Death by Degrees [Playstation 2]

Year: 2005 // Developer: Namco // Publisher: Namco // Also On: N/A

THE LEGEND OF TEKKEN’S FIRST LADY BEGINS HERE, the back of Death by Degrees‘ box proudly claims. And why not? Nina Williams was/is one of Tekken‘s most popular mainstays, and there was no reason why an action-based spin-off shouldn’t work when the Tekken team had previously ventured outside of the standard 1-v-1 fighting with the Tekken Force modes. Unfortunately, Nina’s solo adventure received poor to (at best) lukewarm review scores on release, and I even recall seeing Death by Degrees in a countdown of worst games for the PS2. I disagreed with these scores vehemently back in the day and, after revisiting the game in 2020, I can honestly say that I still enjoy this game.

Is it a misunderstood gem? No. There are loads of things about Death by Degrees that piss me off and were rightly criticised in period, but I feel that the good outweighs the crappy to enough of a degree (get it?) that I feel motivated to defend Namco’s Tekken spin-off.

Continue reading “Death by Degrees [Playstation 2]”

Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance [Playstation 2]

Every so often I will actively purge my videogame collection of all the games I know I’ll never play again, or those that I haven’t touched for years. I used to keep everything but, over time, I’ve managed to wrestle the inner hoarder into partial submission. After all, there isn’t the time to keep up with new releases let alone return to everything I’ve already experienced. You have to be realistic sometimes and simply let go. Tying in with this philosophy, I recently decided to turn a critical eye towards my PS2 collection. I’ve long considered this shelf to be slimmed down to the bare essentials but when “essentials” is still around fifty titles, there remains space for improvement.

Rather than simply get shot however, I’ve decided to play some of these games again to see whether or not they actually hold up in the harsh light of 2020. First up, Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance, a 2005 beat ’em up from Capcom. When I originally played this, I loved it. I considered it to be underrated; a hidden gem if you will.

But how does the 2020 edition of me feel about Beat Down?

Continue reading “Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance [Playstation 2]”

Review – Metal Slug Anthology [PSP/Playstation 2/Wii]

MSA-1Release Date: 2007 (Europe)   |   Developer: SNK Playmore/Terminal Reality   |   Publisher: Ignition (Europe)

If you’ve lived behind a tower of modern games or are a younger gamer then you may not be familiar with SNK’s Metal Slug series and that is truly a shame because you might be missing out on something special. For those already in the know, Metal Slug is a stone-cold arcade classic requiring no introduction but for the uninformed, here’s the deal. Released in 1996 for SNK’s Neo Geo arcade hardware, Metal Slug quickly became one of the quintessential run ‘n gun experiences that the rest of the genre suddenly found itself compared to. Nazca Corp. blended tight, challenging gameplay with their stunning 2D artistry to create one of the defining Neo Geo experiences and a killer app for the (incredibly expensive) home version of the hardware.

The game oozed charm and was overflowing with character thanks to the comical nature of the cartoon-like visuals which should have been at odds with the military theme and bright red blood. It was – as previously mentioned – challenging too but not necessarily in an outrageously cheap way; not to begin with anyway – that’s a sin for some of the sequels to atone for and we’ll hold court on that subject in due course.

By the time SNK called time on the creaking Neo Geo hardware in 2004, the system had hosted six Metal Slug games. If you weren’t rich enough to own a Neo Geo and splurge on massive cartridges sporting eye-watering price tags (so most of us then) then it was difficult to be a Metal Slug fan though. There were ports to all kinds of the consoles such as the Playstation, Saturn, PS2 and original Xbox but these tended to vary in terms of quality and accuracy. In 2007 however (2006 for the US), we were treated to Metal Slug Anthology for PSP, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii. This compilation from the retro gods collected unaltered arcade versions of the five Neo Geo ‘Slugs plus the Atomiswave’s Metal Slug 6 which was brand-new for the West when Anthology hit the shelves.

LOADING…

I’ll start by quickly talking about the compilation in general. I won’t discuss the Wii port as I haven’t been lucky enough to own a copy but I have owned both the Playstation 2 and PSP editions of the game. Sadly, Sony’s versions suffer from unwelcome load times, even in basic areas such as the front end menu or in-game character select screens. It’s not a deal-breaker but is still pretty unforgiveable in my opinion, especially since the PS2 and PSP shouldn’t have been at all taxed to run a small collection of old Neo Geo games when the PS2 didn’t appear to break a sweat over big stuff like Gran Turismo and Black. The PSP is a more understandable situation given that the handheld’s loading capabilities were often scuppered by the UMD drive. Even so, I play all of my PSP games direct from the memory stick (thanks to the wonders of Custom Firmware) and even then, the loading isn’t completely eradicated. The Wii port is meant to be a lot better as it was allegedly coded by SNK themselves while Terminal Reality handled the PS2 and PSP versions. Don’t quote me on that though; it’s something I remember reading in period reviews.

In terms of extras, there’s an art gallery to unlock using tokens earnt by playing through the six games. It’s not much but I’m personally a big fan because outside of the official press art for SNK games, there is a wealth of bizarre artwork resembling fan art and this is often included in their games. Artwork won’t be of interest to everybody, granted, but I love the quirkiness of SNK’s galleries at times. That said, what we are really for are the games so let’s talk about them.

Original and best

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original Metal Slug is in close contention for being the best game of the series. It’s a purer experience than the sequels and suffers with less of the bloat and often unnecessary variety that its successors injected (in a well-meaning way of course). You simply run to the right, avoiding enemy fire and blasting anything that gets in Marco Rossi’s way. You are granted three lives per credit and ten grenades per life. Continuing with a fresh credit gifts you the Heavy Machine-Gun power-up upon re-spawning as a welcome gesture. You might think then that Metal Slug is about as complicated as Paris Hilton and that’s a fair assessment as there’s nothing overly innovative about the whole thing. It’s HOW the game does what it does that makes it so endearing.

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First of all, the controls and ‘feel’ are spot-on and you should never find yourself condemning either for getting iced by an enemy. Secondly, the power-ups are just so damn fun to acquire and put to use. The Heavy Machine-Gun makes you feel like a force to be reckoned with, the shotgun’s explosive punch fills you with confidence and the Rocket Launcher is just the nuts. Special mention must go to the Arnie-like “Rocket Lowncher!” announcement from the voice-over dude when you collect the latter – always a pleasure to hear. Then there’s the Metal Slug tank itself which can take several hits before being destroyed. The tank is actually pretty cutesey thanks to its stubby profile and ability to jump but the rapid-fire machine-gun and cannon pack a serious punch.

