Version tested: PlayStation 2
It used to be so simple. If you wanted to court controversy in a game, all you had to do was throw in a little anti-social violence or smutty sex and let the tabloids do their kneejerk thing. It worked a treat for Carmageddon, GTA and Manhunt. And who could forget the NES classic, Turbo Hitler Topless Nun Smash? Aah, those were the days.
Bizarrely, this urban adventure from fashion designer Marc Ecko has managed to be completely banned in Australia, while several US states have tried to halt its release, all because of an irresponsible excess of... painting. Admittedly, it's the sort of illegal outdoor painting commonly known as graffiti, which is a mite naughtier than the macaroni-and-buttons collage you made at school, but still.
Set in the quasi-futuristic city of New Radius, an oppressive concrete sprawl under the grip of a corrupt police state, you play as Trane, a free-spirited young buck with aspirations to be the best graf artist in town. To do this he needs to "get up" by spraying his tags and murals, raising his reputation and battling rival crews using spraycans, markers and - more often than not - fists, feet and whatever blunt objects are lying around.
We're introduced to Trane's world via a slick and stylish opening movie, set to loping hip hop beats and hyper-edited visuals, in which Trane walks among the blank-faced crowds, the sole spot of colour in a drab world. It's a bold statement of intent, and it sets up the tone and vibe of the game perfectly. Soundtracked by the likes of Rakim, Mobb Deep and Talib Kweli there's no denying the game has a more grassroots understanding of rap culture than most wannabe gangsta games.
The voice cast is impressive too, boasting Sin City hotstuffs Rosario Dawson and Brittany Murphy, Giovanni Ribisi (not a hottie) and even camp old Batdude, Adam West. The RZA and MC Serch from 3rd Bass also loan their vocal chords, along with some genuine underground graffiti legends, adding further to the hardcore hip hop vibe. A virtual iPod can be accessed from the menu, allowing you to dip into the superb soundtrack, but bizarrely this famously portable device can't be taken with you into the game - once playing, you listen to what you're given.
So off into the nocturnal city you go, spraycan in hand, scowl on your face. Defacing property is as simple as walking up to a surface, holding down the shoulder button and using the d-pad to select the piece you want to paint. Your artwork appears as a ghosted outline on the wall, and one button-press starts the paint flying. It's up to you to fill the allotted area with the thumbstick, making sure to not linger in one place too long to avoid cred-spoiling drips. Reputation is awarded based on your speed, the size and location of the piece and your precision. Smaller tags, stencils, stickers and posters can be slapped up quickly, and form most of the secondary objectives in each stage.
It all sounds excitingly freeform, but despite a thematic obsession with creativity and mad skillz, the game itself is a fussily linear and restrictive experience. You don't get to design your own graffiti, and there's no penalty for simply using the same designs over and over again. Holding down a button to colour between the lines soon becomes a chore rather than a thrill and, for a game that's all about graffiti as expression, the artwork itself is frustratingly out of your hands, more of an afterthought than the heart of the game.
The levels themselves are broken up into small chunks where progress is simply a matter of locating the primary spray spots and hitting them. Trane can clamber up pipes, balance on beams and shimmy along ledges like some hoodie version of the Prince of Persia, but the controls are nowhere near responsive enough to pull it off. The rogue camera certainly doesn't help. Finding the way forward can require some serious right-stick wrangling and many murals are rendered almost impossible to complete within their time limit thanks to forced viewpoints that leave you unable to see which tiny portion of the outline you've yet to fill. Characters pop through scenery, tiny cardboard boxes form impassable barriers and there's a disconcerting rough-around-the-edges feel to much of the proceedings.
Clambering over buildings and filling murals is only half the game though. There are rival crews at work, as well as security guards, cops and bystanders. Yep, you've got to fight and here the game tries to ape the Def Jam Vendetta brawling style, to limited effect. Punches, kicks and grapples are the three basic attacks, with certain items - planks, metal pipes, baseball bats - there for the wielding.
Once again the stiff controls and inebriated swirling camera prove a hindrance, especially as the foes become steadily tougher. By the time the game dumps you in a stage that requires you to tag walls in plain view, while avoiding cop patrols and security cameras, the combination of stealth and combat proves too much for the game engine and you'll be left picking up the pieces of a smashed controller as the respawning lawmen gang up on you time and time again.
Considering so much of the game is driven by the idea of building reputation by being the best, this sloppiness, the often clumsy character models and bug-ridden jerky environments all fly in the face of the attitude the game works so hard to project. And it's a real shame, as the concept and style is second to none. It's a cool concept, but the execution steadily chips away at your enjoyment until a parade of poor design decisions leave you with something of sadly limited appeal.
Contents Under Pressure certainly walks the walk, but when it tries to talk the talk it falls a bit flat. You can't fault the presentation and all important street vibe, but you can fault the feeble level design, fudged controls and lousy camera. Dedicated hipsters will probably be blind to these oversights, making it better suited to poseurs than gamers.
6 / 10