Perhaps you remember a "little" game called Def Jam: Vendetta, a fighting game based around Aki Corporation's wrestling engine that achieved notoriety primarily because it let players step into the ring as any of two dozen or so famous rap stars. That game was good, but it was merely a warm-up for Def Jam: Fight for NY.
Everything is better in the sequel. The list of fighters has been expanded to include more than 70 big name personalities, including Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Method Man, Busta Rhymes, and Sean Paul, just to name a few. Not all of them are rappers either, as evidenced by the presence of Henry Rollins, Carmen Electra, Omar Epps, and Danny Trejo (the scorpion tattoo guy from the movie Desperado ). The fighting engine has been diversified to include multiple fighting styles, interactive environments and crowds, and new counter and finishing moves. The soundtrack has been taken to the nines–packed with more than 50 tracks from the game's participating artists. And, phattest of all is the new story mode, which lets you create a custom fighter and build up his reputation by participating in an all-out gang war; reaping all sorts of wearable bling-bling in the process.
Play modes include battle and story. Battle mode works just like you'd expect it to. You can mix and match any of the 74 available artists and 24 venues and participate in matches involving up to 4 human or CPU controlled fighters. Match settings include one-on-one, tag team, and free for all, and you can participate in special matches involving cage or "audience votes" rules. The other mode, story, is setup like a "thug life" quest, where you slowly build up a custom fighter with new techniques and swag by beating the rival gang members that hang out in clubs all over the city of New York. It's also the mode where all of the game's "secret" characters, venues, and music tracks are unlocked.
The story mode is tight on so many levels. First, there's a big emphasis on coming up with and outfitting your own custom made character. You can pick from one of a half-dozen pre-made characters or put together your own by selecting various features, such as height, body type, skin tone, eyes, lips, hair, fighting style, and voice type. The way the character looks, dresses, and talks will be reflected in the character models during fights and cinematic cutaways, and in the pre-fight portrait screens. After every fight that you win, you'll receive money and training points that you can spend to give your character new wearables and fighting moves. There are shops where you can purchase additional clothes, jewelry, tattoos, and hairstyles to outfit your character with. The clothing store sells hundreds of different authentic jackets, jerseys, shoes, sunglasses, wristbands, hats, and doorags from real world manufacturers like Ecko, Phat Farm, Fila, and Reebok. The jewelry store is fashioned after Jacob and Co., an upscale outfitter that actually does have locations in cities like New York, London, and Kobe (Japan), and sells dozens of styles of chains, rings, watches, bracelets, and earrings with silver, gold, platinum, and diamond accents. If you want to be a hard-ass "G" with tribal tattoos, an afro hairstyle, a Fubu shirt, and a pound of gold chains; you can. If you want to make up a fat white guy with rat's nest hair who perpetrates a Michael Jordan basketball jersey; you can do that too. Down at the gym, you can use the training points you've earned to add new finishing moves to your character's arsenal, learn a second or third fighting style, or pay a trainer to help you upgrade different areas of your character's physique (upper body, lower body, speed, toughness, and overall health amount). In a suave twist of fate, the role of the trainer is played by Henry Rollins, renowned for his tough guy image in small movie roles and for the music he's made fronting Rollins' Band.
Most fighting games that have a story mode just use a basic underlying plot to tie a series of fights together. In Def Jam: Fight for NY, the way the story plays out and the fights you're able to pick from are based on the decisions you make and the outcomes of the fights you participate in. At certain points, other characters will send you text messages or come up to you in clubs and ask you things like, "has Ice-T gone soft," "which of these girls do you want to be your girlfriend," or "think you can beat me," and your responses will dictate who you fight next and whether or not you'll be taking a girl home later on. Whoever came up with the idea to let you pick a different girlfriend every other night in a fighting game is a genius, especially when the women in question are played by famous vixens such as Li'L Kim, Shawnna, and Carmen Electra. The different shop and club locations are displayed on a map that gives you some choice over where and who you'll fight next. The majority of fights are one-on-one matches, but you'll also come across 4-man battle royals and elimination tournaments at various times.
The story itself is pretty interesting. Your character plays the part of a newbie henchman in an established gang. Chris Judge (from the TV show Stargate SG-1 ) plays the role of "D-Mob," the head of your gang, while Method Man (as "Blaze") and Ludacris play the parts of his lieutenants. Snoop Dogg heads up a large rival gang, playing a smooth pimp daddy named "Crow." One of his lieutenants, "Crack," is played by current Lean Back sensation Fat Joe. The two gangs are at war with one another, but rather than just going out and settling it with machine guns, D-Mob and Crow decide that the best way to solve the conflict is to see which gang can take over the most clubs, which is done by winning matches against the rappers and MC's that hang out in them. Along the way, you'll run across other rap stars either playing themselves or assuming roles as members of Crow's or other smaller gangs.