Finally, there’s that distinctive art style which is a big part of the game’s appeal. Without it, Metal Slug would just be another solid run ‘n gun game but thanks to Nazca’s artistic sorcery, every backdrop, sprite and tiny detail deserves close attention. In fact, there is such a ludicrous level of detail in every single thing that it’s a wonder that they ever finished the game or were permitted the time to go so crazy in the first place. Special mention must go to the enormous bosses which are both intimidating and spectacular. Taking them down always feels like an achievement.

The visuals are backed up by the audio which consists of memorable voice-overs, fantastic sound effects (the explosions are awesome) and memorable music that blends military-themed composition with Nazca’s jazzy sound, the latter fitting in perfectly against all sound reason.

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I’ve already stated that the game is challenging as it really is but the original Metal Slug is perhaps the fairest of the lot. The first three missions are no cake-walk but can be completed with minimal stress. It’s only towards the end of the game that the opposition begins to overwhelm and you will have to feed in credits in order to push on. This was an arcade game designed to part punters from their cash but that said, I’ve certainly played much, much worse that would have you searching for Dick Turpin’s name in the developer credits.

Put simply, the original Metal Slug is a creative masterpiece and a very enjoyable arcade action game that deserves its lofty reputation. If you only play one game in the series then this has to be it but SNK did make some sequels so let’s address those next…

Bigger isn’t always better

Metal Slug 2 is probably the closest rival that the original game has for the honour of being the best in the series. I did say that if you only play one entry then it should be the original but ideally, you’d play the immediate follow-up as well. MS2 is more of the same but bigger and more extreme than before. New power-ups and new Slug vehicles debut as do the Mars People alien enemies. The bosses are equally impressive if not better than before with special mentions going to an Arabian palace that turns into a missile launcher and the second mission’s boss which sees you constantly climbing to avoid the chasing jaws of an enormous machine. The only issue I have with Metal Slug 2 is that the last few levels are a bit brutal with the player being expected to dodge too much crap and kill far too many aliens. That aside, it is a worthy follow-up deserving of your time.

Metal Slug X is essentially a remix of Metal Slug 2. The first stage for example now takes place at dusk, there are new enemies, remixed music and new power-ups. There’s a handy list of the updates here on Wikipedia. Whether you prefer X over ‘vanilla’ Metal Slug 2 is a personal preference but being as it is very similar, I would also class X as a game you can definitely keep coming back to.

Unfortunately, the series takes a nosedive with Metal Slug 3 that it never really fully recovered from. This was the last game produced by the original Nazca/SNK partnership before SNK went bankrupt and rose from the ashes as SNK Playmore. They went all-out and cranked the creativity up to the max with MS3 which should have been a positive thing but ends up being both good and bad. Starting with the good, they went pretty wild here and introduced a ton of new stuff and awe-inspiring bosses, all rendered in the same agonisingly attractive art style. The game also still plays perfectly soundly. The first problem however is that you aren’t only fighting military forces this time around but all manner of organic creatures and aliens. This did allow Nazca’s artists the chance to flex and animate a bunch of crazy stuff (which all looks lovely) but you will miss the characterful enemy soldiers and military hardware when you’re shooting at crabs, insects and…zombies?

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Yes, there is a zombie-themed level that mimics a slasher movie and I really hate this shit. When you get killed, a bolt of lightning will resurrect you albeit as a shambling, sluggish zombie with none of the agility that you need to avoid the onslaught of enemies. It doesn’t fit in with what Metal Slug is meant to be but even if you can overlook that, playing as a zombie slows the action to a crawl and puts a definite damper on things. Even when you are still in human form, emptying vast amounts of ammo into walking bullet sponges is no fun. The only enjoyable thing that comes from the whole zombie thing is the ability to vomit a massive arc of blood that covers most of the screen and takes out enemies with the force of a grenade. That’s fucking cool.

The other killjoy is the fact that Metal Slug 3 is just too damn hard. They really wanted your pocket change with this game, possibly to stave off impending bankruptcy. The first level is reasonably manageable but the cruelty factor soon arrives with the player being expected to dodge an unreasonable amount of on-screen shit. The final stage in particular is downright sadistic with overwhelming quotas of dangerous enemies clogging the screen and an insane amount of lethal projectiles to avoid. It also feels as though it will NEVER end. Whenever I decide to play MS3, I find myself begging the game to simply stop by this point. The bosses in this game also absorb a ridiculous amount of firepower before they go down, to the point that you may question whether your game has glitched out and granted said bosses immunity to death.

Metal Slug 3 is not a bad game per se. It has a lot going for it in the aesthetics department but the difficulty spike and general madness of battling crustaceans, Aztec gods and zombies really let it down. I simply cannot enjoy this game when I play it because it’s the first time that Metal Slug felt too cheap and remorseless to WANT to perservere with. It was the end of the original era though so how did SNK and Metal Slug fare in the Playmore era? Hmm…

A mixed bag

By this point, SNK Playmore didn’t yet exist and it was entity simply known as “Playmore”. In conjunction with Mega Enterprise, they kept SNK’s franchises’ ticking over with Metal Slug 4 being one result. I have to be honest and say that I really don’t care for this game. It’s not that it’s bad but it’s incredibly “meh”. Unsurprisingly – given the financial situation – MS4 is a recyclathon of old sprites and ideas but the classic Nazca art clashes somewhat with new stuff doing its best to imitate. The game receives points straight away for returning to military enemies but then throws it all down the toilet by re-introducing mummies and zombies. The level design is incredibly by-the-numbers and dull with very few set-pieces since the game instead favours holding the player up on the same screen for an eternity while wave after wave of enemies pour in from both sides, often in suffocating volumes that slow the game down. Bosses aren’t too interesting either and trade patterns for simply filling the screen with as many bullets, bombs and enemies as possible. Granted, I’m no master player of videogames but I don’t see how it’s possible to avoid some of the stuff that later bosses throw at the player.

Metal Slug 4 could have been a lot worse but at the same time, there’s no avoiding the fact that it had very little charm or creativity going on. It’s not a sequel that I can recommend on any grounds, really.

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Conversely, Metal Slug 5 is far superior. Aside from some tribal enemies at the outset and the final boss itself, it’s back to military enemies for a more traditional ‘Slug affair. The opposing army isn’t headed up by series antangonist Morden this time (even though the sprites are blatant re-skins) but the darker colours, black ops-style enemies and gritty rock music do suck some of the series’ trademark humour out of the game it has to be said. However, this is a reasonable trade off considering that the game is much fairer than the previous two and as a result, far closer to the formula of the first two games which were challenging but not downright malicious as per MS3 and 4. Bosses too have much better attack patterns and as such, aren’t a drain on your soul to take down. The final boss is a bit cheap though and probably the most ridiculous, out-of-place end boss in the series. Looks awesome though.

