Monday, June 12, 2006

Jet Set Radio Future

The sequel to one of the Dreamcast's few honestly meaningful hits, Jet Set Radio Future takes the mechanics, visuals and all around style established by its proud poppa, Jet Grind Radio, ports them over to Microsoft's platform and ties in a few new bits and pieces to keep things fresh. It's been a few years since I played the original, but the impression it left on me was largely a good one, particularly on the graphics and audio fronts. I don't remember it as being an overly difficult game to pick up and learn, and although it wasn't the lengthiest adventure in the world, I'd often find myself slowing my momentum mid-stride so I could breathe in the atmosphere and enjoy my surroundings. It was such a gorgeous melting pot of cultures, one couldn't help but appreciate it in that respect alone. If you jumped in and sped through on a single-objective mission to work your way from start to finish, you were overlooking the most enjoyable part of the game.

That's something Jet Set Radio Future merely carries over, almost unaltered. While it's not quite as immersive and impressive the second time around, the subculture vibe emanating from your television is still unmistakable. For the uninitiated I'm sure it's a completely different experience, but if you've seen the Dreamcast-housed launching pad, you'll be moderately pleased with what you're seeing continued from chapter one, but may have been hoping for a little more progress this time around. It's not as immediately impressive as the first was, despite the change in platform, and to expect that same kind of sensation on the second pass was probably a little unfair to the game itself.

The story isn't all that remarkable, but honestly neither was that of the first game. You play as one of the three founding members of the GGs, one of half a dozen rollerblade-adorned street gangs fighting for territorial rights to the whole of Tokyo. The ultimate goal is to fill the streets with your crew's graffiti, slowly assimilating members of the other gangs along the way, until the entire underground knows and respects your crew. It's more than a little reminiscent of the original, where the locations were different but the eventual goal was exactly the same. The two storylines are almost dreamily interconnected, with several returning characters, none of whom seem to have any recollection of the events of the first game or their relationship with the others. One character whose role is bulked up this time around is DJ Professor K, the voice of "Jet Set Radio," an underground pirate radio station which provided the tunes and the news updates in the Dreamcast edition, but never really took much of a role in the actual goings on. In JSRF, the professor moves from a supporting role to something a little more proactive. His broadcasts are much more pointedly directed to the GGs, and are your only real indication of where you should be and what you should be doing at any given time. This puts a slight drain on the credibility of the world, as it's tough to imagine such a station getting much support from its core audience (the street gangs) while promoting such a biased look at the big turf war.

Regardless, in a game filled to the brim with lukewarm, cookie cutter characters, I wouldn't trade Professor K's presence in the sequel for anything. If there's one thing that was missing from the original Jet Grind, it was an attractive, varied cast of personalities. Every character looked like a zombie from Michael Jackson's oft-imitated "Thriller" music video... beautiful wardrobe, excellent dance moves, but the same blank stare and limp-wristed charisma. With the exception of the professor, that's one of the more unhappy aspects that was carried over to the sequel. Every one of these guys is incredibly designed. You've got characters from every possible clique - the goths, the ravers, the punks, the emo kids - but none of them have even the faintest trace of a mind to call their own. Just that same deer-in-the-headlights stare and a dopey little "biding my time until you decide to play as me" dance. Like I was saying, though, that's one thing Professor K brings in spades, and something the game really needed. He'll provide the personality in between levels, but when it comes to the actual gameplay, you're on your own. Pity he didn't make the list of playable characters.

While you'll find yourself more often than not facing off against rival gangs, the main struggle throughout the game is that of rebel vs. authority, with the GGs naturally playing the more youthful, inspirational of the two. The face of the establishment in Jet Set's world is that of a thousand identical twins in full Nazi regalia, a few nicely detailed sub-bosses (of which only one is ever given any sort of real attention... the others seem to just drop out of the sky and attack randomly near the end of the game) and one big, bad cyberpunk mayor. Yep, villain numero uno just so happens to be the man in charge of everyday business in all of Tokyo. I know this game is meant to be set in the not-too-distant future, but even keeping that in mind, I had trouble accepting the idea that a city of this size could be run by a guy with a robotic arm, a crazy biker helmet and a long, colorful trench coat.

