Like most little boys growing up, I found myself intrigued by wrestling and the larger than life characters that I saw on my TV. Raging battles across the squared circle, through tables and into steel cages for various titles or even the championship. As I got older, I realized just how staged it was, and quickly became uninterested in that form of entertainment, including most video games with any kind of a wrestling premise. Uninterested, that is, until recently. To quote Robert Paulson, “I’ve found something much better. The first rule is…that I’m not supposed to talk about it.” I know, I know, Brad Pitt and DMX don’t seem like they’ve got a lot in common whatsoever. Typically, you’d be right. But Aki’s latest brawler under the EA Sports Big Banner, Def Jam Vendetta, could quite possibly be the spiritual successor to that film.
In Vendetta, you enter the dark, seedy world of underground brawling, a sport that’s become “too gangsta for the garden,” as the game’s antagonist growls in the opening credits. A crime boss named D-Mobb and his posse of associates, who happen to be some of Def Jam’s more prolific artists, runs this underground league. As you can imagine, having such high profile talent draws a sizable crowd of followers. Populating these arenas, backrooms and nightclubs, amongst other locales, are fighters who don’t care about pay per view events, movie deals or magazine articles. Instead, they thrive on the crowd, the cash bet on their fights, and, more importantly, the respect gained by “not going out like a sucka.”
Vendetta’s story mode (the core of the game) lets players choose from one of four street fighters expelled from this scene by D-Mobb for over three years. Seems like the big crime boss not only got sick of your character’s success, but he also had eyes on your girlfriend, and took every measure available to strip your life away. Turning your back on that chapter of your life, you are suddenly pulled back into the spotlight by your best friend, Manny who desperately needs your help. A better fighter than a gambler, Manny’s gotten himself into massive debt with D-Mobb, and has had his arm broken as a result of his inability to repay. Destined for a dirt nap, Manny’s only salvation lies in your return to the ring and your attempt to rise to the top of the fight scene.
Part of the challenge in Vendetta is sizing up your opponent’s skills and abilities. Fighters range from lithe, speedy acrobats talented in Muay Thai to hulking bruisers adept at boxing. Each character is governed by six stats. Power seems pretty self explanatory, controlling the amount of damage placed into blows. Speed factors a player’s movement as well as how fast they throw punches. Grapple influences how strong your players grip will be on their opponent when they go to perform a maneuver. Defense affects the amount of damage taken from a punch, kick or throw. Stamina affects how quickly players regenerate their health after they’ve been struck. Finally, Charisma relates to your character’s ability to get the crowd behind them, which can be vital in a drawn out slugfest. All of these stats can be increased through the use of the prize money that you win from beating opponents.
Getting used to dishing out punishment is surprisingly easy to get the hang off, and even first time players will be able to throw down a beating in only a few minutes of play. Basic maneuvers can be either weak or strong, relative to the amount of time you spend holding down the corresponding button on the control pad. For example, tapping the strike button might throw a jab, but holding down the punch button will trigger a roundhouse punch. Grapples, jumps off the top rope, or throws are handled in the same way, and pressing a button in conjunction with a direction on the analog stick adds complexity to your move. Once your opponent is on the mat, you can attempt to pin them or force them to tap out by pulling off a submission hold on their head, arms or legs. Successful attacks build up your momentum meter, which, when full, can be used to perform a finishing move. This inflicts massive damage to your foe, even knocking an opponent out if they’re injured enough. Overall, more than 1500 moves can be slapped on competitors, making Vendetta one of the deepest control schemes in a fighting game to date.
Earning prize money to augment your stats isn’t the only benefit to winning fights. Defeating challengers unlocks them in the game’s other modes, which include singles and tag team matches, free for alls, handicap matches and survival bouts. That means over forty characters are waiting to pummel each other in the game’s twelve arenas, also unlocked as you progress through the story mode. In an interesting twist, success in the ring also attracts women to your character who want to be a manager/valet/girlfriend. As you go deeper in the storyline, you’ll find that these ladies will often get into fights with other women over the right to be with you, which engages a creative catfight subplot.