Ultimately, a fighting game is only as good as it plays. Poorly phrased, but true. For Def Jam: Fight for NY, EA Games signed the rappers, licensed the music, and came up with the game's basic design, but left the lion's share of development in the hands of Japanese development house, Aki Corporation, a company that has in the past developed dozens of different wrestling games, including WCW vs NWO here in the west, and the Virtual Pro Wrestling series, which was wildly popular in Asia. Def Jam: Fight for NY is a fighting game in the sense that you can punch, kick, and block, and that the eventual goal is to KO the opponent, but Aki Corp has stayed true to its roots and made grapples, reversals, and finishing moves major facets of how the game plays. When you grab an opponent, you can perform a multi-hit combo, throw them into the walls and barricades, or toss them toward the crowd in order to tangle them up for a powerful cooperative attack. Interaction with the environment is huge. While one fighter is propped in the corner or being held by someone in the crowed, the free fighter can take weapons (bottles, broomsticks, bats) from the crowd, perform a double-team attack, or, if situated in the right spot, knock the opponent right out of the fighting area.
The controls are easy enough to pick up, but there's also a challenging amount of depth to them as well. The triangle and square buttons perform punches and kicks, the X button initiates grapples, the circle button lets you run, and the R1 button lets you block standard attacks. You can push triangle and square while grappling to sucker punch the opponent or tap the X button again to throw them at the crowd. While they're locked up, you can hit X once again to execute a double-team. Holding down the L1 button while pressing one of the other buttons lets you perform a strong attack or throw, but the trade-off is that these moves are slower to come out, which gives the opponent more time to recover or reverse them. Sounds simple enough, right? Not so fast. The CPU is good at blocking and has a tendency to initiate grapples while you're recovering from a missed attack. Furthermore, grabs can't be blocked, which means if you just stand there holding the block button, you'll end up thrown into the crowd and beaten to a pulp really quick. Reversals and counter-attacks are just as important as basic punches and takedowns. Attacks can be reversed by tapping forward+block right as the opponent throws a punch or a kick, and grapples can be interrupted with a punch or a kick if you press an attack button right as the opponent lays his hands on you. The game has a unique, refreshing rhythm to it that involves actually letting the opponent attack so that you can switch them up with your own wrist-grab or counter-punch. The downside to this setup is that button mashing really doesn't work, which means that new players (and probably any friends that come over to your house) will get frustrated when they're madly pressing buttons and nothing is happening on the screen because they're not timing their attacks to interrupt the opponent.
If you played Def Jam: Vendetta, you remember that the various characters had different fighting styles and finishing moves. The same holds true in the sequel, but both aspects have been greatly fleshed out. There are five main fighting styles in the game–kickboxing, street fighting, martial arts, wrestling, and submission. Each fighter has an array of moves taken from one or two of the different fighting styles, as well as their own set of finishers. You can wear down an opponent's life bar by beating the snot out of them, but the only way to KO an opponent is to hit them with a finishing move. Most crowd-based double-teams are finishing moves. Each fighting style also has its own set of finishers, typically centered around the focus of the style. For kickboxing, the last kick in a combo will finish off the opponent; for wrestling, you can perform a particularly brutal body slam or piledriver; and so on. Another type of finishing move is what the game calls a "blaze." When you perform a series of unanswered attacks, you'll gradually fill up what's known as the blaze meter. When it's full, you can wiggle the right analog stick to put your character into a rage state. This gives the screen the appearance of an old kung fu movie. The blaze state lasts for about 20 seconds. During that time, if you grapple the opponent and wiggle the analog stick again, your character will perform an intricate and exciting attack that will drain off a ton of the opponent's health or KO them if their health bar is already in the red zone. Blaze moves are fun to watch, partly because they're so punishing, but also because the screen slows down and the camera angles change to show off every hit from different viewpoints. In the story mode, you get to select your character's fighting style and assign him four different blaze finishers from a menu of more than 100.
Despite the care that has gone into the fighting system and all of the cool features in the story mode, most people are interested in Def Jam: Fight for NY because of the all the different rappers that have contributed their likenesses to it. The game does not disappoint in this regard. Character models are good approximations of the real thing. Snoop Dogg has his pimp suit and crook'd nose, Eminem has his tattoos and wife beater shirt, Ludacris has ponytail dreads (sorry, no big fro) and gold chains, etc. It goes without saying that the audio is beyond complaint. They got the actual artists to provide their voices and contribute more than 50 tracks to the game's soundtrack. Thanks to the "M" rating, the dialogue is full of cuss words and the songs are the uncensored versions.
The game's two weak areas are graphics and load times. The load times don't warrant much explanation–you'll have to wait at least 10 seconds for the game to load up each fight, to switch between shops in the story mode, and to get back to the main menu. As for the graphics, the high points are the fighters and crowds. The fighters look and move realistically, their clothes and jewelry flap around as they move, and you'll notice their faces develop cuts and bruises throughout the fight. The people in the crowd jump up and down and react like they're at a house party, and they'll take potshots or tangle up fighters that get too close. The low points are the textures and the camera work. There's a load of detail in the environments, but the textures are grainy and sometimes out of focus. A game that moves this smoothly and has all of these recognizable stars ought to have more color and sharpness. Also, the camera doesn't always show the best view of the action. Frequently, the opponent's attacks are partially obscured because the camera is situated behind a crowd member's head or right behind your own character. These complaints aren't specific to the PS2 version either. The Xbox and GameCube versions have the same problems.
Overall, Def Jam: Fight for NY is an exceptional game. Feel free to pick it up just to see your favorite rap stars and thugs beat up one another. You'll end up getting a nicely designed fighting game in the process.