Before you drop down and check out the low-blow score on this game, know this: The Con is the kind of fighting game that I'd like to see a hell of a lot more of. It's technical fighting, fists and boots. It's about working the body and socking the head when it sticks out. Stick and move, duck and lean. Sure, it's got super-moves and body-snapping throws, but the fundamentals are very different from the Street Fighters and Tekkens that define the fighting genre. The PSP allows for a unified first-person view of the fight, in single-player and multiplayer, and that allows you to fight the way real fights go down. You're not just button-mashing the quick-hit button for cheap hits or turtle'ing until your opponent throws in a move that'd be impossible to get into a duck-block fast enough. Punches and kicks land where they go on that weaving and ducking body because you put them there.
Unfortunately, you'll spend more time fighting the controls than fighting your opponent...
For everything that The Con does right (and that's not even to mention the cool betting and RPG aspects that make this game "The Con"), it doesn't get the fundamentals right, and it'd be hard as heck for either fight fans or new bloods to get into the game because of that. It's a fighting game that's full of the worst aspects other 3D fighting games have occasionally suffered from, starting with the slow response and chunky canned combos of an animation system that's not fluid and adaptive all the way to the infuriating inability to react well when the opponent somehow lands up behind you. If you try it and like it, much power to you -- I came close to appreciating it here and there as I fought through the ranks -- but recommending you put your money down on this game the way that it plays is something I can't do even for the hardcore.
Rather than bash it outright and complain about what went wrong (it's pretty simple what went wrong -- this is a first-gen fighter on a new play concept that plays rigidly and without the motion fluidity that allows instant access to your reflexes), I'll dial in on what the game does right in hopes that a sequel or new effort is spawned from it. First off, it's a fighting game that's based on 3D boxing rather than 2D slap-fighting. As good as Tekken and SoulCalibur and even Virtua Fighter are, they're limited by their perspective -- at best, they feel like incredibly complex side-scrollers, and at worse, 3D kludges of what should have been done 2D. Publisher SCEA's Santa Monica studio picked Japanese game maker Think & Feel to work with in developing The Con for its experience in making the Victorious Boxers series. The result is that The Con is essentially a more complex version of a boxing game -- you have your left and right blows, your body and face hits, only now with kicks thrown into the mix. It's not something that every fighting game should try -- no need for VF or SC to fix what ain't broke, especially since The Con itself is broken by its attempt -- but it's a promising new way to pick a fight.
What this gives you is control over attack placement and direction. You've got left and right attack buttons, both left and high (playing on the four face buttons) for landing attacks. It will depend on which of the five fighting styles you use (Street Boxing, Wrestling, Jeet Kune Do, Kickboxing or Tae Twon Do) whether you'll punch or kick when you hit the button, something that UFC fight followers may be frustrated by but still gives you control over a variety of moves without button combos or tap/dial specials. Here, you also have full control over your body, using either the analog controller or the D-Pad, so you are actually controlling not only the blocking (which is simply handled with the R Trigger), but also dodging and swaying left and right. From the start of the bout, you'll see your opponent realistically leaning and hunching in anticipation of your opening move. The left-and-right sways allow you to avoid attacks, but they also put you in position for your own blows -- if an opponent is moving to the right, you can sway his way and bring up your right fist to clock him in the ear when he thinks he's in a defensive position.
That's the good stuff, the stuff to build on some other time in some other game. The bad stuff is that it's not responsive despite the simpler and more direct control. Combos are all dial-in attacks, and while you can build sets of your own combos to try and put together adaptive strings (say two left hooks and a big right body blow, followed up by a driving knee), the responsiveness isn't there for the game to react when you make a move. It mostly discourages button mashing, but that's only because the moves are so slow -- there are moves that take timing (such as the parries and extra emphasis shots on throws), but you're not penalized for button-mashing to hit the timing rather than nailing the exact points of impact. Too many attacks are slow to respond when you hit the button, and the timing on combination strikes is often too slow for it to work. Also, while the viewing angle is a keen new way to fight, you have almost no control over your feet, so it feels like a glitzed-up Mike Tyson's Punch-Out rather than a real brawl in the street ring.