While neither game in the series has much in the way of an epic storyline, at the very least the actual gameplay experience of the first was enough to keep me coming back for more. No matter how much of the game you'd completed, it was always a blast to play. I wish I could say the same for the sequel, but it seems to have grown both too simple and too complicated for its own good. I'll explain. Something as basic as grinding a rail, for instance, was never much of a problem in the first game. You jumped in the air, and if you happened to be within spitting distance of a grindable object when you landed, your character was automatically bumped over to it and began railing along. It was simple, effective, and didn't cause too many headaches at the time. For the sequel, however, the programmers have really bumped up the number of rails in any given map, which makes actually navigating from point A to point B much more of a nightmare. I can't even begin to count the number of times I'd be trying to reach a difficult spot on the map, would jump away from the rail in an attempt to land on said spot, would visibly land on the spot I was aiming for, and would watch my character automatically clamp onto the rail again and sail off into the abyss. After about fifteen minutes, I was screaming for the simple, one button grind functionality that was done to perfection in the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series, which is funny because it was precisely this kind of problem that led Neversoft to introduce the ability to actually climb off your board and roam freely around the map. JSRF's grinding system is far too simple and mistake-prone for its own good.

Add to that your characters' newly-acquired ability to grind up and down vertical poles, and your recipe for disaster becomes even more complicated. The theory, I'm sure, was to make your eventual ascensions from street level to skyscraper level much easier and faster than they had been in the past. In action, as always, things got a bit hairy. If this game's insistence upon grinding anything and everything on a horizontal plane weren't already irritating enough as it was, now you've got to keep an eye out for objects on the vertical plane as well. If you're unfortunate enough to clip one of these poles in mid air, your forward progress will completely halt so that your character can grind their way directly into the ground, resulting in an awkward about-face that leaves you skating full-speed the wrong way. Grinding your way along a rail, up a telephone pole and on to the building tops is a really cool experience the very first time you manage it, but I don't think that moment of revelation is worth the amount of headaches the new system drags along with it.

I think my main problem with the control system is twofold. For one, far too many elements are automated, to the point that I never felt like I was fully in control of my character. You'll want to perform a short hop and they'll instead do this wild, crazy, flipping leap. You'll want to move from the inside of a halfpipe to grinding along its lip, and instead they'll hurl themselves into the air, performing an unrequested trick along the way. Half the time, I felt like my characters was spitting in my face, his actions were so wildly different from what I wanted him to do. Secondly, I felt like JSRF far too accurately represents the physical act of skating, and all of its downfalls and limitations. It's one thing to simulate the sense of speed, balance and adrenaline that I'm sure a great rollerblade pro feels every time he's on wheels, but it's something else entirely to handicap your gamers just for the sake of simulation. If you'll pardon the repeated comparisons, this is a translation that I felt the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series had absolutely nailed down. All of the sensations of actually riding a skateboard are there; speed, control, balance, restraint... but very few of the really bothersome limitations made the leap. When you order your rider to stop moving on an incline, it's understood that you don't want him to move again on his own. JSRF sends you slowly sliding down the hill. Maneuvering your way to a hard-to-reach spot is difficult, but ultimately rewarding and entertaining in THPS. In Jet Set, it's almost impossible and utterly humiliating. There's no such thing as a nuance of control in this game, at least as far as the basic commands are concerned. Jumping, grinding, standing still, moving forward, whatever... they all feel over-analyzed and needlessly nitpicked. Where's the fun in moving at incredible speeds if your character steers like a boat in mud?

I've seen a lot of reviewers claiming that JSRF is too easy a game to complete, and while the actual challenges themselves aren't very... er... challenging... I found that it's the physical act of accomplishing a lot of them that delivers a lot of the game's difficulty (and, naturally, leads to plenty of aggravation). I think nine times out of ten I knew exactly what I needed to do to finish any one area, but found myself trying over and over and over again, because I couldn't get the controls to do what I wanted.

Now, with all that said, I'm actually a fan of a few aspects of the control scheme and the newly introduced gameplay mechanics. One of the more imaginative additions is the combo system, which works like a sort of hybrid action / sports / music game. You've got the fast pace and loose grip on reality of an action game (like the sky-high jumps in Tony Hawk, there's no way some of Jet Set's tricks are physically possible), the balance and strategy of a good sports game (planning where you'll jump after the rail ends, in the hopes of continuing your combo) and the timing and universal coordination of a great music game (you've got to time your manual tricks while grinding or grabbing air so that they hit precisely along with the beat). Fully realized, it's a truly inspiring little addition, although it's such a small part of the big picture that it's likely to go completely overlooked in most people's books.