Unfortunately, Metal Slug 6 ruins the redemption of MS5. This was the first post-Neo Geo Metal Slug with Sammy’s Atomiswave platform taking over the hosting duties. Appropriately, SNK Playmore tried to inject some new blood into the series by upping the character select screen to six with the addition of Ralf and Clark from Ikari Warriors/King of Fighters. In addition, each character has special abilities such as Ralf’s Vulcan Punch attack and Eri’s ability to aim grenades in specific directions. You can now also stock up to two power-ups and switch between them. Also, MS6 introduced an easy mode which lowers the difficulty and grants the player the Heavy Machine-Gun as the standard weapon at the expense of not being able to challenge the game’s final stage.

That’s the good/interesting stuff. Sadly, the game just feels like an imitation or a fan-made tribute. Yes, the familiar sprites and visual design are correct and present but as with MS4, the new backgrounds and enemies aren’t as impressive and clash with the old, classic Nazca creations. Sound effects and enemy voices are also different (not for the better) and once again, the series returns to aliens and weird shit before long. The difficulty beyond the first few missions is also tough to swallow with all manner of bullet-sponge aliens and bizarre creatures flooding the screen and demanding a ridiculous amount of firepower to put down. The game feels cheap too with so much shit happening at once that there’s no hope of surviving. The final stage takes a (rotted) leaf from Metal Slug 3‘s book and features and seemingly endless gauntlet of everything that makes this sequel so charmless and unenjoyable to endure. By the time I reached the final boss, I was both bored and frustrated – emotions that I would never have associated with Metal Slug when playing the first two games. In short, it’s still a solid run ‘n gun but only because of all the work that Nazca put in back in the 90’s. Without their blueprint and artwork, games like Metal Slug 4 and 6 wouldn’t even be worth talking about.

Conclusions

To sum up the core Metal Slug series, I would say that the first two games + Metal Slug X are utterly essential run ‘n guns that any gamer with an interest in old-school, arcade gameplay should experience. As for the rest…Metal Slug 3 is worth a look for it’s aesthetics but is simply too cheap to enjoy, Metal Slug 4 and 6 are not worth your time while Metal Slug 5 is surprisingly decent with genuine replayability. Personally I’d rank them as MS1 > MS2 > MSX > MS3 >MS5 >MS4 > MS6. As for the Anthology specifically, it’s a shame that there are those loading niggles with the PSP and PS2 versions but whichever port you go with, the value is undeniably strong.

Conan [Playstation 2]

Note: This review is part of a series I am going to call “Resurrected Reviews”, essentially stuff that I wrote for previous (now deceased) blogs and review topics on various gaming forums over the years. I have dragged them kicking-and-a-screaming into the harsh light of the present day and revamped them where necessary. Some may say “Rehash” but I say “Recycling”.

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Release: 2004 | Developer: Cauldron | Publisher: TDK Mediactive | Also On: PC, Xbox, Gamecube

“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger”

When talking about the videogame adventures of Robert E Howard’s legendary barbarian warrior, most will be more familiar with the PS3 game by THQ, a very average 3D adventure game that I personally found to be akin to a poor man’s God of War. The game that I will be talking about now (also titled simply ‘Conan’) came before on the PS2 and Gamecube and was published by TDK, developed by Cauldron. It’s completely unrelated to the THQ game but would it be better for it? Well…

Picture this: after a mere ten minutes of gameplay, I was staring dully at the TV screen with mental despair taking hold. I was thinking, why oh why are there no good Conan games? The PS3 game was an un-enjoyable slog to the finish after just a few hours of playtime and there are no others that I know of aside from the PC Age of Conan MMO which I can’t be arsed with as I simply don’t ‘do’ PC games. The only other Conan game I have glimpsed came in the form of a few screenshots for an unreleased Atari Jaguar side-scrolling beat ‘em up (the very definition of obscure!) so I was desperate for this PS2 effort to satisfy the Conan fan in me. But no, it just had to be another bitter pill of disappointment.

Why are there no decent Conan games? Why? The films were great (well, the first one was. Conan the Destroyer isn’t quite the same and the remake is just pointless) but the books were even better. I’ve read every one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and they were brilliant. Between these and the movie adaptations, there is a world of resource and inspiration for some good Conan games so why…are…there…no…good…Conan…games? WHY? WHY? WHERE ARE THE GOOD CONAN GAMES?!?

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Whew. That’s better. Talk about your pent up frustration. In the spirit of Conan himself, I persevered and so with pad in hand I asked Crom for the strength to beat this game and if he wouldn’t listen? To hell with him.

To give Conan some credit, the game is at least faithful to the source material when it comes to locations, weapons and even the characterisation of Conan himself. This isn’t Conan as played by Arnie but the real Conan from E. Howard’s books and – as a fan of those tomes – I really appreciated what Cauldron did to keep things legit and authentically presented. The ‘epic’ music is generic but a good fit for the game (nothing else to say about it to be frank).

Gameplay revolves dispatching enemies with various button combinations. You have light attacks, heavy attacks, grabs and a block button. These are utilised to pull off preset combos and by killing enemies the player earns points to spend on unlocking new, flashier moves – standard stuff. Movement however is really clunky and despite using a few different pads, Conan sometimes simply refused to move in the desired direction when changing course. It didn’t cause too many unnecessary deaths during my play-through but it’s pretty piss-poor when a game makes you question the condition of your controllers, especially when it turns out that they are all working correctly.

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This screen is actually from the Xbox version but I’m not sure I care enough.

If you do run out of health though then Conan is transported to the realm of Crom where you must defeat enemies in an enclosed arena in order to be fully restored to the spot where Conan snuffed it. Sounds pretty sweet right? Especially when you consider that the feature has unlimited uses. It’s actually the opposite though because these arena battles are much easier than battles in the mortal realm making Conan’s resurrections assured and the threat of enemies neutered. If you can’t ever technically be killed then where is the challenge? Conan’s apparent immortality also makes a mockery of boss battles because you can be infinitely restored to the spot with the enemy’s life bar still depleted.

The only way that you don’t get a chance to fight for Conan’s restoration is by falling foul of environmental hazards such as holes or traps (apparently Conan hasn’t died as a warrior thus denying him the right to be resurrected) but this still doesn’t excuse the ability to ignore strategy completely and abuse this mechanic. Ultimately, I wondered if there was any point at all in trying to utilise the game’s full range of moves because you may as well repeat the same handful of basic sword combos while spamming this revival ability. It’s certainly possible to beat the game this way with little trouble.

You can switch between swords, axes and maces throughout the game but again, unless you need the mace for beating down armoured foes more effectively, there’s no incentive to bother. There’s also a running side quest to locate and assemble all four pieces of the Atlantean Sword but any exploration is voided by the fact that a) environments are incredibly linear and bland and b) only one of the pieces is easy to miss with the others all in plain sight or after beating a boss. The Atlantean Sword deals with enemies in one hit and shamefully, I even killed the final boss with one wild swipe! Who tested this shit?

