Serving players with an all-out unconventional sports game without the frills and rulebooks of more mainstream titles, Deathrow will attack your senses with its testosterone addled battle cry, wreaking havoc on your senses. Weighing in as somewhat of a renovation to the stagnant Speedball series, fans of those titles are about to find themselves immersed in familiar territory. If you’re up to speed with those games, Deaththrow will likely be a welcome addition to your Xbox library. Fully embracing the ‘sleeper hit’ title, it is at times abrasive and often unwelcoming to younger players. Combatants throw middle-fingers with no regards to feelings, curse at every opportunity, and fill out an already dark background of Unreal Tournament-esque competitions in which lives are at stake for the sake of entertainment and drug lords are kings.
Beyond the tough exterior, however, is an addictive and sometimes challenging title that follows some key components of many popular sports. There’s a lot of violence. Everything from slide tackling to fist fighting is not only allowed, but encouraged. Afterwards, it’s customarily acceptable to demean your opponent utilizing foul language and following it up with yet more violence. That’s the basis for “blitz”, a sport that emerges from the underground and spreads like the plague. Teams of Ninjas with Black Dragons as their namesake/mascot will battle top-of-the-line police officers or a feminine species of underwater-dwelling creatures with superb agility, or an angered group of athletes from L.A., who have a punk-rock attitude and a score to settle with “the man”.
Oddly, Deathrow is clearly divided between two ideas which it would like to fully encompass, but it doesn’t seem to know which one to go with. At the beginning of the career mode, an option for either sports view or action view is given. While the player’s first impulse might be to move along, sorting through the menus and coming back to this once they’ve made up their minds, it’s not quite that easy. What the game doesn’t tell you is that whichever view you pick will drastically change the way the game is played. Once you begin the career, there’s no turning back to flip the option. It turns out, the camera adjustments contain more than just a different angle to view the action. Either one will alter the makeup of the arenas dramatically. Whereas the sports view makes for fairly straight forward level layouts, with goalposts on each end, as shown from an isometric perspective, the action view will bring gamers down to a third person view which features more complexity in level designs and is accordingly more challenging. Why there’s no option to change the setting once a career is underway goes unexplained. Both views work well enough, even if it becomes a little bit irritating once you’re midway through a season and just want to assure yourself that you haven’t chosen the more difficult setting, which seems to be the action perspective, due to its limitations in displaying large portions of each arena.
Athletes in the sport of “blitz“ are given a couple means of obtaining victory. They can either play an offensive game in which they focus on throwing the disc into a vertical hoop situated opposite of their opponents, or they can opt for the defensive route, aiming to chalk up a K.O. on each member of the other team. This means that strategy is going to play a crucial role, as the player upgrades their team using credits which are earned by scoring or inflicting injury on enemies. Credits are multiplied by the number of times you perform any of these actions, or when you collect credit pick-ups. These pick-ups alternate with other performance-enhancing upgrades such as speed boosts or momentum which can shift the favor in advantage of your team. Once you’ve amounted enough credits, they can be spent on players who’ve taken notice of your team and have hit up your inbox with requests to join on. This is how more powerful lineups can be coordinated, in the same way this progression is implemented in the Speedball games. Players can also be upgraded once they’ve joined, and their performance adversely affects sponsorships. In game e-mails will also be received which will enable the players to dabble in drugs, with some chances of unwanted side-effects. For example, you‘ll receive messages along the lines of: “We don’t know what the hell this drug might do. It fell off a cargo ship. It looks good though!”
The gameplay moves along at a decent speed, with the disc being hotly contested in lots of back-and-forth battles which involve a lot of interceptions and on-the-go strategic planning. When in possession of the disc, in action view, a line highlights the set passing route to the whichever teammate you’re facing. This proves to be immensely helpful in setting up one-timers or just trying to move the disc into the opposing zone. In sports view, passes tend to be directed to whomever your athlete is facing, which works just as well, since you can plot out bigger plays with the enlarged field of view. Players can set AI teammates to act according to 5 different strategies: they can go into attack mode, which is full defense; regular defense; neutral; offense; and full-on offense. Until later stages of the game these d-pad selections aren’t very important. Once the competition becomes a little more varied, however, it is essential to get the rhythm down and to know how teammates will react to fluctuating strategies.
Arenas, teams, players, and other assorted extras can be unlocked as you collect more credits from career mode, making Deathrow’s replay value sky-rocket. It’s also a decent looking game, so you shouldn’t have any qualms about returning to the arenas for some mixed martial arts and basketball with an emphasis on the ultra-violence. There’s really nothing quite like it in terms of pacing and feel for the game, as each match is separated into four quarters and the game can end either as soon as the enemy’s four places are knocked out or can drag on to be decided based on the score.
As anyone who has plays Deathrow will tell you, the action is intense and the gameplay is wound tight enough to keep things interesting throughout. It is truly the proper successor to the Speedball series, the spitting image of their gameplay concepts, only rendered in beautifully gritty 3D. While it will inevitably be remembered as one of the Xbox’s sleeper hits, it really should’ve been a stand-alone candidate for one of the best games on the console, period. What it lacks in true depth it makes up for with the kind of hardcore attitude that makes contact-sports so special. Because it’s able to tap in to whatever this key function is, Deathrow should be a top tier title. This game is going to be one of those timeless second-tier titles which could never catch its breath on such a crowded console, although it really should’ve been allotted so much more attention. It’s just that fun.