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Deathrow

Review By:  Nick Arvites

Developer:   Southend Interactive
Publisher:   Ubi Soft
# of Players:   1-8
Genre:   Alternative Sports
ESRB:   Mature
Online:   No
Accessories:   Widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1
Date Posted:  

2-11-03

I must admit, Deathrow slipped below my radar last fall. In retrospect, I am wondering how I missed one of the biggest sleeper hits of 2002. Released in October of 2002, Deathrow hit the streets like a steamroller. Not only did Southend Interactive completely create their own sport and set it into a Bladerunner meets Rollerball future, but they also made near-flawless and addictive gameplay for their future sports game.

Deathrow follows a season of a sport named "Blitz." The back story of this game is the sport developed by Los Angeles street gangs to recruit new members. Twenty years later, a major network picks up rights to the sport and forms a league.

Since Blitz is a completely fictional sport, I will go through the basics before starting the bulk of the review. Blitz is some kind of combination of hockey, basketball, professional wrestling, and Frisbee. Each team has four starters and substitutions are allowed between each of the 4 periods. The objective is to grab the hovering disc and fling it into the circular goal that the other team is guarding. Sounds easy, right? Well, did I mention this sport is no-holds-barred? You can beat the snot out of your opponents and take the disc, then beat the snot out the goalie while your teammate flings the disc through the goal. If your players take too much abuse, they will start limping around the arena and have a very good chance of being knocked out. It is very possible to knock out an entire team and win by default. Luckily, there are several spots in each arena where temporary power-ups and health capsules generate for your team (or opponents) to pick up. The pacing of this game is extremely fast. It features constant running, passing, jumping, fighting, shooting, and scoring.

How does the title "Deathrow" fit in? One might think it has something to do with the term "prison-sports" thatís been kicked around with this game. However, only one team is made up of convicts in this game. The term "Deathrow" is actually a move you can perform in the game. By holding on the shoot button, you charge up the disc. After a few seconds, the disc becomes explosive. Hitting the goalie with a charged disc is a Deathrow...or Death-throw.

This game boasts 150 different athletes spread across 18 teams. Each team has a distinct playing and fighting style that usually goes along with its name. For instance, the Convicts are really good at beating the tar out of their opponents, but are horrendous at shooting and passing whereas the Sea Cats are extremely fast and accurate but wonít last five minutes in a brawl. Each team has different strengths and weaknesses, though the higher ranked teams have a clear edge using stock players out of the gate.

There are several different modes in this game. There are two different views (more on this later) and four different gaming modes. The first mode is the tutorial. I recommend EVERYONE plays this mode because it gives a feeling for the game. After the tutorial, you can play a single match (alone or against a friend), start up a Conquest (think season), or link up to another Xbox for more multiplayer over the network.

What exactly did I mean by two different views? There is an action view and a sports view. Action view is set in a 3rd person behind the back angle, similar to the lightsaber combat in Jedi Knight II or similar to the entire game view in the Tomb Raider series. This is much more complex and much harder to control. It takes a while to get used to, but the game actually becomes much more fun since the arenas in the Action view are all drastically different. The sports view is a zoomed up view similar to one you would see in a hockey game. The controls are much more forgiving and the learning curve in this mode is much lower.

The bulk of this game will be spent in the Conquest mode. At first, you can only pick from four teams in the lowest bracket. After picking a team, you must fight to the top of your division. This can be harder when you start out because you do not have more than four players. As you progress, owners can train their current players, buy drugs to augment a playerís skill and buy new players. Each division has four teams (counting yours). After you rise to the top, you can either move on or stay in that division to earn some more money. One of the more interesting things about staying behind is there is the chance of getting more messages. The messages in this game can range from "Your team trashed a hotel room, pay this much" to "Your owner was high on some new drug and gave you money... Donít remind him." You also gain the opportunity to bet on your team as well as spar off against teams outside of the league for a substantially larger cash prize.

