Jet Grind Radio
Fast, hip, and beautiful, Sega's latest looks set to please - by BenT
Say what you will about Sega, but there's one thing you have to admit: they are the undisputed kings when it comes to original, arcade-style games. Their history speaks for itself, peppered with unique hits like Space Harrier, Shinobi, Golden Axe, Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter, Virtual On, Crazy Taxi, Samba de Amigo, Emergency Call Ambulance, Jumbo Safari, Brave Firefighters, 18 Wheeler American Pro Trucker, and many more. Each game offered something new to its respective genre, and in some cases, created an entirely new type of gameplay. Is Crazy Taxi a racing game or an action game? It's a bit of both, really, and that's part of what makes it great.
Sega development team Smile Bit (formerly known as AM6) looks ready to follow in this proud tradition with their latest original Dreamcast title, Jet Grind Radio. The game follows the adventures of the GG's, a ragtag band of rollerblade punks ("ruders") in the slightly-futuristic Japanese city of Tokyoto. Tokyoto has the distinction of being the home of Jet Set Radio, a pirate radio station run by the enigmatic DJ Professor K. JSR helps the gangs chill by broadcasting the hottest underground tunes, and also performs the important task of keeping them up-to-date on the latest activities of the local law enforcement.
Unfortunately, it seems that the GG's are having their precious turf encroached upon by the city's three other organized gangs: the Love Shockers, Poison Jam, and the Noise Tanks. Each has their own distinctive style: the Noise Tanks dress like robots, Poison Jam has monster outfits, and so on. A lot of the game will be spent skating around Tokyoto and tagging over the other gangs' graffiti logos. After all, imagine how embarrassing it would be to have prime GG turf covered in the girly tags of the Love Shockers. Unthinkable! Make no mistake, this is war, and the GG's intend to win it.
There's a lot more to the game than just tagging scenery, though. Your illicit activities are sure to draw the attention of the local fuzz, and saying these guys are hardcore is an understatement. They'll stop at nothing to prevent you from defacing city property, and they have no qualms about the use of lethal force. Police Chief Onishima is particularly dangerous -- you know it's time to run when he appears on the scene with his immense .44 Magnum! Luckily for your punk ass, the levels have built-in escape routes you can use for a tempory reprieve from law enforcement. Temporary is the key word, though: you'd best get back to the business of tagging before the cops regain their collective wits, or another harrowing chase will ensue.
There are also numerous other challenges that help to keep the game fresh, a prominent one being the recruiting of other members for your fledgling gang. From time to time you'll meet up with a prospective member, and they'll put your skating skills to the test to see if you're cool enough to hang with them. Pass the tests and they'll join your gang, becoming a playable character in the process. As the GG's gain notoriety, prospective members will begin dropping by your headquarters to issue harder and harder challenges. If you've got the skills, you'll have amassed quite a posse by the end of the game.
Another interesting feature is the ability to customize the graffiti that you're spraying on every surface. The game has dozens upon dozens of tags that you have to earn during the course of gameplay -- once you grab a graffiti's token, it's yours to use. Like the tapes in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, some of these tokens are damn hard to grab, requiring almost superhuman levels of skill and dexterity. But as Tony Hawk proved, getting these can be half the fun. Even more interesting is the ability to create your own tags, either using the built-in paint program or by importing standard JPEG graphics off of the net. Simply fire up Jet Grind's integrated web browser, surf to a graphic you like, and download it to your VMU. Just like that, you have a new tag you can use in the game. I'm already getting sick ideas of what I can do with this feature; the possibilities are great!
While I just made a comparison to Tony Hawk, Jet Grind Radio is actually quite different from Neversoft's little masterpiece. For one, the tricks system is not nearly as involved, and in fact just amounts to catching as much air as you can, at which point your character will bust out a slick move. What's more, the physics and tricks are even more exaggerated than they were in Pro Skater, meaning there's some crazy stuff you can pull off if you have enough speed. Oh, and did I mention that your character can jump three times his own height? Yep. As you might imagine, that helps quite a bit.
The most striking feature of the game (hey, I saved the best for last!) is definitely the graphics. Jet Grind Radio was the first announced game to use a technique called cel-shading. I say "announced" because Infogrames's decent kart racer Wacky Races actually beat JGR to store shelves, but that's splitting hairs. In any case, cel-shading basically amounts to drawing thick black lines around the outer edges of the polygonal characters, which results in a surprisingly fluid 2D look, but with all of the inherent advantages of 3D. If you haven't played Wacky Races, the best comparison would probably be to the PlayStation's Parappa the Rapper or Um Jammer Lammy. Still, they won't even begin to prepare you for the graphics bonanza that is Jet Grind Radio. A combination of cel-shading and innovative, kick-ass graphic and character design creates a game that looks like no other. Games like this prove that you don't need 10 million polygons to compete with the graphical muscle of the X-Box and PS2; you just need innovative technique and a great flair for style. Jet Grind delivers both in abundance.
So, when will JGR be spinning in your Dreamcast? It's one of Sega's big holiday titles, so you can expect to see it in stores just a little after Halloween. The American version will feature an extra area that was not in the import, as well as some new music from the likes of Rob Zombie and Jurassic-5. (Thankfully, the new tunes will not replace Sega's original funky beats.) From what we've played, the game is a complete blast, and it'll seem even better when compared to the rather uninspired launch titles of the PS2. Believe you me: with this and other excellent titles on the horizon, this is a great time to own a Dreamcast.
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