At first, a game featuring the artists of a hip-hop record label may not seem all that enticing. After all, publishers and developers have tried mixing these two ingredients together before, only to see the resulting product fail miserably in the eyes of both critics and consumers. But Electronic Arts' Def Jam: Vendetta, a wrestling game featuring artists from the Def Jam recording label, has one element that has piqued the interest of even the most die-hard WWE wrestling game fanatic, and that element is AKI, the same development house responsible for Wrestlemania 2000 and No Mercy for the Nintendo 64, which is widely regarded as one of the most finely crafted wrestling games to date. As such, it's not really surprising that Def Jam: Vendetta plays remarkably like AKI's previous efforts, so much in fact that it appears some of the very same animations from No Mercy were used to construct Electronic Arts' first wrestling effort since its WCW games.
But when it comes to the actual modes in the game, Def Jam: Vendetta differs quite a bit from the likes of Wrestlemania 2000 or No Mercy. One major difference is the story mode, which is essentially the meat and potatoes of the Def Jam: Vendetta experience. In this mode, you can select from one of four fictional characters, including one that looks surprisingly similar to one of Capcom's Street Fighter II characters, Guile. Each of these characters has a varying level of skill in seven categories such as power, speed, grappling ability, defense, stamina, and charisma. While there is one character with reasonably balanced skills, you'll find that most of them are proficient in two or three skills, and much less proficient in the others. Thankfully, you'll have the opportunity to improve your character's skills in the story mode by winning matches and using the prize money to purchase better statistics, but it's worth noting that each skill becomes more expensive to improve as you reach the higher levels. Needless to say, you'll have to save up quite a sum of money if you want to max out a character's power or speed.
The structure of the story mode is somewhat similar to that of Electronic Arts' NBA Street, in which you take on a series of opponents before taking on a boss character for that particular arena. After beating the boss character (which also unlocks the boss in the other gameplay modes featured in the game), you can move on to the next area and take on the next series of opponents in the hope that you'll eventually take on the man in control of this underground wrestling league. The boss characters in Def Jam: Vendetta are represented by the artists from the Def Jam recording label and include the likes of DMX, Redman, Scarface, Ghostface Killah, WC, and others. The artists have even lent their voice talents to the game, which gives their onscreen personas a little extra personality. It's worth noting that as you reach some of the later arenas in the game, the one-on-one matches are interspersed with a few tag team matches with the man who introduces your character to the underground Def Jam wrestling scene.
Sometimes you'll have to fight as one of the female characters in Def Jam: Vendetta while going through the story mode. At various points in the game, a woman will come along and show interest in your characters. When you meet the first female character in the game, she automatically becomes your valet, but when you encounter others, your valet and the new female character will start yelling at each other, which then leads to a confrontation in the ring. You can then select to fight as either of the two characters, but the one who wins the match will ultimately become your valet until you decide you'd prefer one of the new female characters that you encounter. Interestingly, you can also unlock pictures of the actual models that these characters are based on, either by spending some of your cash or by continuing to use a single valet throughout the game.
In addition to the story mode, Def Jam: Vendetta offers a battle mode where four players can fight against each other at once; a survival mode, which is basically just a series of one-on-one matches in succession; a tutorial that gives some basic information on how to play the game; a gallery to view all of the pictures of the valets that you've acquired by playing through the story or survival modes; and a high-score option to see the top players in several different categories, such as who has the most submissions, the most knockouts, or the most survival mode wins.
As for the actual wrestling itself, fans of No Mercy should feel right at home, though the pace in Def Jam is a little quicker than that of No Mercy. You can perform a variety of standing maneuvers depending on a number of factors, including how long you hold down the grapple button before releasing it and executing the grapple, as well as the direction and button combination being pressed on the controller. For example, if you want to perform a power bomb, one of the more devastating moves in wrestling, then you have to hold down the grapple button for a while, and then when in the grapple, press down on the corresponding button. However, there are a few risks involved when performing more powerful moves. For one, you leave yourself open to attack when attempting to perform a strong grapple--a quick grapple cancels out a strong grapple simply because it's faster to execute. In addition, if you try to perform one of the more powerful moves early on in a match, there's a high probability that your opponent will counter the move. The same risks are involved with basic striking maneuvers as well. Holding down the strike button performs a devastating punch or kick, while just tapping the same button will cause your character to perform a jab or a similarly quick but weak strike.
Along with performing standing grapples, punches, and kicks, you can throw characters up against ropes, into the turnbuckle (where you can perform turnbuckle-specific moves), or out of the ring. It's also possible to perform wrestling moves on the apron of the ring, as well as various top-rope maneuvers. But perhaps the most useful moves in the game are the submissions. Like in No Mercy, submissions can be performed on different parts of the body, such as the head, legs, arms, or torso. By focusing your attacks on a limb, like the left arm, you can lower your opponent's health for that particular limb and eventually cause him or her to submit by completely depleting the wrestler's energy level. Submissions can be incredibly useful because they're rarely countered, and they help keep your opponents pinned to the mat where they can't do any damage or increase their super move meter.
Each character in the game has an over-the-top finishing move, but this move can't be executed until the meter located either above or below your character's health, depending on the type of game you're playing, is completely full. The only way to fill it is to successfully execute dozens of moves or taunts, but you have to be aware that there are certain things that will deplete the meter, like counters. These finishers can be helpful in getting a knockout against opponents or at least in getting their health so low that they can't get up from a simple pin.
As far as the technical aspects of the game are concerned, Def Jam: Vendetta looks on par with the character models and environments featured in some other EA Big games, particularly NBA Street. Most of the animation in the game is ripped directly from AKI's previous wrestling games, so they don't look quite as smooth as, say, Smackdown's moves, but at the same time, they work well with the arcade style of the game. The soundtrack is made up of radio-edited tracks as well as popular Def Jam tracks without vocals.
At this point, Def Jam: Vendetta is shaping up to be an interesting game. The wrestling mechanics are surprisingly robust, and the story mode seems as though it will be able to keep the attention of any wrestling fan. Of course, the four-player multiplayer option for both the GameCube and PlayStation 2 versions of the game really helps the overall appeal of the game. The PlayStation 2 version of Def Jam: Vendetta is scheduled for release on March 18, while the GameCube version is scheduled to hit store shelves on March 24.