new. Dozens of embarrassing games have featured stars of the moment. From Kriss Kross to American Idol and Moonwalker, every decent attempt has been buried under 50 Make Your Own Video CD coasters. The culture of hip-hop is an interesting example. Once a radical and feared urban movement of physical and verbal expression, you can now see it’s watering down in soft drink ads and schlock movies (You Got Served). Even the dorky milquetoast guy in that satellite radio commercial can bump Black Eyed Peas without getting his ass kicked, but I digress. When Def Jam Vendetta was announced two years ago, I was skeptical; paranoid-cynical would be a better way to put it. A game featuring rap stars duking it out? It seemed like the worst idea since “Rap Jam: Vol. 1” (and “Shaq Fu” was in contention). Of course, that meant it would sell huge. The solid play and licensed music won people over, and EA Big just HAD to bring out a sequel. The resulting “Def Jam: Fight for New York” ups the ante with cleaner visuals, a more extensive roster of fighters and music tracks, and various fighting styles. But laggy, uneven game play and spotty controls are among the chief problems with this update.
EA tries to inject FFNY with an admirable tale of the urban struggle. Gang leader D-Mob (the “D” hopefully not for “Delicious”) is heading for the clink, but a mysterious car crashes into the police cruiser. Seeing his chance for escape, D-Mob hitches a ride with the erratic driver. The twist is?the driver is you! After you create your character- through an interesting sketch artist exercise- you join D-Mob’s gang as they strive to overtake a rival crew- led by Crow (AOL pitchman and sometimes rapper Snoop Dogg). How do these fearsome rivals settle the score? Jump rope? Hopscotch? Dance-offs? Nope- they brawl in underground fight clubs for cash, ho’s, rides and respect. The linear and overtly clich? storyline is passable for a brawler, but is littered with plot holes. Why should anyone care about my character, or why do they accept him so fast? Why no gang initiation? Why is Henry Rollins in this game? Despite these questions, EA’s efforts make for some mild amusement. I just wish there was a way to break up the straightforward plot, like jumping sides or even going straight- and dealing with the consequences.
The visuals of FFNY are a step up from the original. The numerous character models are nicely detailed representations of the celebrities. Even the original characters sports impressive polygon counts. Although the variation between body shapes is nearly nonexistent, they look great nonetheless. Faces border on lifelike, and the bodies- including clothing- looks great. The close-ups and cut scenes are the best use of the graphics engine, with a level of detail not seen in the actual brawls. Little touches like spewing blood and bling-bling “bling” are nice. The various locales are a slightly mixed can of nuts. The arenas themselves are decent, ranging from caged areas to subways and power stations. Each has destroyable objects that add to the carnage. The crowds that pack the stages, however, look like they were ripped from a first-generation PS1 game. Character animation is good, but is marred by the janky frame rate. The onscreen action doesn’t fly as fast as it should for a fifth-generation PS2 game, considering that there isn’t anything taxing the hardware here. In addition, the game will occasionally freeze for a second in mid-battle, throwing off your balance. In fact, much of the game chugs along at a slow place. There are also some camera problems in particular arenas. If the fighters wander below the “equator” into the lower screen-half, walls and arena objects block your vision. The objects in view try to become translucent, but fail to show much of the action. I would have traded the pan-and-scan camera for one that could swing around and show some of the action.
FFNY’s sound is more solid. One of the big draws of the Def Jam games is the vast soundtrack from past greats and present stars. FFNY features 30 songs, with several coming from the onscreen talent themselves. Classics like “Momma Said Knock You Out” and recent tracks such as Outkast’s “Bust” populate the speakers. I would have liked to see more of the popular songs, as hearing Busta Rhymes circa “Genesis” wasn’t as satisfying (or good) as his wild-style days of “The Coming”. Heck, I just wanted more songs in general. Also, with the selection of tracks available, why does each stage only have one or two particular songs? The voice acting is above average, with the wide assortment of artists and actors providing great reads for their onscreen personas. Some come off slightly stilted- like Carmen Electra- and a little comical (with the profanity and “Blazin'” moves), but still manage to impress. The sound effects- largely lifted from last year’s game- won’t wow, but are accurate.
The controls are solid, but require patience. There is a similar layout for the five fighting styles, which is easy to learn. Movement is controlled with the digital pad and the left analog stick. Punches and kicks use the triangle and square buttons, running (for jumping and momentum attacks) uses circle and grapple moves require the “x” button. Using L1 with the punches/kicks and grapple attacks doles out a harder dose of pain. R1 blocks opponent attacks and the right analog stick unleashes your Blazin’ move-when your meter fills up- or taunts if your meter is incomplete. Special moves pertaining to specific fighting styles call for additional button presses. The controls and action onscreen sometimes fail to cooperate, with button presses responding later than anticipated. Movement feels slightly robotic, but can be traced to its wrestling roots. When attempting Blazin’ moves, you sometimes find yourself taunting instead of delivering a beating. Therefore, planning your combos and moves in advance is almost essential.