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Braving the harsh elements and wild animals. At least the feel of the character and setting(s) is there.

The main problem with this game is the clunkiness and just general, basic dullness of everything. It really is an exercise in getting from A to B by killing everything in between, pulling a few levers and avoiding pitfalls. Lots of games have adopted this approach in the past and have turned out really well but Conan is just so uninteresting to sit through with repetitive scraps that don’t ever offer something new or stylish to at least paper over the shortcomings. It does say something that my highlight of the game was the quick cinematic of Conan punching a camel in a marketplace, a reference to a humorous scene in the original Arnie film. It made me smile at least when nothing else did.

The sole reason I persevered to the end was because the authenticity to the original books was spot on and I still wanted to see what happened in the end. I can imagine a non-Conan fan playing this game and binning it after a few levels because as much as I appreciated the videogame renditions of stuff from the books, it was always a case of sitting down and saying “right, got to get this bloody Conan game finished so I can play something else” rather than enjoying the game. I’m bored just writing about it.

Now that I’m nearing the conclusion of this review, I’m looking back over my words and thinking that I haven’t really gone into much detail but the truth is, I just don’t have anything else to say. So…is this an angry rant ending on a mellow note? Not until I’ve gone over the game’s miserable save system! I knew there was something else I hated about Conan – must have blocked it out of my mind for a moment there. Well, there’s no use in burying my head in the sand so I’ll talk about it.

Conan needs to possess a crystal to save the game. You can save anywhere (good) BUT you can only carry four of the damn things at any one time (bad) and let me tell you: there’s nothing worse than trying to make your last crystal go as far as possible only to fall down a hidden pit or be killed by a barely-visible trap because it means slogging back through the whole unsaved section all over again, slaying the same boring enemies and looking at the same uninspiring scenery (extremely, diarrhoea-grade bad). Who thinks that weird save systems like this are a good idea? Fuck these people. A game this underwhelming didn’t need to be any worse but congratulations developers, you managed it.

Overall Thoughts

It’s a shame that the gameplay is so uninspiring and bland because the source material was treated really well with this one. Conan is at least authentic in spirit but that means little when you barely want to play the actual game. Another missed oppurtunity.

Need For Speed Underground 2 [Playstation 2]

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I have a strange relationship with EA’s Need for Speed Underground games. Despite always being a big car person (or ‘petrolhead’), I looked down on these games when they were current because they tapped into a street racing subculture which appeared far more glamorous in Japan or the US while here in the UK, it was associated with ‘ricers’ or ‘chavs’ building ugly, thunderous monstrosities out of Citroen Saxos or Peugeot 206’s. I was busier playing my intellectual JRPG’s and skillful fighting games while the masses were buying NFSU in droves.

There was also a stigmata associated with EA during the PS2 era if you ran in certain gaming circles. It was the impression that they only slapped their name on yearly cash-cow updates, average licensed fare and software that they could sell via cynical marketing which tapped into what teenage boys of the mid 00’s wanted. So football, loud cars and tits then.

It probably didn’t help that I eventually played the original Underground and wasn’t that impressed. However, I have been heavily re-involved with cars and the ‘scene’ over the last 6-7 years and in an ironic twist of fate, I now actually MISS the days of The Fast & The Furious movies, street racing culture and magazines like Max Power with topless models draped over ridiculous cars. Most of this has evaporated and with the constant droning message about road users needing to be responsible as well as the ‘lads mags’ being killed off (because sexism…whatever), the world feels like a more sterilised and straight place.

So I was ready to give NFSU2 a chance after snagging a cheap copy in a bundle of PS2 games. It is after all, one of the better-regarded games in the series with a bit of a following.

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Urban cityscape and a nitrous-fuelled motion blur: welcome back to the mid 00’s.

The first thing that hit me was how good the game still looked. ‘Jaggies’ and outdated textures are pretty minimal and the car models are fantastic. As a petrolhead, I can safely say that all of the cars in this game are modelled highly accurately with a nice level of detail down to the correct badges and original exterior equipment. This was a nice surprise because I admit I was expecting worse from an annual EA update, perhaps a mistaken presumption that the game would have been blasted out by the developers in time for its intended release with a lack of polish. But no, the visuals and those cars look a lot better than many other racers of the generation and hold up incredibly well today.

EA added in a free-roam structure to NFSU2 as well and this really elevated it above the first game. Simply speeding about the city to different race events is enjoyable and even though the ‘free’ aspect is obviously limited by being stuck inside a car, it’s much more preferable to selecting races from a menu. Most circuit and sprint events use sections of the city too so getting familiarised with the many corners and shortcuts while in free-roam mode definitely helps when it comes to the races.

Race events are varied with circuit and sprint events joined by drift challenges (score more points than opponents), drag races and the new ‘Street X’ event which consists of small, tight courses that take place in car parks or (for some reason) building sites. These are more about acceleration, handling and taking the best racing lines. Finally there are the Underground Racing League events. These are the biggies that take place on proper race tracks and progress the game’s career mode. You are able to use a dyno and test track(s) to custom tune your car for each event, settings that are auto-loaded upon entering each style of event which does at least offer a bit more depth.

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You have to start somewhere with cars like Vauxhall’s Corsa.

Progressing the career mode also means meeting the requirements of various sponsors that sign up to your cause. These demands are pretty straightforward and involve winning a set amount of events as well as sponsor races which pay out a lot more cash. You also need to get your car featured on a set number of tuning magazine and DVD covers and this is achieved by raising the star rating of your ride’s visual appearance until the call comes in for you to hightail it to the photographer’s location.

The only crappy thing about this aspect in my personal opinion is that it forces you to go all in and fit every conceivable modification possible such as neon underlighting, carbon body panels and hydraulics. So if you’re like me and prefer minimalism or a stock appearance then it ain’t going to cut it with the sponsors. It also means paying for components then having to continually replace them with ‘better’ versions down the line as parts are gradually unlocked, an artificial method of extending the game’s life but completely expected. I kept a separate Nissan 240SX that received the visual mods purely for this side of things then spent the rest of my cash on performance upgrades for my other cars that I could then ‘tastefully’ modify on the outside.

Still, the magazine and DVD covers made me smile and took me back to that period in time that I talked about earlier. They might look ‘laddish’ and chauvinistic by 2018’s easily offended standards but I like ’em.

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If you remember these types of magazines with a fondness then you will definitely appreciate NFSU2 and the culture it represents.

It’s a shame that the game’s AI didn’t make me smile as much. If you want to take the proper racing lines and overtake opponents cleanly as you would have to in real life then forget it. Towards the beginning of the game this is entirely possible but later on as things take a turn for the challenging, you’d best forget it. Rivals launch themselves up the inside of your car kamikaze-style in the corners and pile into the back of you for braking zones as if this is a Destruction Derby sequel, not Need For Speed. Worse still, they have no qualms about punting you off the track or even utilising the police-approved PIT maneuver to spin you out. Cheating bastards!

