Can you dig it?
And you thought Grand Theft Auto and Doom set bad examples for your kids. If any game today were able to inspire Columbine-style real-life carnage, The Warriors is it. Yeah it can be argued that the violence simply remains true to the retro gang aggression of the flick from which this is adapted, but there's still cause for alarm (if you're a sensitive activist mom, that is).
Then again, if, like me, you think that all this social "talk" of the symbiotic relationship between street kiddy crime and their love of violent video games is laughable at best, than the worst you have to fear from The Warriors is its infuriatingly un-fun graffiti levels.
What I like most about The Warriors is that despite the fact -- deep down -- it's really just a brutal street brawler obsessed with mayhem, it's actually quite an engaging experience with a (fairly) unpredictable plot and loads of varied gameplay. Beating up street trash, mugging prostitutes, jacking car radios, and armed burglary is just the beginning to a game that covers platforming chases, strategic big-boss fisticuffs (a la Metal Gear Solid and The Legend of Zelda) and hair-pulling graffiti free-for-alls, all set to the distinct taste of inner city crime in 1970s New York City. Of course, all this variety may be refreshing but it comes with a price. Very little here is particularly refined (except the spectacular sound), and several elements are either sloppy and tedious (one rooftop chase, for example) or senseless and annoying (pretty much any level involving tagging).
Set in the burbs and ghettos of New York City when the metropolis was dominated by hundreds of warring gangs (think the turn-of-the-century Gangs of New York, but with afros and tight leather pants), the story focuses on the exploits of the titular group, a low-key bunch of street-savvy criminals trying to make a name for themselves. While players only ever control one member of the gang at a given time (or two, if a second player wants to join in for the fun but disorienting split-screen co-op), each chapter allows you to command a bunch of the aspiring antiheroes (anywhere from two to 12) as you commit crimes galore to achieve varying, increasingly complicated goals.
The first training stage takes you on a sight-seeing tour through the Warriors' territory in Coney with lessons on the arts of mugging and petty larceny. The plot cleverly places gamers in control of new recruit "Rembrandt" (the soon-to-be master of the dreaded graffiti tagging), as warchief Cleon shows him the ropes. Over the next dozen or so missions, you take control of various Warriors members as the plot steers towards the colossal "meeting" of the gangs, an ill-fated tribal consortium of sorts proposed to unite the warring groups as one to rule NYC. While the treasonous assassination -- and framing of the Warriors -- is established with an opening cinematic, the game then winds back to chronicle the gang's rise to power before reaching the pivotal meeting and revisiting the plot of the actual film. The cinematic technique of flashing forward is deftly used to give the rise-to-power of the early stages more dramatic edge, and illustrates that Rockstar Toronto is far more skilled in adapting films to the video gaming realm, than say the hit-or-miss Electronic Arts (RE: Catwoman, Batman Begins).
The Warriors, in fact, is exactly what I expect to see from a game-ification of film. It expands on the story instead of pumping out a two-bit facsimile of the original, creating an interactive universe extrapolated from ideas, characters, and locations of the film. If video games are ever to be seen as a credible art form, they have to stop churning out movie-based games like novelizations with screenshot centerfolds. Sadly, games like Batman Begins, Fantastic Four, Harry Potter and even the Lord of the Rings titles are far more lucrative when they're assembly-lined to tie-in with the theatrical release dates of their inspirations.
All that praise for story and concept aside, the gameplay itself is a mixed bag. As a beat 'em-up brawler, The Warriors may be untouched (punching, kicking, chocking, and smashing goons with beer bottles has never been more elegant), but some of the other elements are either blandly executed or feel like cheap gimmicks. Stealing car radios, picking your way into jewelry stores, and tagging a capital W over the rival gang's graffitied monikers simply involve hammy tracing and twirling exercises with the analog joystick (or half-assed timing of the X button). Rotate the analog stick a few times to pop a car radio, or connect-the-dots of three random swirls to fill in the color and detail of the Warriors' official tag on NYC subway cars. The simulations are lame minigames at best, feeling like they belong better in Big Bird's Alphabet Adventure than a bloody brawler, though time constraints (and the interference of enemy gangs) sometimes render them insanely difficult. A couple exceptions to the rule involve the mugging/interrogation and police-escape modules. When stealing an old lady's purse from behind, for example, you must use the analogy control to pinpoint the points on a circle that cause the victim to stop struggling, allowing your mugging bar to overtake their escape bar. It's cute, because it feels like you're trying to locate your victims' pressure points to apply a Vulcan nerve pinch and can be tough if your victim's feisty or nearby coppers don't approve of your behavior. For the most part, these little devices are simply forgettable, but occasionally the designers throw a level your way dedicated towards the mechanics -- and the tedium transforms to torture.
