Fact: there has never been a short ugly fat bird in a beat-'em-up. Fact: a United Nations mandate was secretly passed in 1993 to ensure that any women appearing in videogames would have to be 34DD, preferably blonde, sport a slightly sour glacial stare and never appear without figure-hugging attire. The less the better. With high heels. It's a little known fact that women fight better in four-inch stillies. All that rubbish like "my feet are killing me" and pretending to not be able to walk; it's all a giant ruse to lull us into a false sense of security just moments before delivering an almighty roundhouse boot to the nads. Nina Williams is quite probably mankind's greatest achievement, and now she's got a game all of her own to show off all her kinky outfits.
Having cut her cloth (and now having apparently run out of the stuff) in various episodes of Tekken-related jopypad-mashing chaos, it's evidently the right time to unleash her for her own spin-off game; a combat-heavy title which pinches liberally from all manner of familiar titles including Rise To Honor, Resident Evil and even Silent Scope.
Kicking the crap in full Surround Death
The setting is somewhat a sideshow to the main event of kicking 360-degrees worth crap out of endless goons, but involves tracking down some sort of stolen high-tech secret weapon. Playing what appears to be a fully finished build (although labelled 'Preview' anyway), we had a chance to plough through a decent chunk of the initial stages of the game, set aboard a large luxury Ocean liner replete with enough security to start a small war.
As a spectacle there's little to fault with the game, with a lively set of backdrops, incidental animations and a decent amount of detail coupled with a largely sensible third-person camera that you can force over the shoulder now and again if you're in need of a different view. As you'd expect, character models are both well animated and exceptionally detailed - if we'd were given less we'd be surprised - and getting to see Nina romp around in suspenders and the unlikeliest costume in gaming history is a truly perverse pleasure, in a sort of darkly humorous kind of way. The only disappointment is perhaps the lack of a progressive scan mode; something which made Soul Calibur II look astounding on the PAL PS2 18 months back. Still, no complaints here, on the whole, but we wish Nina's sussies were just that bit sharper, thanks.
Given the Tekken heritage, the combat's got to be good, right? Hrm. Well it's hard to judge adequately from only a few hours play. Let's just say it's got the potential to be good, but that early on the lack of challenge on offer renders the need for any actual skill or timing somewhat redundant. Essentially all that's been required of us to date is to whack the right stick in the direction of an assailant and let the game do the rest. Rather like the Sony best-'em-up flop Rise To Honor, Death By Degrees employs a twin analogue stick system where left governs your movements and right performs 360 degree attacks by simply pointing the stick in the direction of your assailant. Use of the shoulder buttons in conjunction adds a further combo layer, with a special attack assigned to L1, while a focus bar charges up to enable you to pull off a Critical Strike move when it's at its peak. At this point the screen quickly flicks to an X-Ray-style view, which shows you the exact point on the skeleton that Nina has targeted, and a slo-mo death move kicks in.
Stab stab stab, death
Although we're complete novices at the moment, very little of the range of moves you can pull off in the game have been at all necessary so far, with most enemies easily taken care of with just a few rapid taps in their direction allowing you to let fly with some very impressive looking kicks, punches, throws and sweeps. Easier still, on the odd occasion when one of the temporary weapons appears, you can dispatch them with a few shots of the pistol, or a whack around the head with baton. Enemies also spew forth various health power-ups with forgiving regularity, and as soon as our health bar looked under threat, there was always the chance to top it up. We're probably being lulled into a false sense of security, however, and fully expect the challenge on offer to ratchet up further into the game. Let's hope so, because much of what's on offer here quickly gets repetitive, especially when the exact same gaggle of enemies respawns the second you re-enter a previously cleared room.
Although its loud and proud Tekken origins would understandably lead you to expect a non-stop action game full of martial arts pyrotechnics, 360 DEGREE COMBAT! using BOTH ANALOGUE STICKS! where you get to lay the smack down using SPECIAL TEKKEN MOVES! such as EVIL MIST!, very quickly you realise the majority of the game is much more sedate than that, with more emphasis on stealth and espionage than you might initially expect. In fact the overall play mechanics bear more than passing resemblance to survival-horror titles such as Resident Evil and their ilk. Anyone familiar with these games down the years will instantly recognise how the game works once you've cleared the obligatory patrolling guards and supporting minions. Faced with multi-tiered levels full of locked doors, Death By Degrees quickly becomes a game about finding objects lying around in obscure places that sparkle to alert you that you need to pick them up. Supplemented by scraps of narrative clues to fill in the storyline gaps, it has a very familiar feel to it that makes it easy to slip into what's expected of you.
After a few early bouts of arse-kicking you realise you're not going to get too far into the ship's inner sanctum thanks to the proliferation of fingerprint scanners, which grant access to the patrolling guards of designated level. After sneaking through a roof hatch, though, Nina soon comes across a device which allows her to individually scan in prints from various sources. Around the corner a (presumably dead) guard's body lies slumped on the floor to provide you with your first paw print, which grants you initial access to A1 level security, and so it goes on. Through a nearby room an empty mug of tea provides another print, and it's with these that you can not only access rooms with the same level of security clearance, but their designated locker which goes on to providing other booty that ends up being useful elsewhere. Needless to say, it's this kind of inventory juggling and location hopping that dominates proceedings; pick up hexagonal object A, return to location B with slot for hexagonal object, giving you access to floor C, etc. For those of us used to the drill, it's a comfortable fit.
Scope for improvement
But in between the standard melee combat and puzzle solving are other interludes that help keep things fresh and interesting. Early on, for example, you have to help out an ally who's pinned down on the deck under intense enemy fire, firstly taking out the sharpshooter, stealing his rifle and then engaging in a spot of Silent Scope-style gaming, picking off a dozen or so enemies in the process.
Shortly afterwards you gain access to some infrared goggles, which allow Nina to see the security beams she must dodge to advance to the next section, while on the upper deck itself Nina can even take the plunge into the ship's swimming pool to indulge in a spot of object-hunting. No doubt these sections repeat themselves in more challenging parts of the game later on, but it gives you the impression that Namco was keen to throw as many things into the pot as possible to make the game feel a lot more varied and interesting than the average roaming beat-'em-up.
On the whole, although we harbour sufficient reservations to dampen some of our pre-release enthusiasm for Death By Degrees, we've been sufficiently impressed with enough of the game to want to keep going to see how things pan out. Concerns have crept in that some of the many disparate elements feel suspiciously half-baked, mind. The combat, for example, is not as immediately challenging as even the most casual player would like and hardcore beat-'em-up fans will be especially surprised at how lightweight some of it feels. But in terms of moves it's got more than enough depth to keep the Tekken contingent happy while not alienating the more cerebral gamer right from the kick-off It's a nice middle ground, but we're hoping the challenge does improve and that we're not driven mad by that old perennial bugbear; the respawning enemy. We've rarely been fans of this lazy mechanic, as it instantly takes the enjoyment out of the exploration. In this day and age gamers need more than the same bunch of baddies to kill while essentially whacking a single direction of a thumbstick.
Resident Evil: The Tekken Edition
Aside from this irritation, the adventure elements knit reasonably well, offering a modicum of brain-teasing, and a decent amount of satisfactory exploration around some well-rendered locations that look every bit as lush as we've come to expect from Namco's titles over the years. Blending several genres into a spin-off is a risky business, as there's generally a tendency to undercook crucial elements to try and keep everyone happy, but from what we've seen so far we're still open minded enough to want to see how the full game turns out. Can it get better? Check out our in-depth review in the lead up to the game's 11th March release date to find out.