I tried to race fairly because I hate winning in racing games by abusing a lack of damage modelling to bash my way to the front but unfortunately, you have to lower your standards with this game and fight fire with fire sometimes, especially since the game’s AI has another crafty weapon up its sleeve: the dreaded rubber band effect. Opponents seem a lot less inconvenienced by collisions with civilian traffic (whereas a single smash can ruin YOUR entire race) and can somehow take tight corners at impossible speeds, sometimes while using nitrous. You can leave them several seconds behind by getting out in front and driving perfectly but the game allows them to catch right back up to you on the last lap as if they have been handed a secret performance boost. This sort of thing makes sense in a game like Mario Kart but in a proper racing game involving real cars that have real performance figures and capabilities…well, it just sucks.

It also blew my mind to witness heavy muscle cars like the Mustang and Pontiac GTO leaving me for dust on twisty, technical circuits that should never favour such vehicles. Losing drag races to Vauxhall Corsas and Ford Focuses somehow capable of reaching near-200mph speeds was another mind-boggling development.

The game can also strategically place a taxi or van around a blind bend and this is unbelievably frustrating after investing seven-or-so minutes into a race, successfully keeping those shady opponents at bay for three long laps only to lose it all and have to start again because there was a unavoidable crash around the final corner. I’ve even experienced a white van speeding over an intersection right into my path as if God himself decided that I wasn’t allowed to win the race. Whether this was EA’s subtle commentary on the infamous “White Van Man”, I can’t say but I swore quite a bit!

Overall Thoughts

There is a lot to like about Need For Speed Underground 2 and thankfully, the good bits just about outweigh the rotten AI-related elements. There was of course the added bonus of getting a far more polished game than I was expecting but it definitely helps if you consider the racing to be more of an arcade game than a serious sim. For me personally though, I really enjoyed being transported back to that era of street racing and the JDM craziness inspired by what was happening in Japan and the Fast & Furious movies. NFSU2 perfectly captures that subculture – just don’t expect gentlemanly conduct from the game’s AI.

Lumines [PSP] & Lumines Plus [PS2]

When Lumines first arrived for the PSP back in 2004 (2005 for Western territories), did the gaming landscape really need another puzzler based around clearing rows of blocks? Arguably not but somebody decided that we did and so a brand-new puzzle series kicked off in earnest.

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Yes, the object is to clear the screen of blocks and yes, it’s game over if they reach the top of the play area but thankfully, Lumines is a bit more than “been there, done that, got the T-shirt”. Blocks always come in two different colours and are cleared in 2×2 squares (as opposed to complete rows as in Tetris) for starters. Not crazy enough? Formations of the same colour can be linked together to clear lots of blocks at the same time and there is also a special block that – when forming part of a 2×2 – clears every single block of the same colour that is linked to that 2×2. As you can imagine, there are some huge scores to be had by strategically filling half of the screen with carefully linked blocks and then deleting the whole lot in one go with the special block, leading to everything else crashing down and forming loads more links for even more clearance and mega points.

But even that sounds fairly pedestrian and I’d totally forgive you for asking why you should even care about any of this. Thankfully, Lumines has a secret weapon and it’s the power of music.

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The Time Line is your best friend and – sometimes – also your greatest foe.

The game sports a soundtrack largely comprising of the House and Electronica styles of music and each stage (known as “skins” in Lumines) that you play on has its own unique track. Score enough points and the stage will transition into a new one with a new skin and a new track. This keeps things fresh and interesting but the music is much more than that in Lumines. The ‘Time Line’ bar constantly scrolling from left-to-right changes speed based on the tempo of the music and only blocks arranged ahead of the bar will be cleared once it reaches the other side of the screen. This can either lead to a race against time to get your combos set up before the Time Line gets there or, when the screen is perilously full on a more sedately-paced skin, you will be willing the bar to get a damn move on and clear some space before waiting blocks overload the play area.

The sound effects for blocks dropping into place and being cleared are also unique for each skin and team up with the music to form an ever-evolving audio experience for the ears. When you are really in the zone and nailing massive combo after massive combo while the music ramps up, then Lumines totally clicks and it comes into its own as a unique puzzle game.

Honestly, the only reason I can see somebody not enjoying Lumines to any degree would purely be down to the type of music involved not being to their tastes. I described it above as House and Electronica in style so if you aren’t a fan then you may struggle to ‘get’ it. Otherwise, it’s a very addictive puzzler that actually offers a decent challenge and I always have the itch for “one more go” to see if I can get further in the single-player challenge mode and see some new skins. Better still, the game was a launch title for the PSP and as such is common-as-muck and easy to pick up for a few pounds. Bargain!

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Versus mode (against CPU or a friend) is interesting. Clearing blocks pushes the boundary towards the opponent and reduces their playing area, applying serious pressure.

Fast forward a few years and Lumines Plus was released for the Playstation 2. Billed as an expanded version of the original, the game is already on the back foot purely for not being on a handheld. Lumines was a perfect fit for the PSP and on-the-move gaming…not so much for a home system. It might sound lazy but let’s face it, waiting for the disc to load up on the PS2 and then being tied to your sofa with a wired pad in hand doesn’t feel as “right”. Still, it doesn’t affect the quality of the original game and having a bigger display and (depending on your set-up) more capable speakers is an advantage for the Plus edition.

The main selling point of the PS2 version was the inclusion of a handful of new skins so in theory, Lumines Plus should be a definitive edition of the original game. Unfortunately, I noticed a few small niggles when moving from the PSP version to Plus. Firstly, there seems to be a brief two-three second pause during the transition of skins which leaves you in silence and interrupts the flow. Not ideal for a music-based game! Also – for whatever reason – the cool robotic voice that announces the name of the track as the music switches over, is completely missing from this version. Otherwise the game is a straight port with extremely minimal differences which I found to be a bit of a letdown. Even the menus and front end are indentical.

Ultimately though it’s the lack of portability that scuppers the Plus edition. If you don’t have access to a PSP then Lumines Plus for the PS2 is perfectly serviceable and still a great puzzle game. Otherwise, I don’t consider the additional skins to be a worthwhile trade-off for not having Lumines in its more fitting, handheld environment. Owning both versions is completely unnecessary and I only do so because I am some sort of batshit weird hoarder/magpie.

Overall Thoughts…

If you enjoy puzzle games (especially of the falling tile/block persuasion) or games with a heavy infusion of music then Lumines is a no-brainer. For the pitiful amount of currency that a used copy trades hands for these days, the risk to your wallet barely registers. Only bother with the Plus edition for PS2 if you don’t have a PSP or if you absolutely HAVE to play it on the big screen but you know, that’s kind of what those PSP-TV cables were designed for?

