The Vault: Def Jam: Fight for NY and The Takeover

If I may be so bold, I’d like to induct two games into The Vault this week: Def Jam: Fight for NY and its PlayStation Portable cousin The Takeover. While both present different tales with distinct presentation, both contain the ultimate iteration of AKI Corporation’s fighting formula — a formula which I was first exposed to back in 1997 when I got my hands on WCW vs The World.

What’s on display here is so much more brutal and uncompromising than anything that was possible with the now-extinct wrestling license, and it’s arguably one of the most violent fighters on the market. Sure, there’s no fatalities or gore, but this brawler will still sate your bloodlust, even in spite of more recent, more technically-impressive releases.

Whether you’re playing on home consoles or opt for the portable version, the experience is remarkably similar. There is some disparity in texture quality, a lower player count, and the aforementioned varying approaches to narrative to consider, however, I contend that the PlayStation Portable version is just as worthy of your time and money. Further to that, if you have the option, I’d recommend that you invest in both iterations.

The cast of characters presents an intriguing mix of fictitious thugs, notorious rappers using puzzling nom de plumes and an alt rock god. For someone who idolized Henry Rollins during their teen years (and still thinks quite highly of him these days), the Fight for NY games put me in the dream scenario of being under his tutelage, training and learning a mix of fighting styles from the writer, activist and musician. Sure, this relationship plays out via the use of simplistic menus, but if I were to ever train too hard, he’d be there to spout some choice words to arouse a State of Alert (ha, Rollins pun!). Hip Hop enthusiasts have a lot to be excited about too: Wu Tang Clan members, Flavor Flav, Snoop Dogg (Lion? I can’t keep track of these things), and Ice-T lead a gaggle of artists that you may not have heard of if you didn’t have a fleeting interest in Dirty South music in your early twenties. The cast may not be as relevant today, but there’s plenty of style and memorable quotes to sample.

Even if you’re not a fan of hip hop or (gasp) one who doesn’t appreciate the music and work of Henry Rollins, you’ll need to create a character for use in the single player campaign that can be as street or as plain as you so desire. Unlike most games that offer the chance to mould a fighter in your own graven image, this doesn’t feel like you’re piecing together a robot; the narrative provides context for character creation as you come into the conflict with the police in both games’ opening scenes. Players describe their appearance and dimensions to a mug shot artist, as well as choosing from a range of voices. A range of clothing, tattoos, extravagant jewellery and outlandish hairstyles are unlocked after sustained play, and the more garish your choice in accessories, the more charismatic you’ll become. Looks aren’t everything, but they do have an impact on your ability to kick ass and claim territory.

The finest chains and flashiest ice-creams will only serve to get one mugged if you haven’t managed to grasp the deep (as in “small ocean”) fighting system which still surprises and proves enjoyable after years of play. At the outset, players can choose from one of five fighting styles which will in turn restrict your ability to knock out opponents without the use of Blazin’ moves to a subset of attacks. For almost every playthrough on either game, I’ve started with the Wrestling style which allows for you to end fights with strong grapple moves. I have nothing but respect for the crazy bastard that chooses Martial Arts from the outset, where wins are claimed using context-sensitive rebound moves. Submission, Kickboxing and Street Fighting all make for solid choices, but — apart from being a lifelong professional (read: choreographed) wrestling fan — it pays to be able to put away foes from a clinch in the initial stages. The learning curve is quite steep, and the computer controlled opposition will have no qualms in brutalizing fresh meat.

Development points earned from wins allow you to build your strength, speed and durability as well as allowing for the development of your first chosen fighting style, or its combination with others. There’s no right way to approach development, as there is ample opportunity to earn development points and choosing new styles usually serves to make you more formidable. Just beware that mixing styles will potentially mean your dream list of finishing moves from wrestlers past may be sacrificed for the sake of versatility. To give those in the know an idea of what’s at stake, my move list includes the Angle Slam, the Razor’s Edge and a Reverse Death Valley Driver. With AKI Corporation having developed licensed wrestling games for the better part of a decade, wrestling fans are sure to build up an arsenal of their favorite moves.

