When Def Jam Vendetta was originally announced, some gamers scoffed at the premise. A wrestling game with rappers?! Their jests were squashed as Vendetta provided an appealing story, plenty of famous artists to beat up (or play as in skirmish modes) and responsive controls. In fact, the largest complaint that resounded after Vendetta became a smash hit was that the story mode was way too short to make the game an instant classic. Well, fight fans, EA's delivered the much-anticipated sequel, and it packs at least twice as much depth and substance than its predecessor. Wrap up your knuckles and grab a weapon, because we're going into Def Jam: Fight For New York.
The first Def Jam title revolved around a disgraced street brawler battling his way back into an underground fighting circuit to save his best friend and ex-girlfriend from a crime lord named D-Mob. Players had to take out every one of D-Mob's lieutenants on their own turf before squaring off with the gangster. The first title ended with the D-Mob in handcuffs and escorted away by police; Fight For New York picks up the story immediately thereafter, with Mob being driven off to the station. All of a sudden an SUV smashes into the side of the police car, and D-Mob is dragged from the cruiser and taken away to safety by a mysterious assailant.
Turns out his liberator was the character you play in Fight For New York, an unknown minor member of Mob's crew looking out for his employer (one never seen or interacted with in the first title). As his rescuer from a long prison sentence, D-Mob immediately promotes you to be a lieutenant within his group, much to the shock and anger of other gang members, leading to a wave of dissention, which couldn't come at a worse time. See, your group is engaged in a borough-wide turf battle with another gang, lead by Crow, a ruthless boss with a personal grudge against D-Mob. Up till now, your posse's been losing ground, but your addition starts to swing things back in D-Mob's favor. Thus sets the backdrop for an 8-10 hour story mode of success, betrayal and respect where you’ll interact with more than forty hip-hop stars and celebrities.
Fight For New York puts a unique spin on character creation, something that was not really allowed in the first game. The initial look of a fighter is based around the "eyewitness" account given to a sketch artist from the injured police officers that you assault in the game's intro. You're given the chance to pick a pre-generated face or to create your own from the extremely large amount of options available. We're talking everything from the facial structure and body type of your brawler to the voice they'll speak with during cutscenes. It's a marked improvement from the first, and allows really creative players to design just about anyone they want (also leaving open the door for further modifications, which I'll get to in a bit). For instance, one of the guys I created looked exactly like Tiki Barber (or was it Ronde? Whatever…)
Once the initial look and sound of your fighter is set in stone, you'll wind up returning to the story mode and actively decide upon a fighting style. Vendetta essentially emphasized different types of brawlers, i.e. cruiserweights, heavyweights, luchadores and other classes in between. By contrast, Fight For New York features five separate techniques that your characters can specialize in. Street Fighters are hardcore brawlers that emphasize power and brutal attacks to eliminate their opponents. By contrast, the faster, acrobatic Martial Artists use quicker, flashier blows on their targets. Wrestlers do make a return in this title, with much more emphasis on grappling and WWE-influenced strikes, like pedigrees and hurricanranas. Submission experts focus on systematically wearing down limbs or their opponent's head to make them submit to pain. Finally, there are kickboxers, whose skill with both their hands and knees can flatten enemies. While you'll initially pick one style, you'll have the option later on in the game to acquire two additional techniques at the gym to tailor your fighting ability to your own whims.
Speaking of the gym, you won't constantly be traveling from club to club beating down other people. After every fight, your character will return to his apartment, allowing you to decide when he'll continue his path in this "fight club" culture. He'll be able to check out trophies he's won on the walls from actions like maxing out his stats, performing submissions or knocking out opponents. He can check his voice mail to find out new clubs to fight in or pick up messages from friends or enemies. He will also be able to change his wardrobe, switching between items he's purchased from the shops in the game. Bling, appearance and attitude are focused on a lot more in this title than Vendetta; in fact, the more iced out and hard looking your character is, the more he'll be able to get the crowd on his side in fights.
