To be honest, I don’t watch much sports. I used to, but action games occupy a far greater portion of my time, and I don’t think I’m alone. Through games we’ve grown accustomed to senseless violence, where blood and flying body-parts are just fun.
Recently we saw Unreal Tournament 2003 get released; a game that brings futuristic sports to your pc. It has the two ingredients that, as a combination, work very well. The first one is the competitive nature of sports, and enough violence to please most gamers.
Yet, violent futuristic sports isn’t a new phenomenon, neither in games, nor in Hollywood. Some of you might have played Brutal Sports Football from 1993, or even seen the movie Rollerball from 1975. Both examples resemble what this review is about, namely a very fun game called Deathrow.
The game takes place in a distant future, in a place that could’ve been taken directly out of a cyberpunk novel, since it has plenty of genetically modified “humans”, androids, and things that are just plain mean. The actual sport is fairly straight forward, and should be easy to learn for most people. Two teams of four players are put on what’s usually an oval-shaped field. A small circle represents the goal, which is placed in each corner, well above the ground. Scoring is done by getting a circular ball-like object through the opponent’s goal, which is usually protected by one or more guards. Both teams can, during the game, change strategy from full defense to full offense, with several levels in between.
Before you begin a game you can specify whether you’d like to include rules, but in my opinion no such thing is needed to have a good time.
But, what separates Deathrow from any other sport game is the violence. Getting the “ball” through the goal can be accomplished in many ways, and most of them involve kicking, punching and throwing opponents, but keep in mind that the AI will more than gladly assault you. The name Deathrow however, comes from the special throw you can perform in the game, where by holding down the throw button until the ball glows green, you have a better chance of hitting the goal. But, if you happen to hit a goalie, or any opponent for that matter, they get knocked out for a little while. A common situation would be that you run against the opponent’s goal, load up a Deathrow (Death Throw), toss it at the goalie, which would knock out him or her, and then easily score a point.
Speaking of violence and such, each character has a health meter, and three “lives”. If you kick, punch, and throw a member of the opponent’s team sufficiently then he or she gets injured, an will have to wait a bit before being able to get back up. Do the same thing three or more times before he or she picks up a health pack, and you’ll knock him or her out cold. And, if the opponent is leading in score then you can actually win by knocking out all of the players. At first you begin on the bottom of the ladder, where you, as a weak team, compete against an equally weak team. It took me a couple of hours to get proficient with the gameplay, so even from the start the challenge is there. At first your team consists of four members, but after having won a few matches people will want to join your team, and they usually have better stats than your current crop. Sometimes it’s smarter to train the current members, but since each character has plenty of fields to upgrade, like strength, fighting, shooting, capturing etc this can get pretty expensive too. It’s actually quite fun to improve your team, because you start to notice that things go better, and winning over a team is no longer as difficult. Make no mistake though, the opponents also improve themselves, so your gaming skills will have to improve proportionally.
There are several small leagues to compete in, so after having finished one the stakes get higher, you get access to better players, and will be playing against harder opponents. Also, as you win games you also get a certain number of “unlock credits”, which are naturally used to unlock neat stuff. Some examples would be teams, players, arenas, an extra difficulty, concept art, and more. The gameplay usually works pretty well, even though more depth would’ve been great. Slightly better controls and more advanced fighting would be awesome.
The graphics are also really nice. Deathrow’s best visual features are the characters (both modeling, texturing and animation), and the lighting / reflection effects. The biggest problem is the selection of arenas. Almost every single one is oval-shaped, so they DO get a tad boring after a few hours. However, a few of the matches are played on really small arenas that use the action view. And this leads me to a pretty interesting feature. When starting the game you can choose whether you’d like to play with the sports view or the action view. The first one is the one used on larger levels, where you have a bird’s eye view of sorts, while the action view is very much like a Tomb Raider view; a third-person camera that follows your every motion. The problem with the latter one is that turning around isn’t always done as quickly as you could’ve wished, but it’s something you learn to live with. Personally I find the sports view games to be easier, because you have more time to see who’s coming up behind you etc, but the action view is also great because in the smaller levels it makes the gameplay ridiculously fast, which is fun.
The audio in Deathrow is also competitive with a lot of the current XBOX games. Each of the teams have their own voice-overs, and even though they at time sound strange and repetitive, the quality is above the norm. And, since there is such a varied set of teams you get to hear demons curse, androids shout, and humans curse even more. In fact, there’s a pretty impressive amount of profanity in this game, so if that turns you off then go for something else. The sound effects are also well done, with necks breaking, kicks, punches, minor explosions and more. Another of Deathrow’s nicer features lies in its music options. By default you get to listen to a 5-6 track soundtrack that mostly consists of decent techno music. But, if you have copies tracks from music CDs onto the XBOX then you can select a folder, and set up a playlist as you please.
And last but not least: multiplayer. With almost no effort you can play matches against people, or cooperation matches against other people, or the AI. It’s all just a matter of moving the XBOX controller icon from the middle to the left or right, and hit start. Splitscreen is obviously used, and even though everything gets relatively small it works pretty well, and I found it to be a lot of fun.
It’s not every day that I review sports games. I like action, but sometimes I like sports as well. Deathrow blends the two really well, by having a fairly deep gameplay, nice visuals, above average sounds and music, and being plenty of fun when played with friends. Its biggest limitations are in the gameplay depth, like not being able to sell players etc, and the selection of arenas. Disregarding those two things will leave you with a very entertaining game that should be both fun and challenging for nearly everyone.