On top of this potential for nostalgia, the Fight for NY games feature two brutal combat mechanics that’ll have you grimacing and laughing in equal measure: environmental attacks and Blazin’ moves. Environmental attacks allow for fighters to use anything from the humble jukebox to the most tricked-out (pardon my language!) Escalade to bring pain to their opponents. There are no rules here. Want some help from the crowd? Send your enemy into a line of patrons so that they can redeem a pool cue to the back of the head. Do you think throwing a man, head first into a cement wall will net you a win? Give it a try! There’s no tasteful positioning of the camera or sleight of hand here either; you’ll see everything, and it still looks painful — even deadly — after a new generation of console hardware has long since hit the market. Blazin’ moves take the average wrestler’s finishing move and turn it up to 11. Every aspect of delivery is exaggerated: the grainy veneer applied to the camera, the impossible movements, the precise application… shit gets real and unreal at the same time.

What good is a roster of hip hop artists if they aren’t supplying [clears throat] dope beats for the soundtrack? (Yeah, I’m not sure you can pull that off — Pete) Thankfully, we need not examine the flip side of this question as Def Jam: Fight for NY features a solid line-up of reasonably new and not so new tracks. The Gamecube version lacks some of the better picks, including LL Cool J’s timeless “Mama Said Knock You Out” and Volume 10′s “Pistol Grip-Pump”; but you’re in for an aural treat, regardless of which version you choose.

In addition to a soundtrack that stands the test of time, the enduring quality of the visuals on display in the portable and home console versions can’t be denied. Character models make for mostly faithful if slightly cartoony interpretations of the real-life source material, and original characters look authentic (perhaps slightly exaggerated), given the context. Environments also feature an impressive level of detail and multiple interactive elements. The aggressive crowds — much to my initial surprise — even make it into The Takeover, even if it does look like you’re surrounded by Slender Men in casual clothing. Cinematics in the home versions are rendered using the in-game engine, and still manage to look respectable. They may be on their way to their tenth birthdays, but the Fight for NY games are still relatively easy on the eyes.

To my horror, it’s that little bit harder to source a copy of this streetwise fighting classic. The digital version of the PlayStation Portable game has been removed from the European PSN Store; worse yet, it’s not playable on the Vita. Copies of all four versions are available via eBay and Amazon, though in far fewer numbers than you’d expect for a game released towards the end of the last generation of hardware. Club Murder isn’t quite at capacity, but the bouncers are itching to turn new players away. Pick it up while you still can!

I’d love to say that the Def Jam series is alive and kicking, but it appears to be on Death Row (record label pun!). Following the Fight for NY games, EA released Def Jam: Icon to mixed reviews. For my part, I actually found it to be pretty enjoyable. It may have done away with the fighting system that I still cherish to this day, but it’s far from the average sequel, featuring a striking change in visual direction and mechanics that allow the music to bring environments to life. Last year, 4mm Games produced a nine minute long short film-cum-trailer for Def Jam: Vengeance. One year on and the developer has since folded and I’ve seen nothing to indicate I’ll be fighting with hip hop’s best, brightest and most bothersome anytime soon.

The Def Jam: Fight for New York games give me a warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia that doesn’t seem organic to street fighting in dank bars to Dirty South tracks. Better yet, the mix of martial arts, wrestling, kickboxing and roughneck brawling makes for a bloody cocktail that’s still worth drinking. The soundtrack may contain the odd dud, but with stellar visuals, a star-studded cast and the ability to compile a move list packed with professional wrestling’s finest finishing moves, fans of hand-to-hand combat should do their best to source a copy. My thoughts on these fine fighters boil down to this ultimatum:  if the idea of being taught to fight by Henry Rollins isn’t your idea of a good time, we can’t be friends.

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The Vault is our weekly delve into gaming history to seek out the underappreciated and overlooked classics of yore, hosted by our own Tristan Damen. Follow Tristan on Twitter here.

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