In the same vein as the replay camera / film editor in Sega GT 2002, Sega has included a few imaginative new interactive components to the world of Jet Set Radio, most notably the fully-featured new "create a tag" editor. As you skate around the Tokyo of tomorrow, spraying the mark of the GGs on every street corner, you'll probably notice that there are five very distinct sizes your graffiti must adhere to. It's either extra small, extra large or somewhere in between. The tag editor grants you access to a slimmed-down version of MS Paint, gives you the ability to create your own spraypainted works of art in one of those five sizes, and allows you to import your creations directly into the game. As a graphic designer with a lot of experience with such applications, I was hoping for a bit more versatility in the editing software, but it is what it is. I found workarounds, and seriously enjoyed every minute I spent crafting these personalized marks. There's really nothing in the world like watching your on-screen character tag a building, quickly producing a work of your own design and leaving it behind for all to see. While it'll take quite some time to create something worth using in-game (and I can't imagine this is something everyone will do with nearly as much interest as I had) the end result is totally rewarding, and the whole system is a really cool little add-on. The game would've worked well enough without it, but I had a much closer personal attachment to what I was doing as a result. So, big ups to Sega for its inclusion.

As I'd alluded to earlier, the two areas that needed the least attention were the visuals and the audio, both of which were true shining points of the original, almost single-handedly responsible for its high profile and its accompanying success. On that front, not much has changed. This is still a visually sensational game, and although many of the environments and non-central characters seem blocky and undeveloped for the Xbox platform, the incredible strength of the character designs and art direction make up for it and then some. This is one of the most complete games I've ever seen, graphically. Everything a player could possibly get onto their screen is brilliantly detailed, with dozens of little surprises tucked away to keep the game interesting. I think I'd spent close to an hour wandering around a crowded city street on one map, before I noticed the not-so-steady stream of air traffic that would fill the skies every once in a while. The airport must've been two or three blocks beyond the edge of the playable area, too, because these things were flying low to the ground, and they were HUGE.

The only downfalls I can even imagine on the visual side of the coin are the occasional bits of slowdown (which are quite frequent, actually, if you get more than a dozen moving characters on the screen at any one time) and the mildly noticeable jagged linework throughout most of the game's borders. I'm tempted to not even hold those against the game, either, I enjoyed the rest of the visuals so much.

The audio is, on the large, a huge success. The tracks are entirely fresh, without a single tune I've ever heard on the radio, and almost exclusively excellent. Occasionally you'll stumble across a song that sticks out like a sore thumb, (one song in particular maddened me to no end... almost start-to-finish middle aged screaming Japanese woman) and that's a problem that the first game certainly didn't have, but such tracks aren't very frequent. I'd have preferred to have a functionality similar to that in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, (to continue the endless comparisons) which allowed gamers to single out tracks they didn't like and eliminate them from the active rotation, but a couple bad songs are really a small price to pay considering the quality of the rest of the soundtrack. The style and beat of the tracks range from completely ambient to overwhelmingly vocal, (Mike D of The Beastie Boys appears on several songs) but none stray too far from the central theme of youth, rebellion, motion and energy. As a result, despite the occasionally wild differences in genre, the tunes all seem strangely interconnected and help to further the identity and personality established for the game by the visuals.

Visual and musical choices aside, I was really let down by this game. Sega had such a firm foundation upon which to build an absolutely dynamite sequel, success seemed like a foregone conclusion... but where there's a will, I suppose, there's a way. And, much as it pains me to admit it, Sega's M.O. this generation seems to have been creating software that really isn't up to their old standards. While it's a blast to watch, Jet Set Radio Future just isn't that much fun to play most of the time, thanks to an incredibly shallow, inattentive, under-tested control scheme. The characters are difficult to identify with, since most of their brain waves appear to be flatlined, and the story is difficult to follow and non-motivating. Although I completely fell in love with the imaginative breeding of several genres in the combos and the outstanding inclusion of a create-a-tag function, (which I'd actually place above customizable soundtracks in my list of "really cool game-shaping add-ons") I can't look past the weaknesses of the rest of the package. Even if a game looks beautiful and sounds breathtaking, nobody's going to play it if the gameplay and controls aren't there. And that's just the case with JSRF.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 6.6

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