Ain't nothin' but a G thang.
When hip hop first hit the music scene, it was a rebellious movement as well as a new art form. Gradually it became more self-conscious, attacking social and political issues with an urban punk rock fury. From there things got paranoid and violent; hip hop became a window into the thug lifestyle. After two of the genre's most dynamic artists were murdered, greed and vanity took over, and rap's soul was sold in favor of some nice ice and a Cadillac.
At least, that's what I heard on VH1.
But whether you're a real O.G. or just an arm-chair M.C., there's no denying that last year's Def Jam: Vendetta placed style way before substance. The result was a mediocre wrestling game in a do-rag and some bling. While fancy finishing moves and famous faces made Vendetta fun to watch, its lazy combo system and wimpy Story mode got old faster than a St. Ides forty.
And like so many rappers, instead of buckling down and reinventing itself as a serious contender, Def Jam: Fight for NY piles on even more style, story, bitches, and bling. Surprisingly, a lot of this new stuff is really cool. Coupled with Aki's so-so wrestling engine, FFNY's considerable stylistic features keep the game flowing for much longer than the original. But all the Flava Flaves, tattoos, and cage matches in the world can't change the fact that, ultimately, FFNY is more about looking def than being def.
The game's modes include exactly what you'd expect from a wrestling game, minus the ability to go online. There's a main Story mode, 1 on 1 and 2 on 2 Battles, and giant Free-For-Alls. However, you only start out with a few playable arenas - all the rest have to be unlocked via Story mode.
FFNY's story picks up where Vendetta left off, with D-Mobb getting taken to jail. As the cruiser he's in rolls down the street, a big ass humvee comes out of nowhere and smashes it, allowing D-Mobb to escape with a mystery man played by you. After the break, one of the cops sits at a table and tries to describe your features to a Sketch Artist. Then the game cuts to D-Mobb's base, where you're introduced to D-Mobb's crew. Since his arrest, all of D-Mobb's territory has been taken over by the evil Crow, played by Snoop Dogg. In order to reclaim the territory, you and the crew have to win it back through a series of high-stakes fights at each locale.
The Sketch Artist is FFNY's version of the character creator, and it's definitely one of the better new features. You can customize your fighter's features including his height, weight, head shape, eyes, mouth, nose, ears, skin tone, hair and voice, and even though there aren't always a ton of features to choose from, most of them are nicely exaggerated and they all fit together on your fighter's face incredibly well.
We decided to put the Sketch Artist to the test and create a short fat man with pouty lips and a falsetto voice. We named him Brutus. Not only did Brutus look perfectly ridiculous in the ring, he also looked amazing in every cut-scene. Seeing our homemade Star Wars kid with an afro squeal at scary looking thugs, "I'm about to make you my bitch!" made every fight that much more compelling. Word to your motherboards.
Once you decide on whether or not you want your fighter to be a cut, dangerous thug, a blue-eyed softy, or something in between, you can head into the shop district and spend any money you've earned on a haircut, tattoo, new threads, some bling, or a little training with Henry Rollins. Everything other than training costs money that you earn from fighting, and new cuts, tats, and bling are unlocked with practically every victory.
Whereas Brutus started out with a huge afro, an orange tank-top and some red Chuck Taylors, he quickly got serious and transitioned into a dark phase with a biker jacket, some leather pants and a huge gold chain. After a good many fights, Brutus became sick of his pretty image, so he shaved his head for practicality's sake and covered his torso with menacing Yakuza-style tattoos. This may sound silly, but tweaking your character's image is one of the most interesting and involving aspects of FFNY's game. If looks could kill, this game would be on death-row.
Of course, to fuel your playa lifestyle, you gotta fight. Before you get down and dirty, though, you need to pick a style. FFNY one-ups its predecessor by expanding the fighting system to include more than just grappling. There are five styles to choose from: Street Fighting, Kick-Boxing, Martial Arts, Wrestling, and Submissions. While the basic controls are the same for each class, kick-boxers have longer kicking combos, street-fighters have a knock-out punch, submissions experts can eliminate enemies by jacking up a limb, and wrestlers just kind of suck.
Fortunately, you can learn up to three different disciplines. Brutus picked up Wrestling and Street Fighting, gaining a four-punch combo and a badass Haymaker punch that looked wonderful, had a nasty impact, and dealt huge damage. After many knockout victories, Brutus decided to add some speed to his game by picking up the Martial Arts discipline. But upon doing so, he forgot how to throw a Haymaker and there was no way to get it back. It turns out you can't mix and match between disciplines; whichever one you just picked up is pretty much the one you're using.
However, most of this is academic since very little skill is required to win matches in FFNY. Instead, you just have to learn the rules of the knockdown to succeed: if you knock your opponent down once, you'll be able to pick him up and do another bad thing to him before he recovers. After being knocked down a second time, he'll recover instantly…unless you knock him down with a Blazin' move (special move that can be used when you fill up a momentum meter). In this case, you'll be able to pick him up again and can use a power punch or kick to knock them into a wall or car and execute another power move on him there, as it always takes longer to recover if you get knocked into something. Following this pattern, you'll be able to get off four high-powered attacks on your opponent without their being able to respond. It's simply not a very well-balanced fighting game due to its formulaic engine design.
If this sounds repetitive, it is. And that's a shame, too, because FFNY features some awesome fighting venues with extremely interactive environments. The game looks great and pretty much the same on all three console systems, with better models and animations than last year's game. Some odd framerate issues crop up from time to time on all consoles as well, but it's not particularly distractingl.
Besides, it's all about the kinetic joy of whipping on people. You can beat people down with weapons taken from the crowd, slam heads into jukeboxes, and even throw opponents off rooftops and through windshields. The game is filled with memorable moments of pure roughneck cruelty, and the hit detection lends an uncanny element of realism to some of the game's most brutal maneuvers. It's too bad the fighters themselves aren't nearly as dynamic.
As you cheaply win more and more fights at these neat arenas, you'll accumulate development points that can be cashed in at Rollins' Gym for new Blazin' moves, new disciplines, or better attributes. Your attributes include upper strength, lower strength, speed, toughness, and health, yet the effects of these things are never explained anywhere. Does upper strength have any bearing on grappling? The world will never know.
Of course, FFNY wouldn't be a Def Jam game without a score of hip-hop legends, as well as… Omar Epps? That's right, this year's cast of rhymesters is complimented by a smattering of random celebs including Epps, the ubiquitous and sleazy Carmen Electra, and random movie tough-guy Danny Trejo. While you've got to respect Trejo's right to be in a game like this due to his talent as a troublemaker, his inclusion makes the absence of actual Def Jam legends like Run DMC and The Beastie Boys all the more conspicuous.
The music, unsurprisingly, is strictly old and new school hip hop, which makes sense since this is basically a promotional product for Def Jam as much as it's a game. The voice-acting is actually pretty good throughout and the robust sound effects lend oomph to the brawling.
Def Jam: Fight for New York is an extremely violent, bloody, foul-mouthed and visceral fighter filled with plenty of style. Unfortunately, good looks, a cool character creator and some sweet environments are commodities that lose their luster after several hours of play. With Fight for New York, the Def Jam series has definitely gotten better at talking the talk, now it just needs to practice its funky walk.