Ever encounter one of those games that you're convinced hates you despite all of the love you try to give it?
This is one of those games.
There are things that Death by Degrees would like you to know, and that it would rather not have you know.
Death by Degrees wants you to know that it's a hardcore rock-'em, sock-'em action game, starring Tekken's Nina Williams, which contains a gripping espionage plot, an innovative combat system, and a deep analysis of the main character.
What Death by Degrees does not want you to know that once you boot it up, it will fight you every step of the way. It is a game that you play much the same way you attempt to play a complicated instrument; every time you think you are proficient at the title, there is always another hurdle for you to jump, and every time one of these hurdles is discovered, you ask yourself if it's really worth the trouble it takes, even with the beautiful music you end up playing.
The story centers on Nina's tenure in the CIA; she and two MI6 agents are sent to infiltrate a cruise ship run by a weapons-smuggling organization by way of a fighting tournament being held there. A super-weapon has just been completed; plans are to sell them to the highest-bidding terrorists for a whole lot of money. It was supposed to be a covert mission; however, you're thrown in right at the point where things start gong horribly wrong, and now it's up to Nina to clean up the mess the best way she's been trained how.
What follows is a Metal Gear Solid-esque romp through intricate facilities, such as the aforementioned ship and a prison complex; only with much less stealth, and much more killing ... and just as many card key-type mechanisms which come in the form of fingerprints that enable varying levels of security access.
It's a formula for a good, fun game – which is, sadly, clad in most of the shortcomings of a bad one.
The presentation is above adequate for a title that demands so much of the PS2, especially during the action sequences when Nina's forced to fight wave after wave of enemies and guards, which may or may not have their own special gear to carry around. During these multi-man melees there is no slowdown whatsoever, and the action is clear and fluid. There are some points in the game where the polygon count drops to scary, PSX-esque levels, but these are few and far between. There's little in the way of graphical bells and whistles, but nothing looks bad, either. It's all cohesive.
The soundtrack, while a decent rock mix, is actually very limited, and you'll be hearing the same tracks before long, for fight scenes, for cut scenes, and for the actual game portion, which is fittingly more subtle than the action parts. It actually creates a nice sense of routine, but people looking for epic soundtracks should look elsewhere. The theme song in the opening video is quite nice, however, and catchy as all get out.
Sound effects are dead on; weapons have realistic sounds attached to them; gunshots sounds vary with the type of gun used; swords clang against and cleave their targets; tonfa and stun batons smack against and shock whatever they're laid against. Even melee attacks have their own aural identity, from basic kicks to the bone-shattering power attacks. The English voice acting is also very well-done (well, I liked it, at least), and lends character all the way from Nina, her cohorts and enemies, to the lowliest of guards.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, these are consistently the best parts of the game. Witnessing it in action is a joy; it is playing it that the frustration appears. There are three things here that, by themselves, only mar the overall enjoyment of a game; however, when their powers are combined, they create a force that makes you want to throw the darned thing out of the window.
The most glaring flaw is the in-game camera, which is spastic to say the least. Good luck getting it to do what you want it to do, ever. The game has two views, both third-person. One is traditional, the other is behind Nina's shoulder. In the traditional view, the camera is uncontrollable, and changes to it are only triggered when Nina moves too far in a particular direction. Often the camera centers on things that are inconsequential to Nina's progress; she'll be fighting hordes of thugs in front of her, yet the camera will be merrily centered on the empty surroundings to her rear.
The camera is slightly more controllable in the shoulder view; unfortunately, there are many parts where the shoulder view becomes disabled (and a corresponding icon will appear in the corner of the screen), resetting the camera algorithm, and often affecting directional controls until the player is forced to reassert the camera on their own.
This is a big thing, because the controls by themselves are no picnic, and having them affected in the heat of battle or exploration by the camera just makes things worse.
Ah, the controls. They start out nice and fun enough – activated by pressing the right analog stick in directions to attack, and on the left stick to dodge. Nina also as a power attack meter that, when filled, allows her to shatter an opponent's bones, doing major damage. Unfortunately, the game only starts out his easy. As Nina gains experience and techniques (which are purchased through the game's menus), her controls get more and more unwieldly, requiring presses and rotations of the sticks and shoulder buttons, to the point where I wished that I had a few extra fingers to work with. The complications never let up, and no matter how proficient at the engine the player gets, it always gets worse, to the point where it's easy to give up altogether--and no jury would convict the player who does so.
Finally, there's the game's sluggish pace. The load times are the biggest offender; as much as I complained about it in Suikoden 4, it's even worse here. Every room (and there are a lot of them) that Nina enters requires about 10 seconds or so of loading at minimum. Every component of the menu screen also has loading time of its own. There's loading between cutscenes, and after you die and restart. It's times like this you wish every system had a hard drive.
What's worse is the game-saving system. It's nice from a story standpoint, but the saves, while not few and far between, are incredibly hard to find at points, and the mechanism (which uses a detector that tells you whether or not you're "warm" or "cold" relative to its location) is misleading more often than not. It may say that you're near a save point, only it's behind an inaccessible wall on the other side of the building. Should you lose and haven't been able to save for a while, you're thrown back to the last point you did save. It's very easy to lose upwards of half am hour's work this way, and it will make you scream.
The game does have its perks – it's fairly fun (though always a bit of a chore) when one does get a hang of the combat system, and the story, when it does move, grabs you by the cuff and doesn't let go. It contains a lot of fanservice, in more ways than one. Nina goes through the entire game with her clothes ripped in "strategic" places for some reason or another, and her chest is given a bounce straight out of the original Dead or Alive. For fans of the Tekken universe, this is their chance to get some backstory regarding the Williams sisters, up close and personal. You'll even be able to unlock an Anna mini-quest once you're done with Nina's, along with a smattering of other extras.
The good news is that, with Death by Degrees the "fighting game character spinoff" concept has come a long way since the likes of Mortal Kombat: Mythologies and Special Forces. It solves a lot of problems that previous titles of this genre have had over the years. The bad news is that it creates all new ones, which end up being just as bad or worse.
There's honestly a good game in here, however, not a lot of players will be able to get to it. It's like a Tootsie Pop, only the sweet chewy center is covered by the bitterness of gameplay mechanics and camera troubles. Whether or not you will be able to get to and enjoy the center depends on how much of a tolerance for frustration (and how ambidextrous) you are. Rent this one to see what it's about; buy only if you're one of the lucky few who don't end up getting put off.
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