E3 2002Deathrow impressions

Read our impressions of Ubi Soft's M-rated sports game set in the future.

Ubi Soft has a playable version of Deathrow for the Xbox on display at its E3 booth, and we were able to play the game in its nearly finished form. Set in the distant future, the game chronicles a sports league that appears to be very similar to the sport associated with Rollerball, the '70s action flick starring James Caan. Teams are made up of four players apiece, and there are no rules other than whoever scores the most or completely knocks out the other team wins. Whatever happens along the way is fair game.

Playing Deathrow is easy enough, but there's plenty of added depth for players to master. The game takes place in more than 32 different arenas, but most at least vaguely resemble a hockey rink, with boards that surround the play area. Players must throw a disc through a hoop while attempting to keep the other team from doing the same. There are 17 different teams and 146 different players in the game, including robots, aliens, and humans. Each player is rated in nine categories, and each team has a specific concentration that must be exploited in order to be successful while playing with them. Like a football game, games of Deathrow are split up into four quarters. The lack of rules and the fact that players can be gravely injured allows for quite a bit of creativity and strategy on the part of the player. You can attempt to simply outscore your opponent, but if you're playing as a team with fighting skills, you can attempt to knock out all four players on the other team in one quarter to secure the win. Players can be substituted between quarters, so if you don't completely finish the team off, they'll be back for more.

Playing the single-player conquest mode drops you into a league where you are rewarded for victories with cash that can be spent to purchase new players for your team or to heal players who may have been injured in a previous game. Player health carries over from game to game, and there are many times when you'll start a match and see the opposition already limping around the arena. The survival of the fittest mantra applies, and the wise thing to do is go after the players who are hurt and take them out of the game for an added advantage. Players may also play through the conquest mode cooperatively, but the game's developers believe that the head-to-head multiplayer modes for four players will be the real showstopper. The game will also include system link capabilities, though an online mode will have to wait until the sequel.

Deathrow is easy to pick up and play, but there are plenty of subtle gameplay mechanics to master. The A button allows you to pass the disc to your teammates, and you'll have the ability to bounce passes off walls as well. There are two different passing modes used in the game. You can choose to have the game automatically switch your control to the player with the disc, or you can choose to play as just one character and work the give-and-go with computer-controlled players. The A button also allows you to punch your opponents while on defense. The B button allows you to shoot the disc toward the goal, and it will automatically lock on to it. It can also be used to kick while on defense. The Y button allows you to jump while on offense or defense, and it facilitates moves that are similar to dunking in basketball. While on defense, pressing the A and B buttons together allows you to perform grabs and throws. Changing players is accomplished with the black button, which can be rather awkward. If the opposition gives you a good beating, you'll be down for the count and will have to tap the A and B buttons to get back up. Adding significantly to the realism is the fact that computer players will sometimes accidentally strike each other and do damage if they miss with an attack. The game also employs a simplistic block and counter system that gives it just the right amount of depth for a console game. Power-ups that temporarily increase attributes like speed, power, and momentum are scattered throughout the arenas.

Deathrow began its life as a PC game, which made it easy for the team to get it up and running on the Xbox. The game uses a great deal of visual trickery such as bump mapping, specular highlighting, environmental mapping, and more. There are more than 800 different animations included in the game, and some of them are simply outrageous. You can spin players around by their heads and send them flying into other players, and the game will pause when you perform the more impressive moves and pan around the action in a style similar to some of the camerawork in The Matrix. Each player is made up of a whopping 7,000 polygons and features high resolution textures to make sure that the alternate costumes are easy to pick out. The game also includes a great deal of blood, and it is fully deserving of its M rating. Despite all these graphical effects and eight players onscreen at once, the game never slows down. Like traditional sports games, at the conclusion of each game, you're treated to a host of replays that recap the action.

There will be 3,000 words' worth of voice acting in the finished game, and most of those are used for taunts. Each player has specific taunts that can be triggered at any time. Talking trash to the opposing team's goalie can sometimes cause him to lose his composure and get out of position. The game will make use of in-game Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, though it was impossible to hear above the roar of E3.

Part fighting game, part hockey, Deathrow is an interesting take on the sports genre. With plenty of things to unlock, three difficulty settings, and an addictive multiplayer mode, fans of multiplayer gaming would do well to keep an eye on this one. Deathrow is currently scheduled for release in October in the US and September in Europe. Look for more on the game when we receive a playable build and have more time to give it a go.

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