Color me surprised. Rockstar Toronto has taken a cult favorite license that's aged more than 25 years and turned it into something that's truly worth playing. After spending the better part of three years in the planning stages, The Warriors joins Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks as one of the few real successors to the previously dead beat 'em up genre (while pushing the category beyond the simple mold of "punch, punch, kick, and kick").
On the surface, The Warriors looks very much like a mish-mash of the titles that Rockstar has seen success with over the last couple of years -- in other words, it's Grand Theft Auto crossed with Manhunt without the huge streaming world or questionable psychopathic weirdness. Luckily it's a lot more than that too, as it also boasts a pretty hefty combat engine, better artificial intelligence, and an easier to access mission-based design that will allow players to jump in and do exactly what they want without too much of a mess.
But therein lays some duplicity as "A mess" is exactly what you'll be able to create in The Warriors, since the development team has managed to bottle the user-controlled anarchy idea pretty effectively. In this game, causing destruction and raising hell is very much the order of the day, but it's done in a way that never feels as repetitive or as familiar as you might think.
Part of the reason that the game never feels as repetitious as some of its competition is that The Warriors is all about telling a story -- specifically, the story of how a gang from East Coney rose to power and put themselves in the position of being framed for the murder of the biggest set boss in New York. Beginning several months before the events of the film on which it's based, the game has a lot more narrative and background to it than I was expecting. In fact, relatively speaking, The Warriors has a lot more storytelling in it than Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, or any of Rockstar's other recent actioners.
The beauty of this is that a good 80% of the game is really not about the movie at all. It's only the last five missions or so that see Cleon and the gang make their escape back to Coney Island. This means that even the most dedicated and ravenous Warriors fans are in for something new: be it how Vermin and Cleon created the gang in the first place, or how Cyrus came up with the idea for his 60,000 soldier inner city army. Happily, these sequences are told extremely well and none of the cutscenes feel unnecessary or slopped together.
But the storyline isn't the only presentational aspect that excels in The Warriors; the overall artistic style is equally solid. To keep things authentic, Rockstar went back to old blueprints and photographs of a very different New York City circa 1979 and the game is every bit as gritty (and dirty) as the motion picture that inspired it. Hairstyles, clothing styles, and graffiti tags are just as authentic, as it the lingo, advertisements (be on the lookout for real 1979 Adidas ads), and music (which particularly stands out as one of the better scores of the season).
Unfortunately the visuals in The Warriors don't stand out nearly as much as the rest of the production elements. Though there is a great deal of detail in the environments and character models compared to GTA, they still lack the detail of all modern videogames, and in many ways, older second generation PS2 titles (re: those familiar San Andreas manimal paws have returned). When fighting close-quarters the camera can get caught behind structures too, so don't expect the world's best perspective when rumbling in the streets.
Strangely, the Xbox version of the game doesn't look too much better than the PS2 rev. Despite the fact that the Microsoft disc supports 720p progressive scan and Sony's doesn't (both do widescreen, though), the colors in the Xbox edition are noticeably washed out (more so than usual) and the treated characters look bizarrely pale as a result. But regardless of which version you're playing, the visuals could have been a lot better.
But let's face it: brawlers aren't really about graphics anyway, they're about beating people up -- and beating people up is exactly what you can do in The Warriors. Feeling very much like an enhanced Manhunt, the combat engine here has a surprising amount of depth to it. Once schooled in the ways of the warrior, players will be able to grapple opponents to the ground and while standing, smash them into various obstacles for additional damage, and wrestle back and forth to gain dominance on their opponent.
But that's just the start of it. Users who want to make the most of the system can also chain light and heavy attacks together for a series of different combos, and further chain those into finishing throws. Special attacks can be used for canned cinematic strikes that include pounding people with elbows, knees, and other appendages, and when you throw in rage attacks (powered assaults used via a special meter), counter moves, team strikes, projectile throws, the ability to use various kinds of weaponry (no guns), and different moves for every Warriors, and you'll have plenty of reasons to throw down with the opposition.
This system is fun to use because your enemies will actually fight back with heavy aggression. Even on the easiest setting (there are three difficulty levels in all), the AI is particularly brutal and will use team tactics, swarm techniques, and pincer strategies to take you out. It gets even more hardcore as you move up in challenge, and the boss characters use a healthy mix of old-school patterns and unpredictable badass maneuvers to throw you for a loop. The only real issue I had with enemies in general is that they're not as varied as your own gang is -- if you're fighting the Boppers, they fight just like the Turnbull ACs, who fighting just like the Rangers, and the Hi-Hats, etc, etc. It would have been nice to see a little more variety there.
Believe it or not, The Warriors has even more depth to it thanks to the War Chief Commands. These are particularly important on the higher difficulty settings and much like San Andreas, allow players to issue commands to their fellow gang members. If you want them to go crazy and have your crew start wrecking everything in sight just tell them to go "Mayhem" and any breakable object (which is about 50% of the environment) is going to get trashed. Alternatively, if you're under heavy assault and need help before getting your ass kicked then selecting "Watch my Back" brings your crew to the rescue. There are six commands in all, and all of them have their place.
What really helps set The Warriors apart from other brawlers, though, is how varied the gameplay is between all the ass-kicking. There's a whole mess of different ways to keep you busy between the 23 different story missions. Stealing car stereos, mugging people for money, picking locks to nab loot, and running from pursuers in the old-school side-scroller fashion are all things that you can do. There's also a fun little graffiti spray-painting mini-game (that requires you to trace basic designs with the analog stick), and a multitude of little details that I'll leave a secret to keep them a surprise.
The Warriors' best gameplay feature for many, though, will probably be its robust Multiplayer option. Available in both "Rumble Mode" (an arcade-style collection of fighting games that allows you to create and customize gangs to participate in capture the flag matches, king of the hill, wheelchair races, and more) and in Story Mode, the multiplayer option can be enjoyed for the entire length of the storyline or just ten minutes of a single mission. All player number two has to do is press start and he'll automatically assume control a Warrior to fight alongside the first user. It uses the same approach found in War of the Monsters too, so if one gamer wants to go off and do his own thing apart from the other guy, the screen will auto split horizontally and then come back together again in a single screen when paired together.
Sadly there is some noticeable slowdown when playing through multiplayer in the crowded areas (slowdown that doesn't appear in single-player), and the camera doesn't always work as well as it's supposed to when it splits and when it comes together. This abrupt switch can cause a couple of problems in what's otherwise an excellent way to get a buddy involved (finding all the hidden tags are much easier with two guys instead of one).
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