Rebound: Def Jam Fight for New York

“Rebound” is a term I just decided on for games that jump back on top of my playlist after months or years of shelf-time. The associated posts may be reviews, nostalgia, or springboards for topics relating to the current gaming scene. Each one will start with a blurb about the game. When it came out, what systems, etc.

Def Jam Fight for New York came out in 2004 for the Xbox, PS2, and GameCube. It is a fighting game with a heavy leaning toward the wrestling genre, and features the likenesses of dozens of rappers associated with the Def Jam label. (Don’t ask, I know nothing about rap)

The first Def Jam game, Vendetta, flew under my radar. From what I read, it basically played out like a no-rules wrestling game, with rappers appearing either as characters with their visual likenesses, or, basically, as themselves. Fight for New York would have stayed under my radar as well if my brother-in-law had not picked it up for the Xbox. While I was house-sitting, I gave this game a whirl and was enthralled.

One thing to know about Fight for New York is that the gameplay is brutal. If one character attacks another in a Dead or Alive or Soul Calibur, that character usually jerks back, often with his or her arms thrown out to the side, and it does not look like any damage was done. When your character gets knocked down, he/she hops right back up, unless the health bar is gone. Then the character just stays down.

Not so in DJFfNY. These characters take a beating. Fights take place in bars, alleys, and other urban arenas, and nothing about it could be described as “clean”. Fighters throw each other into car windows and jukeboxes, spectators hold up fighters and set up cruel grapples, and, every once in a while, someone gets thrown down in front of a train.

See, that’s the other thing to know about the game. These fights end. Not because some health bar ran out of green stuff, or some time keeper calls it. These fights are over because one of the fighters just got a concussion. Or took a header out a fifth-story window. Fight for New York is a fighting game, but the best thing it inherited from its wrestler prequel was the health system.

Much like Ninja Gaiden 2’s player-friendly health bar, every attack takes off a certain amount of temporary damage, as well as a bit less permanent damage. Over time, the temporary damage fades, but once your permanent health is gone, it’s gone until the next fight. Once it is gone, though, that is not to say the fight is over. On the contrary, it is just getting interesting.

Once the gauge gets to a certain point, it turns red, indicating the fighter is now in danger of a knockout. From there, the opponent can initiate one of the aforementioned spectator grapples or other environmental interactions, use one of their style-specific power attacks like haymakers or submission holds, or activate a blazing move. Blazing moves ensure that no one forgets they are playing a game. These moves are incredibly over the top and cringe-worthy, just as entertaining to watch as Mortal Kombat‘s fatalities, though without the gore.

Ridiculous finishers are just part of the game’s aesthetic, which permeates throughout the storyline and art design as well. All the male characters are unbelievably wide-shouldered and muscular, and their disproportionately small heads give them a hulking appearance. The female characters, playable only in the battle modes are slinky and curvy. The graphics are not aged quite yet, though the spectators do not hold up to much scrutiny. The environments are drab by design, but some of the objects in them stand out, such as a pair of SUV’s that look nice and shiny as you smash your opponent’s head in the door.

The fighting system is very dynamic, which I find appealing. Movement is fully 3d. Think Power Stone, not Street Fighter EX. When fighters are fresh, combos can be interrupted at any time, provided the timing is right, and defensive players have to read their opponents much more so than in most other fighters. As the fight drags on and energy bars decrease, the fighters slow down and become dazed more often. This means early round strategy is a bit more important than later on, but I’ve won and lost plenty of fights in late-stage turnarounds, too.

Fighting styles may be grapple-focused, like Wrestling and Submission, or strike-focused, as with Martial Arts or Kickboxing. Each one changes the strategy at work, as well. The four face buttons are mapped to Run, Grapple, Punch, and Kick, and one of the shoulder buttons act as a power modifier to the latter three.

Depending on the style, one of these power attacks can end the fight when the opponent’s bar is red. Not all styles are equal, however. Street Fighters, for example, can take fighters down with a simple Haymaker, which may be thrown standing or from a grapple. Martial Artists, however, have to do a running launch off an object. In certain stages, objects off of which the player can launch may be few and hard to reach. Luckily, style-specific moves are not the only way to end a fight, as mentioned.

Multiplayer is local only, which is fine, because lag in fighting games sucks. Four players can throw down at a time, in free-for-all, three-for-all, and one- and two-on-one matches. Fights may be associated with player profiles, and every fight, win or lose, wins Reward Points for buying new fight modes, fighters, and stages.

All of the content in this game may be unlocked in this way, but as you can imagine, what drew me was the story mode. The game opens with the boss bad guy from Vendetta, D-Mob (Chris Judge) getting carted off to jail. Your character, created in a mode that isn’t as flexible as that seen in Saint’s Row 2, etc, but is still quite stylish, busts him out, and he lets you join his crew. Enter Crow (Snoop Dogg), a rival gang leader who is encroaching on D-Mob’s turf, and you can pretty much work it out from there.

The story screams thug (in a good way, I guess) all the way through. The rappers do okay, and more mainstream actors like Omar Epps and Danny Trejo are present, but the writing will not be winning any awards. It does, however, lend context to the fights, and makes them a bit more dramatic, if you let it. I believe this is the point of any fighting game story I have seen to date, but that is a topic for a later post.

Unlike the battle modes, your character starts out as a wimp. Whereas fully developed fighters have all of their stats in the 70-90% range, your upstart will have a couple of stats at 10%, and the rest at 5% or 0%. Fights earn cash to spend on clothing, tattoos, and (sigh) bling, and development points used to better your stats, get new blazing moves, or even add a second and third fighting style to your repertoire.

One important thing to note is that it is completely possible to gimp your character. Every fight in the story mode is a one-time event, and you are not allowed to go back and fight again. There is no grinding in Fight for New York, unless it’s at the club (sorry).

The story mode does not coddle the player, either. Early on, your character propositions another fighter’s girlfriend, and is forced to fight for her attentions. While you get to pick the girl before the fight, and your choices are from real ladies, like Carmen Electra and Li’l Kim, the fight is suprisingly tough, and failure means you go home with, well… a woman who is definitely not Carmen Electra. Poor planning in the early stages of the game may lead to nigh-unbeatable fights later on, and can effectively end the story mode.

I consider this game to be a great value, and I have come back to it a few times over the years. There is plenty of variety, and the story mode is enjoyable enough to warrant multiple playthroughs. I heartily recommend it to gamers still playing last gen’s hardware, and to PS3 owners rooting around the bargain bin. Sadly, this game is NOT on the 360’s backwards compatibility list.

You may have noticed that I did not mention this game’s sequel, Def Jam Icon, released for the 360 and PS3 in 2007. That is because this game sucked. It threw out pretty much everything I liked in Fight for New York and tried poorly to adapt Fight Night Round 3‘s analog stick controls to a more traditional fighting game. And do not get me started on the whole beat-boxing mechanic.

To be honest, the real reason behind this Rebound is because developers could learn from this game. Like the movie Equilibrium, this is something I want other film/game makers to see because it has awesome mechanics that would work well elsewhere. Fight for New York‘s battles feel real, because they end. Sure, Mortal Kombat has fatalities, but take them away, and MK shows the worse case of gauge-is-empty-you-fall-down of any game. I lost count of how many times I hit my opponent with a low kick, and he stumbled away like he was having a seizure. Then he stood straight up. Then he fell over like he had a rod shoved up his ass.

The fighting game genre is stagnating, fast. The only contenders out there right now all have a “4” or a “III” next to their name, and their developers seem content to draw up some new characters and stages and roll out the next one. Now is the perfect time to have a Half-Life style revolution. There is more to fighting than health bars.

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