Wow, it's not often that a great game like Deathrow comes out without registering on my radar. I like to believe that I'm open minded, I like practically every genre out there, and just about every console, but this game just came out of nowhere, I had no idea the game was even in development. But I'm certainly glad it did come out, because it offers a very fresh take on the arcade-style, sweat-inducing, bare-knuckle gameplay that I oh-so-love.
Deathrow starts out with some extremely clichéd back story of a land far in the future, where your generic mega-corporation media conglomerate starts a full-fledged sports league to entertain a desensitized populace. Violence combines with athletics in a new fusion of what could best be described as soccer, basketball, and Mortal Kombat - all thrown into a blender called Blitz Ball. The new sport strikes a chord with the masses, and there you have it. All of this is pretty much meaningless though, just an excuse to present the actual gameplay, which is where the game really comes through.
That said, Deathrow is hard to describe, considering there is no real ''Blitz Ball'' sport, but the game basically flows like this: two teams of four enter an arena, both teams given a goal at opposite ends of the field. Much like a Soccer kick off, a disc (DR's equivalent of a ball) is spawned in the center of the arena and both teams then try to score a point by throwing the disc in the opposing team's goal. After the kick off, the game takes a basketball-like turn, forcing you to work coherently with your team to succeed, running up and down the arena, passing up-court for a fast break, or sprinting back to protect your goal, and even assigning full strategies for you team (which is easily done by tapping the D-pad up or down - up for more aggressive, down for more defensive).
In a nutshell, that's how a basic game works. That is, until you factor in the "Mortal Kombat" part, because of course, a sport like this wouldn't be entertaining in the future if people didn't lose a limb or two here and there. Anyway, Deathrow features some basic fighting-game fundamentals, which - while not as complicated as a stand-alone fighter - when combined with the basic gameplay of the sport, add quite a bit to the table as a whole. Basically, what you're given are your regular punch and kick combos, your throw (punch and kick combined), jump-kicking and punching, and a guard (which turns into a leaping dodge when combined with a direction). Probably most effective is an attack in which you hurl yourself head- (or foot-, depending on whether you press punch or kick) first in the direction you're looking.
Like I said, when compared to a stand-alone fighter's repertoire, it certainly looks primitive, but when you combine it with the main game's sport-like gameplay, it works very well. The end result is an extremely cohesive and intense arcade-style experience. You'll find yourself learning how to time everything perfectly, jumping and dodging at exactly the right moments and chaining your dodges with jumping and passing, learning how and when the right times to pass the disc are, what formations to use, and when to just bust out the karate choppin'. That's not to say it doesn't take work, though. The game definitely packs a bit of a learning curve, but within an hour or two you should probably get the hang of things (but you do keep learning well into the game).
What Deathrow offers as its career mode is called ''Conquest'', in which you'll probably spend most of your single-player time. The idea of the mode is to pick one of the starting teams available to you, and work your way up the ranks with that team, increasing your team member's abilities and recruiting better team members to eventually reign supreme on the Blitz Ball ladder. You'll do this by going through several leagues of teams from novice to pro level, challenging each team above you until you're atop the current league, at which point you'll be able to advance to the next.
During each match, you'll earn money (and much more money for winning, of course) that you can spend on a variety of things, from recruiting new members to training and healing current ones. After matches, you can also look at your message box (basically like your team's mail box), which can contain a variety of things to spice (or mess) your season up. There are bet proposals, special drugs which have a chance to increase or decrease the performance of a member, challenges from non-league teams - who may be much harder than the official teams - and, unfortunately, ways to lose money for various reasons.
The game also offers a variety of other standard modes, from single matches and multiplayer, to even network-support, for when four players just aren’t enough. Another cool feature is the unlock mode. Similar to games like GoldenEye, DR makes you earn your extras. During Conquest mode, every time you beat an opposing team other than the starting teams, that team and its arena open up in the unlock mode for you to purchase with unlock credits that you also earn in Conquest mode. There are a few other gameplay-specific extras you can buy as well, but I'll leave the surprises to you.
On the graphical side, things are solid, though not necessarily that impressive. The aesthetics are often minimal until later in the game, and generally emit a bland, dark tone. Not to say things aren't technically impressive, because the game definitely packs some technical merit, especially in terms of textures. The textures of the arenas are done very well, featuring a level of bump-mapping light-reflection not often seen.
Most of the environments are fairly similar, though, and not overly creative, most resembling cold steel or asphalt. There are some interesting ones, such as a space-station, a volcano-themed arena, and of course a ninja dojo. (Because what's a future without ninjas? That's right, it's not a future at all, thank you.)
The character models fare similarly, they do their job just fine, but they're not exactly impressive. Animation is well done; all of the different moves flow well. There is certainly more variety in the characters than the environments, luckily. Army commandos, robots, ninjas, scientists, and even demons are not uncommon in the Blitz Ball league. The overall presentation of Deathrow still comes off well, despite the sometimes drab feel of the arenas, and the game definitely has some style all its own.
On the audio front, DR doesn't offer anything too impressive, but like the graphics, what it does offer works. Background music conforms to your general, futuristic, techno/rock mix, and the announcer is equipped with your average, overly dramatic, obnoxious announcer voice. There's quite a sizable amount of voice samples accompanying each team though, and you'd probably be very surprised to hear just what comes out of their little (potty) mouths. I'm serious when I say this, Deathrow is actually the first game to ever be accompanied with the parental guidance label that is commonly attached to many music CDs featuring explicit lyrics. And these are just voice samples! Make no mistake, you will hear no shortage of F's and S's in Deathrow, and while it doesn't add anything to the game, it certainly is interesting.
All in all, Deathrow is a very good and very unique game. If you're at all like me, you probably never saw it coming, but while you probably hadn't planned on picking it up, I definitely recommend you do. Though the game won't wow anyone with graphics or impress with a stylistic soundtrack, what Deathrow does well, is its gameplay, and that's what really matters, right?
· · · Andy