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Staff Review - Death By Degrees (PS2)


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Video game spin-offs are nothing new, and several examples of this phenomenon can be found in the fighting game genre. Developers often seem to think that the usually-underdeveloped storylines of characters in these games deserve to be fleshed out further in titles of their own. Unfortunately, the results are rarely remarkable. One only needs to look at the disappointing examples of Mortal Kombat's two spin-offs on the PlayStation: Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat Special Forces, featuring Jax, to realize that sometimes there just isn't enough material there to justify the existence of a separate title.


Namco's Death By Degrees is yet another disappointing entry in the world of these spin-off games, featuring Nina Williams from the Tekken series as an assassin carrying out a joint mission between the CIA and Britain's MI6 agency. Nina is one of a handful of characters to have appeared in every iteration of the Tekken series - her appearance throughout the decades spanned by the series is explained by her being cryogenically frozen. Death By Degrees allows you to step into Nina's stiletto heels and carry out her mission, although you might not want to do either.


Death By Degrees' gameplay is a hybrid of the styles of a typical beat-em-up and a third-person adventure game in the vein of the first three Resident Evil titles. Between Nina's numerous encounters with enemy characters, there is a good deal of exploration and searching for clues which will allow her access to other parts of the world, which in this case happens to be a cruise ship. The gameplay mechanic still falls into the category of "find the key," only here Nina must utilize fingerprint scans to gain access. Unfortunately, finding the prints required for access is no easy task because of a clunky control system once again reminiscent of the first few Resident Evils, where wonky camera angles make moving around an exercise in frustration. It becomes even more aggravating when players are required to move stealthily, as in Metal Gear Solid, only to be spotted by an off-screen enemy who invariably calls in swarms of reinforcements


As for the game's fighting engine, the closest comparison to be drawn is with Jet Li's Rise to Honor. Rather than being forced to memorize an extensive move list, players simply direct Nina's attacks with the right analog stick, and the game does the rest. Combos are performed automatically in some impressive-looking attacks, but there is little actual skill involved other than the twitch reflex necessary to point in the direction of oncoming enemies. This was a curious choice on Namco's part, and while it was undoubtedly done to prevent novice players or those unfamiliar with the Tekken series from having to learn Nina's multitude of moves, it feels extremely repetitive and tiresome. It is especially strange considering the Tekken Force Mode found in Tekken 3 and 4, which features a very similar gameplay concept, albeit with players forced to use the characters' moves to fight and progress through the stages. It is an interesting idea, and certainly has more replay value than the mechanic in Death By Degrees. Nina will eventually gain access to various weapons and firearms throughout the game, but there is no more skill required to operate these than Nina's martial arts attacks.


One of the game's selling points is the attacks Nina can execute after having filled her "Focus gauge." After attacking the requisite number of enemies successfully, Nina can carry out a finishing move by pressing the L2 button. The game shifts into a Matrix-style slowdown effect and players can direct a cursor over an enemy's body, choosing which point to target with the move. The game displays an x-ray of your opponent, which is immediately followed up by a bone-shattering attack. Hearts explode, skulls are fractured - you get the idea. Although an interesting concept, even this feels like a rehash of Red Dead Revolver's Dead-Eye mode, and the x-ray effects are similar to those in the recent Fight Club game.


Graphically, Death By Degrees is a mixed bag. Character animation is, for the most part, reasonably well done. Considering that many of Nina's moves have been recycled from the Tekken games, Namco probably didn't have to do too much modification. The transition to and from finishing moves is almost seamless and is integrated into the gameplay effectively. Throughout the majority of the game, however, textures lack much of the detail one would expect from a game at this stage of the PS2's lifespan. Everything still suffers from the jaggies that have been the bane of many PS2 games. It's not unreasonable to expect a relatively high-profile release from a major studio such as this one to have gotten a bit more polish.


Finally, one of the biggest annoyances in the game is the noticeable load times. Every transition between sections of the game requires the system to black out the screen and load the next room. This even occurs in instances of Nina diving into water, when the perspective switches to a first-person diving mode. This seems inexcusable for a game today. But it's not just loading new rooms that take a while - every time you pause, check your inventory, or perform any other menu command, the game stalls for a few seconds. Especially annoying is loading the map, which you will need frequently. The map is inexplicably bound to the square button by default, and you will likely hit it numerous times without thinking, only to have to suffer through the load time again. It's a small thing, yes, but it adds up, and it does get tiresome.


Sadly, nearly every part of Death By Degrees feels derivative of another game. From major parts of the gameplay, like the aforementioned Rise to Honor, Red Dead Revolver and Resident Evil, to details like the music, which screams "Mission: Impossible 2 ripoff," and even the setting, which is reminiscent of levels in Goldeneye and Metal Gear Solid 2, the entire game has a "been there, done that," feeling. About the only really outstanding part of Death By Degrees is the FMV cinema clips, which are consistently excellent and live up to the high standard set by other Namco games. And for fans of Nina who like to ogle, there is definitely plenty of fan service as Nina cavorts around in bikinis, garter belts, and plenty of ripped clothing. Anyone else should stay far, far away.

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