The original Jet Set Radio, released in 1999 in the US for the Dreamcast under the name Jet Grind Radio, was a rare combination of technical achievement and innovative gameplay. Its unique cel-shaded graphics and excellent soundtrack, coupled with its original play mechanics, combined for a truly distinctive game filled with both style and substance. While the game didn't go on to become a massive commercial hit, critical acclaim and a devoted fan base have led developer Smilebit to create a follow-up, Jet Set Radio Future. The new game is like a reimagining of the Dreamcast's Jet Grind Radio and features a mix of old and new faces and locations. Like its predecessor, Jet Set Radio Future is a visually stunning game that can be a lot of fun. It also plays differently enough from the previous game to satisfy both old and new players. Jet Set Radio Future does have a few problems, some of which carry over from the original, but it still offers a great gaming experience that every Xbox owner should check out.
Jet Set Radio Future takes place under circumstances similar to those of Jet Grind Radio. The game follows the same basic premise: Tokyo is being overrun by a malevolent corporation run by a nattily dressed businessman who's taken control of the police force. The mighty DJ Professor K is on hand once again to put out the call to rebel against the establishment via his underground radio show, Jet Set Radio. You assume the role of one of the "rudies," a band of Tokyo youths who have grouped into street gangs to take on "the man." To keep Tokyo free from oppression, you'll have to tag and skate your way through a variety of locales throughout the city and take on Gouji's police forces, other rival gangs, and eventually Gouji himself. While the story is similar to Jet Grind's, you'll find enough plot twists to keep things fresh and engaging.
The gameplay in Jet Set Radio Future, much like the story, mixes old and new elements. While the game's core gameplay is unchanged--you'll still get around the streets with magnetically charged skates and collect spray paint cans that you'll use to spray graffiti on your surroundings--some of the mechanics and control have been tweaked. You'll find the same basic control layout as in Jet Grind Radio, but with a few more control options. The left analog stick gives you analog control over your skater's speed. Pressing down on the stick also lets you perform a controlled grind that is useful when tagging. The right analog stick triggers a first-person look mode when you're stationary, and this becomes essential in getting your bearings. The X button lets you perform tricks while skating, while the Y button is also used for tricking but can be used to change your skater's stance and let you skate backward as well. The L trigger is used to recenter the camera behind you and also lets you "lock on" to enemies during battles. The R trigger lets you spray graffiti when you're near tag icons and interact with characters when you see a word balloon appear above their heads. You can also jump and use a speed boost, as well as call up a map of your surroundings.
If you've played Jet Grind Radio, you'll notice several changes to the way the new game handles. Tagging has been simplified to a single press of the R trigger when you're near tagging icons. Holding down the trigger will automatically tag the larger pieces of graffiti made up of multiple icons. The mechanics for dashing have also changed--the basic dash used in Jet Grind Radio has been replaced by the much more potent "boost dash." Essentially a turbo boost that uses up 10 cans of paint, boost dashing can be useful in many situations. Aside from the obvious increase in speed, the boost dash will also serve as an offensive attack that's vital to dealing with Rokkaku forces later in the game.
Jet Set Radio Future also includes a complete trick system that is actually integral to gameplay. Performing tricks will increase your speed when grinding, which is essential for making some of the seemingly impossible jumps you'll have to make. Trick combos are also vital to your success in other ways, as they will often let you reach new areas. For example, going from a handplant to an air trick in a half pipe will let you jump much higher than you normally would, which is the only way you'll ever advance through the sewers. Finally, grinding has become both easier to control and also more over-the-top; you'll be able to grind straight up certain poles and structures in the game. You'll be able to manually adjust your grind speed by pulling back on the analog stick to slow down or by performing tricks to speed up.
There's a lot to learn about how to play Jet Set Radio Future, and you'll gradually become acquainted with the finer points of the game's controls as you progress. You'll learn new moves when you encounter characters, who will challenge you to pull them off. A character is always available to teach you about the various gameplay elements. The game's difficulty and learning curve ramps up gradually at first, though later parts of the game can be very challenging.
The tweaks to the controls in Jet Set Radio Future make it play quite differently from its predecessor. This time around, the emphasis is on fast tagging, speedy skating, and performing impressive tricks. To accommodate that, you're no longer constrained by time in any of the levels, which lets you go through and explore them at your leisure rather than trying to beat the clock. In terms of the game's actual structure, Jet Set Radio Future is less linear than the previous game is overall, but it unfolds in a slightly more conventional fashion, like a platformer. The single-player game is broken up into eight chapters that offer a few variations to the gameplay. In addition to tagging, you'll be exploring levels to acquire "graffiti souls," golden tapes, and new playable characters. You'll also engage in boss battles against other characters, which range from traditional tagging fights to minigame competitions. You'll also be on the prowl for entrances to new levels in the game.