Urban Reign [Playstation 2]

Ever since the decline of the arcades and 16-bit home console era, there have been quests to find worthwhile modern examples of the genres that were driven close to exctinction by the arrival of cinematic, story-driven games. The beat ’em up is one such genre that flourished in the late 80’s and early 90’s but quickly became irrelevant to the mainstream. Developers attempted to take advantage of polygons and update their classic franchises but the results were a mixed bag to say the very least. After all, the likes of Fighting Force can hardly be discussed in the same breath as Final Fight…not by anybody with any taste anyway!

The PS2/Xbox/GC era was a particular low point as far as beat ’em ups go and there genuinely aren’t many decent ones to speak of. When they did appear, they weren’t quite the same as their 2D forerunners. I’ve already reviewed Final Fight Streetwise here but that game – along with Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance – included semi-free roaming gameplay as well as other features such as stat upgrades, side missions and cutscenes. The core beat ’em up objective (to smash the crap out of thugs and hoods) was still there but the purity of the arcade classics was lost.

One game that frequently gets brought up when gamers are questing for a good beat ’em up from the new millenium is Namco’s Urban Reign for the PS2. Like its rivals however, Urban Reign isn’t quite the game you might expect and simply expecting it to be a straightforward beat ’em up actually invites disappointment as I recently discovered.

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A Misunderstanding…

I was expecting Urban Reign to be a 3D version of the old-school arcade beat ’em ups. You would have thought I’d have learnt by now that this just isn’t enough to sell a game in the modern era but even so, I popped the disc in and was prepping myself for perhaps ten to fifteen stages of ‘scrolling’ through streets and alleyways, punching thugs and making my way towards a boss at the end of each level. Bloody hell…get with the times old man! That shit was so 1992.

Instead, there is a brief cinematic introduction to the main character (Brad Hawk) who is apparently the new hard-arse in a town ruled by crime and violence. Brad starts working for Chinese crime boss, Shun Ying Lee, a female swordswoman equipped for the Playstation 2 generation of videogame marketing with a low-cut jumpsuit and an eye-popping B-W-H ratio that doesn’t exactly reflect a typical East Asian woman. The plot is henceforth communicated via narrated text boxes before each mission and is your standard guff about rival gangs, turf warfare and all that stuff so nothing new to see here. I was expecting cut-scenes perhaps but almost thirty missions in (yes, I’ll get to that in a moment), it was still just text explaining why Brad needed to go and beat up a rival gang boss or why Brad had to survive an alleyway encounter with a mob of gang members. Pretty soon I was skim-reading the ‘plot’ and just skipping it all. Wuthering Heights this wasn’t.

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Hit the streets and go toe-to-toe with thugs sporting ridiculous names. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This was beginning to look bad. Urban Reign didn’t sell very well by all accounts and it isn’t difficult to see why. The main character looks bland, the cover for the game is boring and the usual mid-2000’s videogame tropes are all correct and present: female character with huge tits and highly impractical outfit? Check. Generic homie ‘gangsta’ enemies? Check again. Unnecessary plot that tries to hard? Big fat ol’ check. The other probable reason that Urban Reign underperformed at retail (aside from barely being marketed at all by Namco) is because the gameplay itself was likely not what punters expected. Perhaps gamers made the same mistake I did and expected a modern take on the classic beat ’em up style with the same game structure. It’s difficult to know for sure but what you actually get is something a bit different.

Instead of long, roaming stages that trap you with groups of enemies before allowing you to move forwards, Urban Reign serves up bite-sized missions that can be cleared quite quickly. The player is enclosed within a confined, limited arena-like space (be it a street, alleyway, bar etc.) with objective of simply beating all of the enemies. Sometimes you have to take down a more challenging foe in a one-on-one scenario and sometimes there are extra conditions such as defeating opponents within a time limit but the basics are the same. It feels like a series of small challenges and the game more than makes up for the lack of a complex structure with the sheer amount of these self-contained missions.

Repetition – in terms of both the gameplay and the reasons the game gives you for having to fight the next assortment of undesirables – set in with me quite quickly but after clearing thirty missions, something amazing happened.

There’s actually MORE to this game?

So I beat the thirtieth mission and FINALLY a cutscene and some form of plot progression! By this point, I was seriously not expecting it at all but here it was. More importantly, the game gives you a selection of partners that you can take along with you into battle (a roster that gradually increases as you beat key enemies and they join your cause) and this brings special team-up style attacks to the mix. You can also issue directions to your buddy and get them to take out certain enemies or initiate special team-up moves.

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It’s a shame that it takes so long for the game to introduce everything it has to offer.

Before I get into discussing the actual game mechanics, I need to take a moment to really look at this late introduction of the rest of Urban Reign‘s features. For it to take thirty missions for the game’s plot to wake up and decide to continue is crazy, even more so when you consider that Urban Reign is not a walkover. I played the the game on the default difficulty setting and many of those first thirty missions were incredibly challenging (for reasons I will discuss when talking about the actual gameplay in a moment) and took a lot of retakes and patience to beat. It’s not hard to imagine gamers getting frustrated by the challenge with (seemingly) no game development being dangled in front of them like a carrot to keep them pushing forwards. That and the fact that it takes this long for the partners to become available. It’s almost as if you have been playing a massive tutorial for all this time except the road certainly isn’t your standard tutorial difficulty.

So with that mini rant out of the way, let’s have a look at the actual gameplay itself because it’s reasonably interesting for a beat ’em up. The most surprising thing for a three dimensional beat ’em up is that there is NO block/guard button. Instead, the whole fighting system is based around countering. Pushing the square button at the precise moment will allow you to avoid a strike or grapple. However, to really do damage and beat the tougher enemies, you also need to get countering and you can either do this by responding immediately with a combo or by pushing the analogue stick left/right while dodging which shifts your character behind the opponent, opening them up for difficult to avoid counter strikes or grapples.

It’s an easy-to-grasp, tough-to-master mechanic and you can get away with not being good at it for the easier missions but many bosses will simply not hit the deck unless you can consistently counter their attacks and punish them with follow-up combos and throws. What this system does in general is force you to either stand your ground and learn to counter or run away and find space but enemies in Urban Reign will catch up to you very quickly so the second option isn’t exactly reliable. It’s a case of getting good…or else!

(Analogue) Stick it to ’em

As far as the offensive combat goes, the analogue stick pays a crucial part. Mashing the attack button will unleash a character’s basic combo string but attacking in conjunction with pushing the analogue stick up or down allows to target their upper and lower body regions with the latter usually being some kind of sweep that can provide crucial seconds to breathe when under pressure. You can also attack downed characters by pushing down on the stick when next to them.

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Strongman Glenn is one of my favourite available characters.