The Con tries to get past its weak fighting engine with its betting angle. A whole controller button is set aside just for "conning" fight watchers, so you can fake attacks or suck up opponent strikes with acted-out pain. The trick is to put up a good fight -- or at least what looks like a good fight -- without the crowd catching your fakery. In theory, it's a brilliant addition, as you can bet on your opponent and make bank by pretending to lose a fight you could have stolen, or by rope-a-doping everybody involved by suckering in bets before the timer rolls out and wagers are locked in. Each bout is of the three members of your team (who are matched up with opponents at random), so you have a good deal of play to work with if you want to throw some matches but still progress through the ranks. In the game, it's a little less exciting than it seems. Because your opponent doesn't play for his own wages, you don't see the opposite effect in their tactics. You know when you can blow a guy down, or when you're in trouble and need to fight hard just to make the crowd believe you didn't take a dive and honestly got your ass kicked. There are no surprises, and after a while, it's much easier to just put it all on yourself so you can keep progressing through the game -- you're likely to win just as much money by winning as by faking a loss, so might as well win. Multiplayer doesn't have a "Con" mode (which probably wouldn't have made sense anyway), so you see less and less of this cool feature as it goes on. There is some play in placing a timer on when the bets roll in, and you can make big bucks by "making a fight look believable," but at that point, you're really just toying with your opponent, and you might not find that as much fun as just fighting.
The robust character creation feature also fails to give The Con more fighting spirit. There's a ton you can tweak here, from the body shape of your male or female fighter to the clothes they wear to the combo moves they toss out. It's a respectable character creation feature, and it makes sense in the game's design, because The Con is all about fighting nobodies that are just made up. Your created character may be your own, but most everybody else is literally generic -- except for a number of bosses, the game mostly plays through rounds and rounds of fighting characters that appear randomly generated by the character creator, given a name by the developers but nothing else special to distinguish them. You'll be playing through possibly hundreds of bouts to get to the top (even without leveling up, it'll take at least 5-10 matches to gain enough respect to face the boss of each of the game's five rankings), and they're all the same throughout. Each of the five fighting styles has its own set of intro poses and moves, and the men and women have the same voices throughout, so it feels like you're fighting the same person with a facelift several times over. You can custom-design your combo attacks, but you can't pick exactly what attacks your character uses -- you can't make a kick-heavy kickboxer and a box-style kickboxer. I liked that you can either train or rest your fighter for each of the weeks leading up to your scheduled fight, but this RPG aspect of character building was one-sided in that, unless you were in great pain, you could simply train away and not have to worry about fatigue. There's also a really strange aspect to the outfitting aspect of the game -- because some clothes and hairstyles and accessories have special powers (brass knuckles will improve your power, for example, while a necklace charm may give you more health), it negates the fun of dressing your characters up as you want to. It's better to dress them up in the power-outfits rather than have them look pretty but play weak.
You're not missing a whole lot about The Con as a demonstration of the PSP's capabilities if you skip out on it -- the graphics and audio aren't anything to write home about, and the loadtimes can be as painful as a punch in the gut. There are a couple of cool ring settings (including a fight set in a Hollywood prop house), but you get a better view of the stage from the repeating stage fly-by while loading than you ever see in the fight. (And by the by, how come it only takes a second to load the stage, but to put fighters in can take up to 30 seconds?) The effects used in bringing the stages to life are simple and ineffective, with garbage cans filled with orangish-yellow instead of fire and subways set away from the train tracks. There's also not any interaction with the background, and you don't get a lot of benefit to cornering an opponent. Characters are generic throughout, and the bosses aren't special enough to stand out. I liked the game's music -- by Trevor Gray and Gez Dewar -- but the tunes often sound directly ripped from the record stacks of Fat Jon from Adult Swim fame (in fact, one ambling beat has the exact same beeping emphasis as a tune on the Samurai Champloo soundtrack.) Character voices are non-existent except for the occasional cutscene for bosses. And multiplayer is only as good as the two single players like the fighting mechanics. There is praise due, however, for the inclusion of Game Sharing. Loading on Game Sharing (which includes quick sharing of the applet plus some data transfer before you fight) is mostly quick and painless. You're limited to who you can fight as -- in fact, before you begin, you have to choose only one fighting style to play for both fighters, and each will be the same generic character -- but it's a decent extra to play around with if everybody you know avoided this fighter.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved