Death By Degrees

Year: 2004
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Namco
Genre: Action/Adventure
Review Date: 6/15/07
Rating: **

A wasted opportunity for greatness. I've never been a fan of the "Tekken" games, although I do have a fondness for femme fighters Jun Kazama and Nina Williams. In a bold and inspired move, Namco decided to pluck Nina Williams from the "King Of The Iron Fist" tournament and put her in her own James Bond styled action adventure. Cooperating with MI6, she investigates a luxury ocean liner for clues regarding a lost ship in the Bermuda Triangle. What she ends up with is a dead partner and an endless horde of security guards to block her progress. The story gets progressively incomprehensible, but there are some nice "Tekken" tie-ins here and there, including (naturally) a run-in with Nina's sister, Anna.

I really wanted to like this game, as it has everything a female action fan could want. Unfortunately, it's crippled by poor execution, shoddy controls, and a punishingly hard level of difficulty. The combat controls utilize a system in which tapping the right analog stick causes Nina to attack in that direction. This allows Nina to move around with the left analog stick and attack opponents on any side of her. In theory this amount of flexibility is awesome, but in practice it falls apart. The controls turn out to be awkward, imprecise, and needlessly complicated. Nina has dozens of fighting moves at her disposal, but you'll only end up using her basic attack because all of her other moves are too difficult to execute. This is only exacerbated by the fact that the game doesn't allow you to hone and finesse your skills because you're too busy just trying to stay alive. The game consistently throws five or more opponents at you at once, and they're not shy about pummeling you all at the same time. Laughably, the guard controls are identical to the attack controls, which adds an unnecessary ambiguity. And there's no jump button. It's hard to respect a game that doesn't allow you to jump. Additionally, the notion of "tapping" a control in a high stress combat situation is absurd. I certainly do not possess the ability to lightly "tap" a control when I'm under pressure. Similarly, my mother has actually broken joysticks from pressing them too hard while playing "Pac-Man." We all know that pressing harder doesn't make you move any faster, but normal humans don't possess that kind of precision control when the adrenaline is pumping in a fight-or-flight situation. The difficulty ramps up sharply after only 10-15 minutes, and soon the game becomes unplayable. Then it's time to turn to third party cheat devices, but even with all of the cheats enabled the game is unpleasantly difficult. Ironically, the "infinite health" cheat doesn't seem to apply to boss battles, so you'd better be stocked up on health items. Adding to the difficulty are several mini-games and a handful of other characters that you have to protect. The sniper mini-game is a complete pain in the ass, made worse by the fact that you can't consume health items during it. The sidewinder mini-game has you piloting a remote-controlled surveillance helicopter, which requires considerably more dexterity than I can muster. Ultimately, the gameplay offers no rewards or satisfaction. Every confrontation is a desperate session of button mashing, and the relief of victory is immediately overpowered by the dread that you'll be doing it all over again in a matter of seconds.

While the combat scheme has taken the brunt of the criticism, "Death By Degrees" has plenty of other problems that cause the game to suffer. Most notable are the overly frequent loading screens, which break up the pacing of the game and disrupt any sensation of immersion. The music is pleasant enough, but it restarts after every loading screen, so you only get to hear the first thirty seconds over and over and over again. Adding another insult to the game's pacing, every time you unlock a door, you have to manually confirm the action. For the most part the camera is cooperative, unless you're trying to perform a stealth kill. Then it won't let you actually see where the enemies are. Additionally, if you switch to an over-the-shoulder view, you're only allowed to run, so sneaking up on someone isn't an option. The menu screen is also sub-optimal and the controls aren't very responsive. For whatever reasons, the game defies all logic and established conventions by making the "select" button pause the game and the "start" button bring up the menu. The in-game map is surprisingly cumbersome and not particularly useful, which is unfortunate because you need to use it a lot. And of course, the background music loop restarts from the beginning as soon as you exit the menu screen. All of these issues start to add up over time and ultimately suck the fun out of the game.

Presentation wise, the game looks great. The levels are large, colorful, and nicely detailed. The architecture is complex and ornate, and the ocean liner is beautiful to look at. Things get less interesting in the concrete blocks of the island prison Nina ends up in, but things never look dull or drab. The game has a nice frame rate and the camera movements never induce nausea. Nina herself looks great and animates well, and has several attractive outfits in her wardrobe. Laughably, when she has to pass through a metal detector she takes no chances and strips all the way down to a skimpy swimsuit (with heels, of course). Another nice flourish is that her outfits gradually take damage, providing visual reinforcement of her struggles. She has trouble with stairs, and like many games just slides across them as if traversing a plane. Up close, Nina loses some of her charm as her facial modeling is overly harsh. She does, however, have the ability to cock her eyebrows and smirk, which adds a nice bit of body language. The voice acting is competent for the most part, but often clipped and overdriven, making it unpleasant to listen to. The game also includes several pre-rendered cut-scenes in the "Tekken" vein that attempt to fill in the story. While they're pretty to watch, the handheld camera work is gratuitous and distracting, and much like "Tekken," the content is baffling.

On a side note, the rats aboard the luxury liner are actually on the dinner menu. Huh?!?

Overall, the relentless difficulty, awkward controls, disruptive loading times, and repetitive combat forced me to give up on the game after about eight hours. While I'm irked that I won't see the resolution of Nina's adventure, I have a sneaking suspicion that the story only gets more ludicrous and incomprehensible as it lumbers along. And by the time I quit, frustration and apathy had outweighed my desire for closure. Sorry, Nina.