There are 5 shops dedicated to giving your fighters that extra edge in the ring. Players that want to look so fresh and so clean might want to step into Stingray's Barbershop for their choice of haircuts, shaves and dye jobs. That's everything from dreadlocks and Mohawks to soul patches and sideburns in every color. You may want to back that up with some ink from Manny's Tats, which hosts a number of styles, including tribal, Yakuza and Polynesian. You'll be able to pick up to three levels of detail for each tattoo, and can place them all over your body, including your back, forearms and lower legs. Of course, you're going to need some sharp threads to go with your haircut and your tattoos, so you should probably head down to Syndicate Urban Streetwear to grab your designer threads. You can get dressed from head to toe in just about anything from Ecko, Phat Farm and Rocawear, amongst other clothing lines to fit your personal tastes. Now, every thug knows it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that bling, so get over to world famous Jacob the Jeweler for plenty of ice to keep your fighter frosty. From watches to rings to necklaces, Jacob's diamonds will make you stand out when you step into the ring.
Finally, there’s Stapleton Athletics, presided over by Henry Rollins (an odd choice, but the one man who’s harder than most rappers around, and can easily back it up). Rollins not only will help you allocate stat points to make your character stronger, he’ll train you in new techniques and provide you with any one of more than 80 Blazin’ moves that you can buy.
You’ll need the bonuses provided by the shopkeepers in fights now, because the tide of battle can swing back and forth much quicker in this game than Vendetta. I’m not just talking about someone making a simplistic comeback to beat their opponent, or getting them on your side by taunting enemies. In Fight For New York, the crowd plays a much more dynamic part in the game, even helping out in the beatings. Ever wish that someone would hold your opponent so you could get a few shots in? This mob is only too willing to oblige, and has no favorites at all; they’re all too willing to hand out a fist to watch someone get punished. They’ll also hand out weapons to fighters who want an extra advantage, like lead pipes, pool cues and beer bottles. There are tons of these items that you can get your hands to break over someone’s head or smash in the face with.
Aside from the spectators, there are plenty of environmental dangers that fighters can be harmed with. You can run characters head first into jukeboxes, rake their face across chainlink fences, and kick them into pillars, splintering the support beams in the process. Not only do these look painful, but they also cause a serious amount of damage to the victim. What’s particularly striking is that every single stage has some potential hazard that can be exploited in a fight to eliminate your foe. This doesn’t count the specialty stages, such as the Subway Match, where you can throw enemies in front of a moving train or Inferno match, where you fight your opponent in a ring of fire. There are nine potential battle types that you’ll engage in over the course of the story mode, and you’ll have the option to play these separately in Battle mode on your own with up to four players.
The visual step up from Vendetta to Fight For New York is extremely sharp and vibrant, which is quite a comment considering how incredible Vendetta was. Easily twice as detailed as its predecessor, the facial resemblance between the game characters and their real life counterparts is uncanny. Granted, some of the character models have been exaggerated; for instance, Busta Rhymes is freaking huge compared to his actual physique (for that matter, so is Omar Epps and Ice-T), but for the most part, the modeling matches each fighter’s character and attitude well. Body modifications, from different pieces of clothing to tattoos look extremely smooth, and if you’ve bought a lot of jewelry, you’ll see plenty of light sparkles reflecting from your accessories. What’s more, the characters animate extremely well, and it’s quite easy to detect the difference in fighting styles from each fighter. Some of them may have been recycled from Vendetta, but they do appear to be cleaned up somewhat to fit in with the newer moves, which are jaw-dropping. This includes the extremely cool Blazin’ moves, which look very powerful and very painful when executed. Environments are just as detailed, and it’s possible to find a new animation, object or hidden detail each time you fight in an arena. These aren’t recycled areas; these are completely independent sparring grounds that players have to get accustomed to.