EA Big went beyond the call of duty with tweaking FFNY’s game play. Instead of merely adding a move here and there, they added several fighting styles, dozens of fighters and a very active story mode. While there are a few flaws that are head scratching, there is little doubt that this is a brawler with bite.
FFNY features 10 modes of play- many that are hidden within the game. The story mode will occupy the majority of your playing time. Working your way up, you progress from D-Mob’s peon into a wrecking crew of your own. Most of the game involves “Fight Club”-style fracases against Crow’s gang in the 20 unique arenas. Before each match, you have the option of training, changing your fighter, or seek out the next battle. Win the fight, and you’ll collect money and development points to upgrade your pugilist. Become strong and successful enough and you’ll find yourself competing for turf and a lady to showoff off on your arm.
Beefing up the game play, EA Big shoehorned five different fighting styles into FFNY. At the beginning, you’ll have the choice of one of five pummeling methods: kickboxing, street fighting, martial arts, wrestling and submissions. All have the standard attack and grapple moves, with a few aesthetic changes corresponding to your chosen style. Eventually, you can add two additional styles to your repertoire. Aside from a few different special moves, it is hard to spot distinctions in the basic attacks. While the non-wrestling fighting styles emphasize kicks and punches, they do little damage in comparison to a well-timed grapple-attack combination. In most arenas, you can use the environment as a part of your attack. Smash your rival into a fence, pillar or moving subway train for big damage- or death. In addition, crowds are likely to offer weapons for mass destruction (nothing nuclear, folks) such as bottles and bats, and may even hold your antagonist in place while you whale on him- or dish out an attack of their own. Like all of EA Big’s games- and most modern fighting games- FFNY has a special meter for dishing out powerful Blazin’ attacks. While powerful and gleefully painful to watch, they are surprisingly weak in comparison to many of the grapple-attacks.
Tied into the story mode is the expansive customizing available. At the start, you can assemble a brawler from scratch. Everything from hairstyles to voice patterns is available to choose. Win your fights, and you’ll have access to learning new moves and fighting styles, upgrading your physical abilities, and changing your fighter’s appearance and in no time you’ll be flossin’ da’ mad gear, sporting some nice tats and shiny jewelry. While the option to create some extreme combinations isn’t present (where’s my Prince look-alike?), you’ll have tons of pieces to build your roughneck and as there are so many facets to pimping your fighter, you’ll literally get lost in the customization options.
Aside from the story mode, there are nine other methods of play found in the multiplayer Battle Mode. The One on One mode is the standard versus match. Team Match throws two fighters against each other. Free for All is the “knockout or get out” mode, while others range from the wrestling-friendly (Cage Match, Ring-Out Match), to the sadistic (Subway Match, Window Match) and strange (Demolition Match- involving rappers’ rides as destroyable objects- and Inferno Match, in which you fight in a ring of fire). These are great diversions for you and a few friends if you tire of the story mode.
You can’t have a hip-hop-based game without the artists. And FFNY has an insane 74 fighters- yes, 74- to do battle with. Popular artists like Busta Rhymes, Method Man and Redman (“No, I’M the star of our ignorant TV show!”) are available at the outset, but a majority of the fighters- ranging from Slick Rick to Snoop Dogg and Omar Epps- has to be earned. And each star voices their digital likeness, adding a sense of realism. Several are playing personalities differing from their real selves, like Omar Epps playing a street-fighting thug.
Apart from the faults listed above, there are a few additional nits to pick. After each match, you earn development points and moves. However, to use the moves you have to earn additional points. Why earn moves, only to not be able to use them immediately? The absence of a practice mode- besides the very brief tutorial at the beginning- is highly suspect for a fighting game. Some of the original characters like Bo have unique accessories and clothing that are unfortunately not available to choose. And like Def Jam Vendetta, you still can’t use the unlocked fighters in the story mode. Being able to play solo as Flava Flav would be awesome, as would the possible plot twists (will our hero Flav fool around with Bridgette, or score some tasty crack?). It would have thrown some interesting knots and longevity into the game
Like the adding of chocolate to milk, Def Jam: Fight for New York injects the wrestling and fighting genres with a unique dose of flavor. EA Big did more than just nip-and-tuck with the sequel, creating a deeper and more satisfying experience. The improved graphics, hefty roster of fighters and unlockables, and involving game play mask the frustrating flaws found within. Never content with resting when there’s money to be had- EA did establish the yearly sports update- look for EA Big to address the concerns with the unavoidable sequel (“Def Jam: That Ho is Mine”?). But until then, pimping my ride with Xzibit’s face will do nicely.