For anyone looking for the definitive cops vs. robbers style of action game, this isn't it. In fact, it's not even close, though that applies mostly to the single-player campaign. Like Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance and Crime Life: Gang Wars, 25 to Life is another gritty, gory title with plenty of foul language and pointless killing. In it, you'll play as three different characters: the gangster Shaun Calderon, Detective Lester Williams and Andre Freeze Francis. The game starts out following Freeze as he comes to the decision that he no longer wants to be involved with the criminal world. As soon as he tries to leave, though, he's pulled right back in as his family is kidnapped and he's forced to fight to escape the life he strives to put behind him.
Somehow, escaping this life means Freeze has to kill about 300 police officers. By some sort of seemingly divine grace, you're able to pull this off without drawing any sort of attention. It's strange because most real-life police officers call for backup if they're being attacked. I'm pretty sure they don't sit back at the station playing darts and placing bets on televised car chases while the rest of their precinct is being fatally punctured by the firearms of one guy. Though it can be said that no backup arrives to make the game playable, it may be one of the first of many unanswerable questions you'll find yourself asking your television as you play through this game's single-player campaign. For instance, why are there so many boomboxes scattered around Mexico?
25 to Life is a third-person action game with a terrible aiming mechanic and woefully inadequate controls. As you might assume, that does a whole lot to make the game as unnecessarily frustrating and perplexing as possible. In it, you'll be able to use a wide variety of guns including several pistols, SMGs, rifles, grenades and Molotov cocktails. Each painfully linear stage takes plays out with a series of combat arenas. In other words, you enter an area, kill the enemies, pick up the floating health pack, move to next area, kill more guys. That's pretty much it. With a game so specifically focused on combat, it's amazing how limited your character is in terms of abilities. After playing through the game's first two levels, you've seen pretty much all there is to see.
Whoever you're controlling can crouch, run around, occasionally vault walls and lean side to side. The leaning is the only combat option that might have proved worthwhile or added some strategy, but as it stands it's pretty much useless. For one, you don't really lean that far, so you can't see much more of the combat area than if you were to just run out from behind cover. Second, the actual lean is slow, meaning if there are enemies around that know where you are, they're definitely going to shoot you. Third, once noticed, the enemies will always seem to know when you're going to lean out.
Basically, this means fighting from cover is awkward and ineffective. This is especially true since enemies will frequently lean out from cover too. In many cases you can't see exactly where your foes are and, because the leaning controls are so slow to respond, you'll have to stand out in the open to know when you're able to shoot at them. Don't get the wrong impression here; just because the enemies take cover doesn't mean they're smart. In fact, all the enemies in the game seem very, very confused.
Some of your gun-toting foes in 25 to Life will charge right at you while unloading all their bullets. Some will stand behind a wall and not notice you until you start shooting them. Some will have ungodly accuracy with automatic weapons from extremely long distances. Others, assuming you're standing far enough away and behind an object, will fail to notice you even after you've shot them. All these factors combine to create a completely brainless action experience, where the entire strategy of the game involves just pointing your gun and shooting at your enemies' heads. Even then, some enemies take two or three direct shots to the head to die, even if they're not wearing helmets.
Occasionally, you'll have a friend or two fighting alongside of you, which amazingly makes it more difficult to stay alive. The problem is your partner or friend has absolutely no regard for where you are when he's pulling the trigger. So if you're in between an enemy and your friend, he'll have no qualms about putting 800 bullets into the back of your head. Some sort of team command mechanic, even a basic "stay here" or "stop shooting me in the back you freaking moron" command would have been a welcome addition.
Fighting is even further hampered by controls that aren't that great. Trying to precisely shoot an opponent while he's moving around is a frustratingly inconsistent experience, especially when he's shooting you the entire time. From cover positions, it's also surprisingly difficult to target an opponent. Whether this is an aberration due to your over-the-shoulder perspective or something else is unclear. Either way it means the best way to kill an enemy is to run directly up to them and shoot them, negating any sort of cover-to-cover shooting strategy. In a close range battle, you're going to be dying most of the time. Sure, you may get one or two shots in against a foe unloading an entire clip on you, but as you'll quickly find out in 25 to Life, foes take about 25 shots to kill, unless you hit them in the head. Even then, some enemies can take 3 to 4 sniper bullets before they go down.
Depending on which character you're playing as, you can also take a human shield or stun an opponent and arrest them. Amazingly, if you arrest an opponent in the middle of a heated firefight, you somehow become invincible while you're slapping on the cuffs. Taking human shield comes highly recommended, though, because you're going to be dueling lots of armed jerks in firefights, and the strongest motivation you should have while playing the single player game is to avoid having to replay an area.
In addition to all the frustrating and highly questionable gameplay mechanics, you'll also be treated to graphics that at times resemble what ends up in a sink after 18 tequila shots in under an hour, and at others barely break into the realm of mediocre. The game starts out in an urban environment that's so generic you might fall asleep looking at it. Eventually you'll enter areas that are slightly more interesting, and in the end the game proved to have more environmental variety than something like Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance. Though there was a slight degree of variety, that doesn't mean any of the environments looked good. Enemy models and animations are terrible. They move around like starched mannequins, showing little to no response at being shot twenty times by an SMG. Characters will often blend into the background so you'll have to spend unnecessarily long tracts of time searching for that one foe who you can see on your radar, who keeps shooting you, yet somehow you can't spot on your screen.
The only decent graphical effect in the game is the slight distortion made by swinging a bat and the slight ripples caused by bullets. You'll often find yourself on fire, which apparently hurts exponentially less than getting shot. On the lower difficulties, your character can easily survive three or four Molotov cocktail explosions, and the effect of you running around shooting others while engulfed in cheesy-looking and totally-harmless flames can only be described as hilarious.
As with many games like this, the soundtrack is pretty much the best thing it has going for it. The gun effects are decent, too. If nothing else, at least they're loud. Character voices stink, and why each character needs to unleash a curse every two or three words is a little beyond my comprehension. Is it realistic? I don't know, I'm not a gangster. Does it sound forced and make me laugh unintentionally? It sure does. You might also be surprised at how many of the enemies and hostages will talk well after they've been killed. For instance, hearing an enemy bellow, "Jesus Christ please forgive me for my sins," a second or two after he's already died might make you raise an eyebrow. If you're smart, it would make you raise your finger to the power button and shut the game off.
In each single player mission you're given a primary objective, as well as several secondary ones. Killing 25 enemies, getting 12 headshots or breaking 4 cash machines are a few of the secondary objectives that, if completed, net you bonus goodies for the multiplayer mode. The multiplayer is definitely where you're going to want to spend most of your time with this game, since you don't have to deal with the ridiculously bad AI of the single-player campaign. You'll also find a surprisingly large array of options available to you, including several different modes of play, lots of customizable game settings, options for organizing your own 25 to Life clan, as well as tons of options for customizing your appearance. If only the shooting and aiming weren't so awkward to control and there was actually some sort of cover options for battle, this may have been way more entertaining to play.
As it is, the combat is still basically as silly in the single player. The one main difference is that since you're playing with others, you can create battle plans for attacking and defending in each of the 16 stages. The one thing that's virtually the same is the aiming, which stinks. In some levels you can take hostages to protect you, which almost adds some depth. In Robbery and Raid modes it verges on fun to stick together and protect the bag or evidence carrier. The problem is, it all boils down to just slamming the shoot and grenade buttons repeatedly while trying to move around. Imagine Max Payne with no cool slow-motion or rolling abilities and guns that aren't even close to as fun to use, and you'll get a good idea of what controlling your 25 to life online character is like.
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