After beating a team in the Conquest mode, you can unlock that team in the unlock menu with the points you earn with each victory. As the teams get better, they tend to cost more. You do receive more unlock points by playing the game on a harder difficulty level, so that provides an incentive to move the game off of the easy setting. There are also many arenas to unlock, as well as other game modes like multi-disc play.

There are two different sets of controls (one for each view setting). The sports view took me a few games to learn. The learning curve for sports view is much lower and the arenas are more open. The controls are similar to a sports titleís and take very little to get used to. However, the action view controls have a moderate to high learning curve. The controls function similar to a first person shooterís controls in the sense that the right thumbstick controls your torso while the left thumbstick controls your movement. This would be fine except the face buttons are mapped to various game controls. This means you cannot effectively control your player AND fight or shoot. I found myself using both thumbsticks to turn around in some of the more cramped arenas and then switching back to one stick when on the attack. Overall, it took me a few days to get used to the action view.

The player models look excellent in this game. They all have the presence and movement of actual people. The bright colored disc is a sharp contrast to the rest of the well done stages. No matter if the arena is a desert, space ship or dungeon, the disc stands out like a neon beacon. All of the sports view stages look pretty plain and look very much the same. The really stunning arenas are found in the action view. These stages all have a different theme usually corresponding to the teamís name.

The largest source of shock value comes in the sound. The in-game taunts will shock even the most foul-mouthed person out there. Press the black button and your character waves around his middle finger and shouts some line usually containing a four letter word beginning with the letter "F." Each team has a few unique cursing styles, but you will hear many of the same lines repeated by every team. People may say I am crazy, but I think this type of vulgarity is absolutely fitting for this game. Can you imagine drug-injected athletes running around beating each other until near death saying anything less than phrases that would make the opening scene of Full Metal Jacket seem clean? I canít. Just turn on an NBA or NFL game and watch the mouths of a player or coach after a really bad play or call. If they curse that much and donít beat the tar out of each other, imagine what it would be like in a brutal sport revolving around violence.

Keep in mind that this game is NOT for a younger audience. The constant violence, cursing, and innuendos to drug usage, murder, sex, and the rest of societyís vices make this game automatically an adult title.

Is there anything wrong with this title? Yes, I found several things wrong. First, it would have been excellent to make the Conquest mode much more in-depth. You cannot go past one year and you can only improve each team by so much. No trading and no free agency in this either. I think it would have been much cooler to allow for trades and set up an off-season. I would have also loved to see a "create-a-team" and "create-a-player" mode. Designing a new sport can be hard, but this game seems to have pulled that feat off well. However, there could be some improvement. There are no clear positions in the game of Blitz. Players simply wander around beating the snot out of each other. Team strategies have five levels. The only ones I found to work were ultra-aggressive (beat the other team down) and ultra-conservative (two people guarding the goal). Attack formation is not really that good because your players do not defend and only position themselves, and regular defense is not that good because they do not cover the goal close enough. Neutral is ok, but you can and will be burnt on fast breaks. I think it would be cool to actually think out playing strategies similar to hockey or basketball formations. Also, a bleeping option/parental lock would have done wonders for this game in terms of image. Hopefully they implement some of these if they decide to make a sequel to this great game.

Highs:

  • Awesome, violent, fast-paced sport
  • Addictive gameplay

Lows:

  • High learning curve in Action View
  • Conquest mode is limited

Final Verdict: 

Deathrow does something few games can; make a completely new sport. Sure, its violent and fast paced...thatís why this game is cool. It reminds me of the Mutant League games that were on the Genesis because they are overly violent yet fun to play. Some people will not be able to get past the pure vulgarity of the game. Thatís given, but I personally feel they should turn the sound off and try playing the game (well, not in the case of smaller children) because it stands well on its own. I found the Conquest mode fun the first few times I played through it, but after that it wore off. There needs to be more depth to the Conquest mode and hopefully a sequel would fix this minor problem (catching the hint UbiSoft and Southend?). This was definitely one of the sleeper hits of 2002 and if it slipped under your radar screen (like it did to mine), Iíd highly recommend this title.

Not bad for a new sport.

Overall Score: 8.8

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