The games industry has seen its fair share of the unusual. Today’s market is a relatively homogenised one, with the FPS military shooter ruling the roost, but still there are titles that slip through the net and break the mould, giving us something we haven’t seen before; games such as Mirror’s Edge.
Back in the heady days of late2002, however, with the original Xbox about to celebrate its first birthday, innovative and developmental games were more commonplace. The sheer volume of games being produced for the Xbox and PlayStation 2 consoles meant that there were always going to be some oddities.
Now, odd or unique doesn’t always mean good of course. You only have to look at my various Gaming Fail articles for proof of that. However, every now and again something a little bit special makes its way into the market and gives gamers the chance to try something they’ve never experience before. Oftentimes, these sort of games have a fairly low key arrival, passing under the radar, at least initially.
Such was the case for today’s subject; Deathrow. Released in October 2002 by Swedish developers South End Interactive and published by Ubisoft, the game made not so much a splash as a light ripple in the industry, having a notably small advertising impact. At release the press campaign for the game consisted of a single page advert in the Official Xbox Magazine for a 3 week run and nothing else. Not exactly a big budget backing right and a fairly inauspicious start. This was perhaps the main reason behind the title’s modest sales record, with not a great many copies being sold worldwide, relative to the benchmark games of the time.
This lack of success is notable for the fact that it flies in the face of the critical acclaim and publicity it received. The gaming press at large gave the game, once aware of it, glowing reviews and a fair number of column inches. One might think it odd, then, that the game received such a mediocre buy-in from the public.
‘But wait!’ I hear you cry, ‘what sort of game is Deathrow?’
The answer is, as you may have guessed from the article so far, is slightly more complex than most games.
At the most basic level Deathrow is categorised as a sports game. It is, but in the same way that it’s true Michael Jackson was a singer; there’s a lot more to it than that.
In making Deathrow, South End Interactive seem to have taken a Frisbee, basketball, Blood Bowl American Football and a liberal sprinkling of classic stereotypes and thrown them all into a metaphorical blender and then hit the puree button. What results is a game quite unlike any other I’ve ever come across.
The basic premise is that IT’S THE FUTURE (of course…) and a new sport has appeared called Blitz, in which two teams (quite literally) battle to outscore each other in individual matches, set up in a league format. The way the matches work is that each team has a goal, which takes the form of an upright hoop (imagine a basketball hoop made of laser and flipped 90 degrees). The team gains a point by throwing the disc (a flying futuristic Frisbee) through the opposition’s hoop.
As this is a dystopian future sport, there are basically no rules, other than a time limit. This means the teams are free to beat the ever loving snot out of each other. What this translates to, game wise, is that there are two ways to win: outscore your opponent by the end of the allotted time, or beat the other team up so badly they have no players left capable of playing.
This results in there being 3 main types of team; the physically weak teams who have good technical skills, the teams who are absolute physical beasts but can barely throw the disc straight and the teams who are all-rounders, but trail the other two types in each discipline.
The teams are themed fairly interestingly, consisting of a variety of stock stereotypes. There’s even a team of ninjas because, well, ninjas…
Now, admittedly, my feeble description does no justice to how well implemented the game is. Matches are genuinely frenetic and on harder difficulties pose a real challenge. There are various gameplay features to add variety, such as a slow-mo camera for one-timer shots performed while jumping and power-ups around the area.
The league system is basically a ladder system, with the player needing to defeat the team above them to progress. As you develop and acquire money you can recruit new players, bet on your team, ply your team with drugs and, of course, heal injuries.
The game itself isn’t perfect of course. The learning curb is dramatic and the league progresses and the gap between difficulty settings is pretty cavernous. There is also a significant balance issue in favour of the physical teams, to the point where playing as a finesse team on the harder modes is virtually impossible.
That said though, the game is an excellent example of what can be achieved. It was, for its time, technically excellent, using bump mapping in the early days of that technology and was even one of the first games to utilise the Xbox’s custom soundtrack option, allowing you to play your own music during the game, which improves the experience tenfold. My recommendation? Listen to Disturbed’s Down With The Sickness album while playing like I did, it just works.
Games like Deathrow come along rarely and are often commercial failures. Unlike many Deathrow gained a lot of complimentary copy from the media in its day, but sadly this did not translate into sales or notoriety, which in my book is criminal. Perhaps because of its unusual premise, the gaming public did not pick up Deathrow and it sank into the depths of gaming obscurity, forgotten by all, it seems but me and the Wikipedias of this world, but it shouldn’t be that way.
It may not have been bought by many, but those that did pick it up, like me, will have had hours of fantastic gameplay and an experience quite unlike any other and for that I’m thankful.
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Paul Izod is a lifelong gamer. Since he was old enough to tap at his Dad's PC's keyboard he's been a gamer. Dedicated and often opinionated, you can be sure he'll always have something interesting to say about the subject at hand. Find him on Twitter at @PaulIzod or @FaultyPixelUK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org