Vendetta looks incredibly sharp, and could be used as a showpiece for fighting games on any system. The character models are very large and incredibly detailed. Tattoos stand out, as do the muscles on many of the more ripped brawlers, such as DMX, and the facial animation is top notch. In fact, you’ll notice that characters will react often based upon what’s happening during the match, grimacing when they’re in a submission hold and smiling when they’re playing to the crowd. Moves from fighters are smoothly animated, and flow nicely from one to the other. Some of the effects, such as activation of the momentum bar complete with its adrenaline blurring cutscene or the triggering of a finishing move, evoke the larger than life scale of these moves. Not only can they strike dread into the heart of a player in the middle of a fight, but they’re also entertaining to watch, especially if you’ve pulled one off on a friend.
The arenas that you’ll fight in are large and feature an ambiance that fits the attitude of the Def Jam artist that presides over it. For example, Noreaga’s rooftop ring in the center of the city has an urban vibe to it, while Ludacris’ nightclub gives off a strip club and dance floor vibe. What’s more, the crowd is probably one of the most lifelike crowds you’ll ever see. People cheer, dance and react to moves, especially when fighters play to the crowd. (If we could get these crowds in sports games, we’d all be incredibly happy gamers, friends!) The only problem that arises is that the camera can be funky, zooming in and out to get what it considers is the best angle for the action. The issue arises from the obtuse placement of the camera at times, especially in four-way matches, which sometimes take a high birds-eye view of the arena.
For a title that features rappers, you’d expect the music to be perfect. Vendetta doesn’t disappoint, as it presents 18 tracks from artists on Def Jam’s label. Along with some of the newer songs like “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” are presented old school hits, like Public Enemy’s classic, “Fight The Power,” although you will only get the radio edits (Some lyrics are “too gangsta” for Vendetta’s Teen rating). The selected songs are hard to fight bouncing to, and it’s the perfect backdrop for the driving action of the game. The only downside to the music is that during a match, you’re only hearing repetitive loops of a track, instead of a full-on jukebox-style cycling of songs. It makes sense during boss fights where the specific song contributed by that artist is featured, but not on the other stages. Making up for the minor problem with the music is the voice-over work, which is phenomenal. From the insignificant characters to the stars, everyone who contributed their voice to the game provided a stellar performance, making this game ooze attitude, the flavor of the streets and the funk of the underground fights. Of particular note is Funkmaster Flex, one of the godfathers of hip-hop DJs, who acts as an unofficial announcer and does a great job. Parents, be forewarned: There is some mild colorful language included with the game that is fully within character of the people delivering the lines.
Are there any downsides to the gameplay? Not really, and the few that are presented are relatively minor when you look at them all. For example, unlike some of the other wrestling games that you’ll find on shelves, there aren’t weapons to be found on the outside of the ring, like metal chairs or tables. There are moments when you’d expect there to be something as an equalizer, especially during handicap matches, but it seems that there’s more of a focus on honorable combat based on a character’s skills instead of outside implements. There also isn’t the kind of variety to matches that you’d find in other wrestling games, such as ladder matches, cage matches or other things, which could’ve provided an interesting twist on the battles, especially to see some of these stars in some of those matches.
It also would’ve been cool to take more people through the story mode than you’re presented with. Unfortunately, you’re restricted to only the 4 “outsider” characters, and once you’ve gone through the game with them, story mode is essentially useless. Considering that a dedicated player can blow through the story mode in a few hours, this limits some of the gameplay. However, with the numerous maneuvers available to players and AI that rock solid and a ton of fun to play against, even this drawback in minimized somewhat. For example, did I talk about just how solid gameplay is for up to four players? Talk about a game that you and a group of friends can sit down and talk trash about. Finally, and what’s just a minor observation, there could’ve been additional rappers, songs or other secrets included. The Def Jam label has produced an incredibly rich catalog of stars and music, and while I recognize that there’s only so much EA could’ve signed for this first title, I was hoping for a few more things to unlock in Vendetta (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Vendetta 2, if you guys decide to make a sequel!)
Simply put, if you own a PS2 or a Gamecube, Def Jam Vendetta deserves to be in your library, even if you don’t like wrestling or fighting games. There’s a ton of replay value with the numerous game modes, and the computer opponents can always be counted on for a challenge, especially with the expansive number of moves for each fighter. Plus, once you’ve made the computer beg for mercy, it’s a great game to whip out on friends and beat each other up with, especially because of its short learning curve. Bump your speakers and bob your heads to this one; it’s time to get dirty with Vendetta.