On the downside, there’s a significant issue with camera angles, primarily around pillars and crowds in certain arenas. Sometimes the camera gets stuck on objects and corners, other times it winds up obscuring the action of the game because of its take on the action. Part of this is because pillars and some members of the crowd don’t always turn transparent when fights get close to them, making it difficult for the camera to track what’s happening to whom. Aside from that, there is a noticeable amount of slowdown that plagues Fight For New York, especially during free for all matches between three and four fighters. Whether or not it’s the amount of animation onscreen or the attention paid to the details of the fighters, there are moments where the game stutters, which casts a large shadow on an incredibly bright graphical display.
While there’s a slight blemish in the visual department, the sound quality of Fight For New York is top notch. The voice acting from each character is superb, and the delivery, whether it’s a congratulatory message or a growling threat truly draws you in with each performance. Players should be warned that there’s plenty of profanity, so if there are people that are sensitive to harsh language in your household, you may want to control the volume judiciously. Language notwithstanding, the musical contributions are very well done, with more than thirty old and new school songs filling out the soundtrack. Sound effects are solid as well, with extra attention paid to many of the new inclusions to gameplay, such as shattering glass or splintering wood.
While there have been significant improvements to the story and battle modes, there are a number of hiccups that hold the game back from being truly great. First of all, some of the fighting mechanics can be extremely lopsided and practically unblockable. Grappling, in particular, can be almost unstoppable if you face a foe that’s overly trained with wrestling or submission moves. Fat Joe, I’m talking to you specifically, particularly about your cheap grappling moves. Now, this is an especially frustrating issue to deal with when you’re first starting out. This can radically swing the opposite way once you start maxing out stats, because later on you can acquire the same moves and trigger them faster on opponents. There are also some control issues that can arise when weapons are dropped on arena floors, because your fighters will either stumble over them or actually wind up picking up a fallen opponent instead, which can be incredibly frustrating.
Aside from that, there are a number of plot issues that wind up weakening the overall tale in story mode. First of all, D-Mob has such a radical turnaround from the first game to the second, it’s almost impossible to figure out why he was portrayed as a bad guy in the original and a benefactor in the second. Part of this character flaw is fostered because D-Mob almost becomes an afterthought in the development of the plot. Apart from a few cutscenes, he really only interacts with the character via voicemail or text message, and never actually steps into the ring. Secondly, some of the secondary celebrity characters, particularly people like Redman or some of the other “partisan” gang members have very limited characterization as to why they’re actually fighting for their side, and could’ve just as easily been replaced by generic characters. In fact, aside from the ones that are connected to specific cutscenes or points, these celebs aren’t used enough or even in the right way. I don’t necessarily care about beating Erick Sermon (aside from my personal reverence for a legendary rapper) in the game; I do, however, feel exuberant about beating down Busta Rhymes or Sticky Fingaz because of the constant battles I’ve engaged them in.
Speaking of light connections to the game, I do wish there was more interaction with the girlfriend element. Once again, the lovely ladies included in the game are barely anything more than eye candy, fighting only twice and otherwise merely showing up in specific cutscenes. While Fight For New York did wind up tugging at my emotions because of what happens later on, I still wanted there to be much more to this if it was going to be included. Whether that was having to pick and choose how to spend my prize money on myself or my girlfriend, maybe potential monetary, time or emotional spurning would lead to her leaving you for another man, fostering a rivalry with someone. Another issue is the lack of true fulfillment with the ending of the game. Unlike the first one, which finishes cleanly (even if it was short), Fight For New York is somewhat unsatisfying and should’ve been more in-depth. Instead, it causes a large laundry list of wants to be formed for any potential sequels, such as the ability to take different rappers or characters through their own stories relating to the main plot, the option to affect much more of the underground world, or the option to pick and actually choose which side you were on, including your alliances and rivalries.
Don’t get me wrong, Fight For New York is far and away a marked improvement over Vendetta. Wrestling, fight and hip hop fans will find this game will occupy them for quite some time. A larger story line, greater number of options and plenty of interactive environments make this title one for any fight fans. It may not completely live up to its design, but it more than makes up for it in style.