Grapples work in the same way, allowing you target specific parts of an enemy and deal greater damage when it comes to “destroying” one of three body zones, allowing for bigger damage when targeting said zone with further attacks. Perhaps it goes without saying but there are different holds and throws available depending on whether you are in front or behind an enemy. Sprinting takes a bit of getting used to because instead of double-tapping the analogue stick or holding a button whilst moving (as in many other 3D action games), you press the X button once and your character begins running automatically, only stopping once you go for another input. You can slide-tackle enemies or even run up walls and leap off to attack enemies from above.

There’s a reasonable amount going on but the real fun comes when experimenting with creating big combos of strikes and grapples. This being made by Namco, there is Tekken-style juggling and wall-bouncing which is both a help and hindrance. On one hand, you can use it to your advantage to extend combos and even grab enemies mid-air for context-exclusive grapples. The downside is that you can get destroyed very quickly by enemies when being smashed against a wall over and over or trapped in mid-air, being comboed by multiple foes. In a sense, losing feels extremely cheap when the CPU goes apeshit on you like this but the counter system does work mid-combo and in mid-air albeit with strict timing so it isn’t entirely unfair. It simply forces you to get good at the game rather than rely on button-mashing and it’s this that sets Urban Reign apart from old-school 2D beat ’em ups. There is some depth to combat here and if you want a better visual demonstration, check the game out on Youtube where there are videos from players doing an amazing job of utterly schooling the toughest enemies on the most savage difficulty.

One issue which I can’t really forgive is the fact that it doesn’t take much to stun your character and render them momentarily dizzy, leaving you unable to respond to attacks with dodges or counters. An SPA (Special Arts) move will immediately snap you out of this state but it consumes precious meter which you are (obviously) trying to conserve to go on the offensive.

Final Thoughts

There are a hundred missions in Urban Reign‘s story mode to clear and once those are polished off, there are some more interesting things to have a play with. Multiplayer for instance gives you more of a fighting chance when an actual person is controlling your partner (though the AI is actually quite solid in this respect and often wins the missions for you). There is also a Challenge mode (think ‘Survival’ against individual foes) and a Free Play mode which allows you to replay all of the story mode’s missions for a rank. This last mode is of greatest interest as you are no longer restricted to using Brad Hawk and can roll with a tag team of any two characters providing they have been unlocked. All of the main allies from story mode are present but you can also unlock the random enemies/thugs as well as brand-new characters including guest stars Paul Phoenix and Marshall Law from Tekken!

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Paul is pretty epic in Urban Reign and beating down thugs with his signature moves is worth unlocking him for.

But should you persevere with the main game and go to the lengths of unlocking characters? I would say “yes” because Urban Reign might not be what most people are expecting i.e. a mindless (not meant in a derogatory way) button-mashing beat ’em up that harks back to the 2D days but the game is great in it’s own way. The combat is very satisfying once you have gotten to grips with the counter system and learnt some combos and there is genuine challenge on offer. So many missions made me think “Damn, this is impossible; how are you expected to win here?!?” but you keep coming back and trying again, slowly getting better and better at the game until you get that perfect run on a mission. True, you sometimes have to rely on flukes, CPU slip-ups or cheap tactics to win but for the most part, you feel like you have earnt that victory and it is SO satisfying to finally overcome an against-the-odds mission.

The major downside is the amount of time that Urban Reign needs to get going. Without trying to sound impatient, it takes far too long for any story progression and – more importantly – too long for partners, weapons and all of the special moves to become available. Gradually developing a character’s skills and unlocking stuff in games is nothing new but the issue here is that it DOES take too long and the game does a poor job of communicating your actual progression and end goals. This combined with the often ruthless difficulty will be off-putting to many – especially if they expected a different kind of game structure – but if you can stick with it and learn the mechanics then there is a really enjoyable beat ’em up experience here and certainly one of the best of its generation.

Final Fight Streetwise is NOT a bad game

Now that I have your attention with that outrageous title, I guess I will need to justify making such a statement and with good reason. Whenever the topics of worst videogame reboots and worst modern updates of classic franchises get brought up, you can bet a fat wedge of your hard-earned money that Final Fight Streetwise will make it onto that list. It’s easy to see why too: the game was released in that awkward mid-noughties period when publishers seemed to believe that what their cherished franchises needed to succeed on the PS2 and Xbox was grittiness, tits and gratuitous profanities. Many series’ fell foul of this notion (an entire topic in itself) including Capcom’s much-loved Final Fight beat ’em up series.

Eternally a sucker for the more obscure stuff that lies at the dusty side of this well-travelled road we call “Gaming”, I decided that it was high time I played the game for myself to see if Streetwise was really deserving of its poor rep.

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Even bad games increase in value due to their notoriety. The going rate for Streetwise in 2018 is £7-£10.

The shocking thing was that I found myself enjoying the game! After hearing nothing but hatred for Final Fight Streetwise over the years, this was a big surprise. It certainly goes to show that popular internet opinion isn’t always correct and that you should always try a game out for yourself before joining in the chorus of condemnation based on what you have heard/read or seen in video footage.

That’s not to say that the game is a classic or anything approaching that because there ARE many things that are wrong with it. The big elephant in the room is of course the ‘Final Fight’ name on the box and the depiction of the likes of Cody, Guy and Haggar in this game. A lot of the scorn for Streetwise stems from the fact that this game is part of the Final Fight saga and fans of the older games were (understandably) pissed that their beloved franchise and characters were radically different this time around. If Streetwise had traded the Final Fight connections for new, original characters then it probably wouldn’t have invited such a critical pasting and would have simply been another 3D beat ’em up for the PS2 generation. Unfortunately, Capcom decided it was safer (ironically) to trade on an established name, a move that sealed Streetwise‘s fate from the beginning. The irony continues however when considering that Capcom also developed an original 3D beat ’em up title for the PS2 called Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance. This game was objectively better than Final Fight Streetwise in several respects but still no classic yet a lack of connection to an established, much-loved series counted in its favour.

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Gritty urban surroundings and guns? The Final Fight resemblance was a bit thin.

To describe the gameplay, I’ve taken to billing Streetwise as a crap version of Sega’s Yakuza. That’s to say that there is a free-roaming nature to the game (albeit confined to a much more limited, less interactive game world) with 3D combat, the use of weapons and an upgradable set of moves/combos. Different areas of Metro City are gradually unlocked as the game progresses and there are a variety of side missions as well as a series of pit fights against opponents that stand out from the general street thugs and gangstas. All of this considered, it’s easy to make the comparisons between Metro City and Kamurocho but if Sega’s highly detailed crime saga can be likened to a Ferrari then Streetwise would probably be a Ssangyong or a Dacia by comparison.

