With so many games competing for mindshare this fall and the usual emphasis on blockbuster games that we get this time of year, its easy to overlook the many smaller-budget titles that are gracing consoles in the shadows of their big brothers. Its a shame too, since blockbusters often fall short of unrealistic expectations that have been fueled by months of screenshots, movies, speculation, and in-depth previews. Sometimes those little games hidden on the back shelves are the ones really worth playing. Deathrow graces the Xbox without much media hype or word of mouth, but its a game that should definitely create a buzz in the gaming community. It doesnt have a million-dollar ad campaign or an established franchise to move it off shelves, but it has a unique concept, polished graphics and sound, lots of options, and deceptively simple gameplay that is sure to challenge even the most seasoned gamer.
Deathrow is about a futuristic sports game called "Blitz" (an unfortunately uncreative title), a violent hybrid of lacrosse, ultimate Frisbee, and Mortal Kombat. It portrays a future where athletes are ruthless fighters, hungry for moneythe products of corporate-sponsored laboratory experiments and genetic mutations, supped-up on drugs and trained to win at any cost. The object is simply to throw a hovering disk into the opposing teams goal. The disk can be passed to teammates or charged up and thrown at opposing team members as a weapon (this move being the games namesake). There are four players on each team, one of whom usually guards the goal while the other three compete for the disk. In Blitz, there are no rules. Violence is the game hereif you cant outplay your opponents, try to outmuscle them by punching and kicking them, leg tackling them, diving into them or throwing them to the ground like oversized potato sacks. Fortunately, the game never degrades into a mindless slugfest. Even physically weaker teams can often defend themselves well enough to keep more aggressive teams at bay while they rack up points. But dominate another team physically, and the match can be won by knocking out all four opposing team members. Each player has a health gauge and a set number of injury slots. The player loses an injury slot with each complete drain of the health bar (the player will be "injured" and unable to get up for a few seconds). Once all of the injury slots are used, the player begins to limp. If they get injured again, theyre down for good. Each match is divided into four rounds, and between rounds injured or players can be substituted or healed (for a fee).
What appears to be a simplistic, gratuitously violent game on the surface gradually reveals an impressive degree of depth, much in the way games like Quake III: Arena require much more skill and strategy than meets the eye. Skilled players can execute an eloquent curve shot on a dime, intimidate and taunt opponents to make them careless, deftly evade opponents, and pull off exhilarating aerial alley-oops. A good player knows when to fight and when to back off, and knows which situations call for which moves. You can control the aggressiveness of your team by pressing the D-pad, which can tilt the team toward offense or defense. Knowing when to adjust your strategy can make a big difference in play; for example, it is often wise to go heavy on the defense when a team is dominating physically, while a more offensive approach can be used to outplay more strategic teams. The strategy is often altered during play depending on the tide of the match. The gameplay is very fast paced and matches are almost never lopsided. Even the initial matches are quite challenging; it took me a couple of hours of practice to start winning matches consistently, and even after playing through the game a few times its no cakewalk.
In a somewhat odd design decision, two modes of viewing are offered. One is a top-down "sports view" that is meant to acclimate fans of sports games to the gameplay. But the real meat and potatoes are in the action view, a behind-the-back third-person view. Since the main conquest mode can only be completed in the action view (although a sports-view conquest can be done once all of the sports view arenas are unlocked), the reasoning behind the sports view is a little ambiguous. The action view is far more immersive and easier to use. The arenas start with fairly simple rectangular designs, but gradually become more complex to include multi-tiered levels, ramps, environmental obstacles, and creative layouts that a skilled player can take advantage of. While navigating the arena in the action view, the right trigger acts as sort of a "finder." When youre on defense, pulling it will cause your player to face the disk. Once you are in possession of the disk, the right trigger causes you to face the goal. Ultimately, Ive ended up playing most matches with the right trigger depressed throughout the match, releasing it only to fight someone or tackle a goalie to create an opportunity for my teammates. Given the frantic nature of the action, knowing whats going on and what the other players are doing is integral, and I found the balance between control and the action-based viewpoint to be exceptional.
Deathrow offers a suitably deep array of options; matches can be played with no rules, a few set rules (such as penalizing players who attack opponents while they are down or getting up), or the rules can be customized. A thorough tutorial acclimates you to the gameplay, but there are only two real modes of play: the single match (which can be multiplayer) and the Conquest (which can be played cooperatively). Each match played in either mode rewards players with a given number of "unlock credits," which can be used to unlock new players, teams, arenas, and extrasincluding a totally frantic multi-disk match mode. So while only a handful of teams are available at the beginning of the game, once a team is defeated they, their arena, and their players can be unlocked. In Conquest, you begin with only four players and build a roster as the game progresses. You can train your players, give them drugs, and heal them between matches. Often, random events happen, such as the owner getting high and giving you thousands of dollars or one of your star players getting caught in delinquent behavior, requiring you to dish out cash to cover it up. Youre even allowed to challenge a handful of super-teams that will mop the floor with all but the most skilled players.
The presentation in Deathrow also impresses. The commercialist future is portrayed with some amusing subtlety, such as ads that run just before a game touting nuke-your-enemy services and erotic virtual reality products. Great textures with a smooth, clean look to the game and excellent animation round out some occasionally impressive effects (such as reflective floors) marred only by a lack of top-notch lighting. Sound is great and full of voice acting that gives the language in Pulp Fiction a run for its money. Four-letter words abound. Theres even a "taunt" button that makes you player flip the bird at his opponent. The techno tracks are a little drab, but the game does allow you to import tracks from the hard drive and add them to the play list.
Deathrows only real hurt is the lack of an online mode. This is exactly the kind of game that would be a great push for Microsoft now that Xbox Live has launched. But its still excellent either alone or with friends. Its a game that may repel some with its bloody, over-the-top violence, but its nuanced gameplay will attract a strong fan base among those willing to look past all of the hyped-up titles flooding shelves this fall and give a vicious underdog the chance to shine.