While some environments (parts of East Coney, and the Hill Street Boys' Bensonhurst neighborhood) allow a fairly free range to explore the dicey nooks and crannies of NY's ghettos, a lot of the game puts players along such a straight-and-narrow path of obvious destinations (complete with Resident Evil-style obstructions) that the recreation of a sprawling urban wasteland feels contrived next to even Grand Theft Auto. Mind you, the advantage here is a more focused plot with little confusion with regards to objectives. If all you're looking for is some mindless gang fisticuffs and total environment destruction, feel free to visit the game's deep multiplayer battle-royal mode, where you can put together your own group of ruffians. Choose from hundreds of encountered gang members or even pick a few random street bums, school kids, mall hags, and hookers and bust it up all over NYC.
When it comes to those fights, big or small, The Warriors is a blast. Each Warrior has a unique variety of weak jabs and power smashes (or roundhouse kicks) and feel free to throw, grapple, or schoolboy-pin your opponents to your heart's content and their submission. The streets and stores are littered with weapons from the everyday (crutches, baseball bats, bar stools, crates, firewood) to the staples of petty crime (switchblades, stolen police batons) and you can even aim with a handy targeting interface before launching a brick or beer bottle at an unsuspecting sentry. If you surprise a foe from behind with a smashed bottle, you'll be awarded a slow-motion cheap-shot that can deplete a goon's entire life-bar if you're lucky. Either way, the sickening crunch and gushing splash of blood is reward enough for most (besides those activist moms, of course).
Best of all, the combat isn't limited to free-for-all spectacles. The enemy AI is tight and sometimes your foes are ruthlessly tough. Expect bad guys to double or triple-team you, divide and conquer, and relish the opportunity to lay a brick upside your temple. Police are especially brutal, and they will tackle you down before laying the baton smackdown on route to a cuffing finish if given the opportunity. Sometimes it's best to run away and regroup, or to hide in the shadows and use stealth to your advantage. If you have the numbers, it's handy to use the "warchief" commands to keep your posse in line. You can order them to simply follow ("let's go") or fall back ("hold up"), annihilate the nearest foe ("wreck 'em all") or split up and hide ("scatter"). The options are simplistic and target all the members at once (instead of individual delegation), but they give you a tactical advantage when the going gets too tough.
Unfortunately the game doesn't just feel dated in terms of theme and style. Several years in the making, the visuals of The Warriors are a tad passť, using bland textures (glued-on vests and such) to differentiate otherwise identical character models and lighting effects are boxy. The game doesn't look much better than the most recent Grand Theft Auto, which is a shame because those games hardly set any precedent for graphics. Luckily, The Warriors more than makes up with a rich soundscape, whether in the use of '70s techno riffs, catchy radio tunes, or the ambience of barking dogs and police sirens. Half the inner city atmosphere is achieved by the sound, which works to convince you there is life beyond the chain link fences, even if you know there is absolutely no way of getting there. The voice acting is particularly strong; from the muscle-headed steam pipe Ajax (voiced by the movie's James Remar) to the tough but charismatic leadership of Cleon (Dorsey Wright). The silky smooth radio pronouncements (including level-distinctive reports as witty as they are insulting) of Patricia R. Floyd really work to set the mood of a city ruled by gangs. Even the scores of extras strolling the streets (whether swearing, cat-fighting, or begging for your mercy) are authentic to the ears.
The Warriors isn't a perfect game but it is one of the most accomplished film-to-video-game adaptations. Rockstar Toronto didn't just remake a cult favorite to reap the commercial benefits; they expanded an interesting story into something that could only work in this medium. The universe is rich in detail, compensating nicely for the mediocre visuals. For a game of its genre, The Warriors is long (expect a good 15-20 hours) and increasingly (sometimes frustratingly) complicated. With extras galore, three difficulty settings to choose from, and loads of multiplayer madness to fill in the blanks, smashing skulls to a bloody pulp is made all the more sophisticated.
9 December 2005