You'll notice that the roster of playable characters has shot through the roof in Jet Set Radio Future. You'll find 12 playable characters in the game, each with different performance attributes. You'll be able to switch between them on the fly at save points throughout the game. This actually ends up adding a strategic element, as certain characters will be best suited for specific activities in the game, and it'll be up to you to decide when to switch. While the game's story unfolds in a linear fashion, the decision to move the story forward or hang back in a level and try to complete all the challenges is largely up to you. Outside of the main single-player game, you'll find a multiplayer mode, supporting up to four players via split-screen. You'll have your choice of five customizable minigames. The multiplayer mode may sound like a good idea, and it can make for a good diversion, but it comes across as much less interesting compared with the rest of the game.
Visually, Jet Set Radio Future stands as one of the Xbox's best-looking games yet, and that's saying a lot. The game's cel-shaded graphics and distinct art style are incredibly beautiful--a definite improvement upon those of the Dreamcast predecessor, which also looked spectacular for its time. The characters are all impressively detailed--as you'd expect, the character roster practically overflows with quirky style. The various skaters also sport smooth animation, which is noticeable when they idle and break into unique dance steps to pass the time. You'll also see speed lines and motion blur around your skater as you tear through the streets, which makes the game seem even more dynamic. Yet your boost dash will show off the flashiest pyrotechnics of all, as your skates literally burst into flame as you shoot forward at incredible speed. You'll find 14 different locations that run the gamut from good-looking to flat-out amazing, showcasing the Xbox's power and Smilebit's excellent visual design. Each level is massive and, more often than not, teeming with activity. You'll see traffic as well as hordes of people in the streets, all of which react to your presence. In addition, little details--such as flocks of birds on the ground that scatter as you skate through them, billowing smoke, and flashing neon and fountains of water--are also on tap to give each level a very strong sense of life. Yet, for all the eye candy and fast-paced gameplay, the game's frame rate generally stays very smooth as 60 frames per second.
Jet Set Radio Future's sound is almost as good as its graphics. In keeping with the game's massive size, Smilebit has assembled a truly eclectic mix of music that mingles tunes by JGR Vets Hideki Naganuma and Richard Jacques with pieces from the Latch Brothers and Cibo Matto. The end result doesn't provide quite as cohesive an auditory experience as that found in the original Jet Grind Radio, due to some dissonant and sometimes grating tunes that stick out, but the music still suits the action very well overall, and there's plenty of it. Besides that, the game's sound effects are solid, and the various skater voices are OK. Gouji and his police forces sound a bit shaky, but this doesn't detract much from the experience. Home theater owners will be especially pleased by the game's support of Dolby Digital sound, which offers a sterling audio experience if you're set up for it.
Although Jet Set Radio Future is an outstanding Xbox game, it does have a few shortcomings that prevent it from being truly superb. That is, in general, the game seems to lack a layer of polish that more time spent in development might have afforded. Specifically, the camera can cause some major problems. If you've played the original on the Dreamcast, then you'll be very familiar with Jet Grind Radio's frustrating camera system. And if you haven't, then Jet Set Radio Future should bring you up to speed, since for the most part, the game shares many of the same exact camera issues as its predecessor. As you skate around, you'll experience some awkward view angles and skate past objects that will obscure your line of sight. You'll probably learn to deal with these things, although you'll find that sometimes the game seems much harder than it ought to be as a result. Furthermore, the open-ended nature of the game can make it difficult to figure out where you're supposed to go next at certain points.
Though it may get a little frustrating sometimes, it's comforting to know that Smilebit has filled Jet Set Radio Future with plenty of replay value. That's fortunate, since you should be able to finish the single-player game within 15 hours. Aside from the 12 characters you'll find during your first time through the game, you should be able to unlock another dozen by revisiting the game once you've finished it. Jet Set Radio Future also contains an in-depth graffiti editor that lets you create your own tags for use in the game. Unfortunately, you won't be sharing any custom creations with other players over the Internet, as the game lacks the online support found in its Dreamcast predecessor.
Despite a few rough edges, Jet Set Radio Future manages to shine because of its addictive, original gameplay and its stunning graphics. It's an unusual game that offers a serious challenge, as well as gorgeous graphics, a strong soundtrack, plenty of style, and good replay value. All of that combines to make Jet Set Radio Future one of the better Xbox games to date.