And as a I mentioned earlier, the game fell into the trap of pandering to the teenage boy audience that every publisher was trying to sell games to in the mid-2000’s. Metro City is a gloomy, miserable urban environment this time around with a look of extreme decay and social rot about it. F-bombs and all manner of other swearing are casually tossed about, blood flies during brawls and hookers hang around on street corners, trying to sell the main character their wares. Fortunately, Streetwise doesn’t let you go any further with the latter and the dilapidated city’s porn theatre is conveniently never able to serve you due to the “register being down”. A soundtrack of gangsta beats from obscure artists serves as backing noise (and I really do consider it to be “noise”) and completes the transformation of the once colourful, cartoon-like beat ’em ups from the arcade and Super Nintendo.

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Darker and more ghetto than before.

You play as Kyle Travers, brother to Final Fight‘s Cody Travers and an up-and-coming fight club brawler. Many years have passed since the events of Final Fight and Cody is now older with knackered knees that can’t take the abuse of fighting anymore so he puts his time into coaching his brother instead. Cody still feels the burning desire to fight however and finds himself mixed up with shady underworld types and a dangerous new drug called “Glow” that can turn the average man into a superhuman machine at the eventual cost of the user’s mind and humanity. A dangerous gang crashes a drinking sesh at the local bar and kidnaps Cody with the gang’s leader – known as The Stiff – knocking Kyle unconscious at the conclusion of the brawl. This is where the game kicks off properly, with Kyle’s aim being to track down his brother and save him from Metro City’s underworld and the lethal Glow drug. Final Fight has certainly grown up since the old days eh?

Along the way, Kyle runs into strong man Haggar (angrier and swearier than before) and Guy who has now become a gang boss himself, heading up the Japantown district of Metro City. There aren’t really any more links to the Final Fight lineage other than these characters and a few references to their past exploits. The only classic Final Fight enemy to make a return is Andore as an optional pit opponent. Concept art for the game showed Poison and Sodom but neither made it into the final game.

Thus far, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Final Fight Streetwise is a load of nonsense, trying to be cool and hardcore while re-writing the likes of Cody and Haggar to be grittier, more ‘realistic’ characters e.g. exactly what nobody asked for. Gangsta music, a drug-related plot and the more violent nature of combat certainly suggest this so you may be wondering why I’m saying that Streetwise is not actually a bad game?

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You say bad, I say so bad it’s brilliant.

Well, the “bad” stuff is often so bad that I found it entertaining with so many crappy aspects of Streetwise lending the game a unique sort of charm. The awful NPC dialogue and quotes for example are just brilliant. Metro City appears to have a large population of flamboyant men making overly saucy remarks to Kyle in passing, (one such comment even referencing a “package”…whatever that means…) while hookers come out with such brazen lines as “Fancy a shag?” or “Wanna have a poke?”…in laughably posh British accents which obviously make the world of sense in an urban, American city.

Side missions often take the form of mini games which are a stark contrast to the game’s moody, violent vibe. One standout distraction is a card shuffling game where you must keep an eye on the winning card as it is shuffled with two others. You play this game by speaking to a suited businessman who just happens to be hanging around in a bad part of town, briefcase of playing cards at his side. Other amusing mini games include (literally) stamping out a cockroach infestation in the diner, smashing up a car that has enraged a local resident by being parked in their way (a nice throwback to the car-smashing interludes in the arcade game) and…blasting rubber ducks in an alleyway shooting gallery to win cash? Yep, that happens. The novelty of these side events does wear off once they begin to repeat over and over but there’s no denying that they are – initially – quirky and unexpected in a game where you expect to simply be fighting.

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I’ll be honest, as interesting as this was, I still didn’t bemoan a lack of G-Con2 support.

Speaking of the fighting, it’s actually not that bad. Yes, Final Fight Streetwise had contemparies that arguably did combat better (Urban Reign, Spikeout: Battle Street) but Streetwise is still more than serviceable. There are the standard light and strong attacks to create combos as well as the obligatory throw command. In addition, there is also an “Instinct” meter below the health bar. This energy can be used to enhance the power of moves (by holding down one of the shoulder buttons while attacking) or to fuel the use of stronger special moves such as the drop kick or suplex. Kyle can also counter an opponent’s attack if the player presses the block/guard button at precisely the right moment, sending the game into a brief slow-mo sequence where they can input various commands to evade damage and knock the enemy back. New moves and extensions to the health and instinct meters are purchased from the game’s various gyms, giving the player a reason to collect as much cash as possible from side events and enemy drops.

It’s nothing special but it works and there is a reasonable level of satisfaction to be gleaned from the combat, especially when consistently countering like a boss and sending enemies flying with an elbow smash, nose-breaker or hurricane kick.

Other sweet touches are a cameo fight against Street Fighter‘s Cammy (as a big fan of Cammy, I loved this) and a bonus arcade mode whereby you select Kyle, Cody, Guy or Haggar and attempt to fight your way through hoardes of enemies as in the old-school arcade games. Arcade mode takes on a strange 2.5d perspective with a fixed route and a much simplified moveset including a removal of the Instinct system (so no counters either) and many special moves. It’s an interesting sideshow but good luck beating it on your own without a second player because it’s absolutely brutal. Finally, you can unlock the original 1989 arcade game and play it from Streetwise‘s main menu but in all honesty, I can’t recommend the port as it feels sluggish with a poor resolution. Stick to the Capcom collections on the PS2 or PSP if you want to play classic Final Fight. Or the superb Final Fight One for the GBA.

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I wish this costume for Cammy had made it into one of the Street Fighter games as an alternate outfit but I imagine Capcom are keen to forget Streetwise ever happened.

Overall, I have to say that Final Fight Streetwise is not the absolute trainwreck that I was waiting to experience when I popped the disc into my PS2 after all these years of reading negative horror stories. Yes it is a flawed game and no, it isn’t an essential gem in the PS2 (or original Xbox’s) library. There are better 3D beat ’em ups available from this generation of gaming – without question – but I do feel that Streetwise receives a lot of flack for being a bad Final Fight game rather than a bad game in general. Strip away that famous name and you have a serviceable beat ’em up with some interesting quirks. It isn’t a bad game at all; it simply failed to live up to the Final Fight name but that was always going to be the case.

The one major complaint I personally have is that the save system is terrible. You can only save by quitting the game (not explained in-game or in the manual) and loading a saved game puts you back at your last checkpoint (also not explained in-game or in the manual) meaning that until you realise this, you can lose a lot of side-mission progress by believing that you have saved the game at your current point when you haven’t. Other small niggles are repetitive mini games, some fiddly bosses and the final few chapters feeling more like Resident Evil with zombie-like enemies and mutated bosses.

But Streetwise still isn’t a bad game. I couldn’t exactly recommend it but I COULD recommend that you open your mind a little, forget the Final Fight name and give the game a chance because it’s alright.