Stop kidding yourself.
I'm a betting gamer. Not that I've got a favorite bookie, but when new fighting games comes out, a little money always hits the table. So The Con should be my new favorite portable fighter. In part, that's because it's one of only two fighters for the PSP (the other being Darkstalkers), but also because it builds betting right into the gameplay.
Unfortunately, good gambling requires something worth wagering on, and The Con unsuccessfully tries to fool us into thinking it's got the goods when all it really has are good ideas.
Its main hook is that you don't have to bet on yourself, so throwing a match can be as profitable as winning one. Instead of beating opponents senseless, you can actually lose convincingly and make loads of cash. This is explained through the game's plot, and like any good liar, The Con comes with a passable story. After players break free from the street fighting sister of Large Marge, they embark on a journey to build a winning trio of fighters with an ultimate goal of earning enough cash to be truly independent. It's pretty silly stuff, but every fighter needs a framework. With the ability to select and switch out fighters from your crew, The Con seems to have some flexibility.
The fighting system doesn't, however. It plays more like Mike Tyson's Punch Out than a true 3D brawler. There's no rotating around opponents, only leaning left and right off a fixed axis. The 'behind the back' perspective isn't always a detriment, but does make some strikes and blocks hard to see, and therefore difficult to time. Even with that issue, everything soon becomes predictable and throwing counters is incredibly easy. That knocks the system off balance and puts nearly every fight in the palm of your hand.
In any given bout, though, there may be more to worry about than the lugs throwing punches. Bets can be placed before the fight begins with wagers on either side. There's also an option to set exactly when the bet goes through, so if the odds aren't stacked enough at the outset, you can hold the bet for a minute and either deal serious damage or take it to stack the odds as desired. Once the bet goes in, you can reverse strategies to pull out a big win against the odds.
Trouble is, even with all the mechanics down pat, there's not much depth to either the fighting or betting. Throwing a fight is merely a matter of calling the throw, setting the point at which the odds lock and then doing just well enough to keep the con going while taking enough damage to lose. The only mechanic that presents any variable results is the amount of damage you deal or take. If you don't 'sell' the thrown fight, the results are harsh. But the combat is limited enough that after a few fights, even that point is easy enough to suss out.
Building a respectable fighter does entail a unique set of intricate maneuvers and is easily the game's strong suit. Your goals are twofold: build respect and win cash. Winning generates respect, but losing can generate more cash. Losing can also do serious damage to a fighter, which changes their downtime considerably.
Unlike almost every fighting game ever, The Con asks players to take care of their fighters between bouts. Several weeks might pass between matches, and each week can be given over to training, resting or healing. Training builds stats, but after throwing a fight some serious hospital time might be in order. Just do what Tyler Durden did and say you fell down some stairs.
It's neat that The Con builds these managerial tasks right into the primary game, but like the betting and fighting, they're a bit lightweight. Still, there's a budding fight manager here, hinting at a great idea.
The only truly detailed facet is character customization, as there is a ton of gear to earn. A very robust character creation system generates fighters based on one of five fighting styles (tae kwon do, judo and street fighting are options), with more possibilities for customization than you can shake a broken arm at. Even combos can be tweaked through a very accessible system that lets players simply dial in the sequence of moves they prefer.
Too bad the menus chug and plod as players wait for new stuff to appear. Sometimes it's worth it, as 'limited edition' swag will become available. These items give stat bonuses, making them worth the cash. But since beating guys with the cheap stuff is easy, it's hard to care much about upgrading.
Aside from Story mode, The Con also comes with Quick Fights, Time Attacks and Survival gauntlets, but since the fighting engine is actually the game's weakest point, none of these modes are worth playing.
Sony was probably hoping Ad Hoc one on one matches would extend this game's shelf life like a preservative, and to an extent, they do. Through game-sharing, you can play with a friend who doesn't own a copy. And while the brawling engine isn't good enough to keep friends coming back, the ability to bet items won in the campaign is pretty cool, reminiscent of playing for pink slips in Forza. After paying tens of thousands of dollars for a vest that increases strength, losing it to a friend creates some real competition. In China, I hear, people are killed over that sort of thing.
At least your customized characters look cool. The Con doesn't push any of the PSP's graphical envelopes, instead delivering a clean, well-animated and generally smooth-looking fight. On the other hand, it doesn't sound great. I'd love better sound effects to go with the bone crushing strikes and some better music to beat people up to.
No one will take a slug over The Con, though, because it's never going to inspire the sort of devotion that breeds violence. It's passably fun and offers cool ideas for the future, but in a world packed with incredibly addictive fighters, that's damning with faint praise. Next time, I hope the folks behind The Con do a better job selling me on their ruse.