Jet Grind Radio
Sega's stylish and innovative masterpiece was worth the wait - Review By digitaltaco
Have you ever been on a family vacation? How about a family vacation to a location you despise? Have you ever been cooped up with the same four people for so long that you just felt like you needed to murder them all? I was unfortunately forced into subjecting myself to one of these experiences over the past summer, and I almost went insane. But two things kept me from losing my sanity: a little white videogame console called the Dreamcast and the latest import title from Japan, Jet Set Radio. I played through the title three times while I was locked up in that hotel room, and it was apparent that Sega had really produced something special. There was a sense of style present in Jet Set Radio that I hadn't felt since the first time I had played WipeOut. Jet Grind made my captivity away from my home, friends, and computer much more bearable. And even, dare I say, pleasant.
Fast forward to the present. Around six months after its Japanese release, Sega has just finished the American version of Jet Set Radio under the not-quite-as-cool name of Jet Grind Radio. Knowing that Sega of America was looking to add a few improvements to the American version, I ran out the day of the game's release, and picked myself up a copy. Was it worth the wait? Well, of course. But did the improvements make this already great game even better, or just put a damper on what was once wonderful? Read on, my friends, and find out.
There are plenty of great things to say about Jet Grind Radio, but I'll start with the obvious. When you pick up a copy of Jet Grind Radio, shove it into your Dreamcast, and begin to play, one thing will be more apparent than anything else: this game is beautiful. The graphics in JGR are unlike anything you've ever seen before on a console. Simply put, JGR looks like a cartoon. In the past, there have been titles (such as the Earthworm Jim series) that have been able to create a convincing "cartoony-look." But, never before has it been done so well, much less in three-dimensional space. While the graphics may look hand-drawn, in actuality, Smilebit, the company behind JGR, came up with a new technique called cel-shading which gives the title its unique look. The cell-shading technique allowed the creators to make models with mostly solid colors, and then add a thick black border around certain polygons. The result leaves a still screen looking hand-drawn. But when the game begins to move, it's like a cartoon coming to life before your eyes. All of the character models and backgrounds were created with a cartoon aesthetic in mind, and hence, the title looks like nothing you've ever seen before in a videogame. But what about pop-up and draw-in? There is a tiny amount of draw-in, but it's confined to in-game models, not backgrounds. So in the distance, some enemies, for example, may fade into the horizon, but the world is entirely intact. All of this is done with a constant framerate that seems to sit right around 30 fps. Slowdown is very minimal, and barely even worth mentioning.
The city night is aglow with neon.
So the graphics are unique and amazing. But what about style? As you've probably guess, Jet Grind delivers style in spades. One of the most important parts of crafting an artistic game world is having a story to tie the world together. In JGR, the player follows the hijinks of a gang of in-line skating taggers called the GG's who are trying to fill the city of Tokyo-to with their art. Unfortunately for our heroes, three other gangs are trying to roll into their turf. It's up to you, the player, to keep the other gangs at bay and to save the city from the plans of an evil corporation that is looking to take over the city.
Developing an interesting story and new graphical techniques will only get a game so far. Next, artists must be called in to come up with some stylish characters and locales. Each character in Jet Grind Radio is crafted with enough care to allow it fit seamlessly into the game universe. Whether it's one of the in-line skaters, a police officer, or a helicopter, each model is drawn in a manner that makes it look like it was just pulled from an animated film. Further, the character designs just ooze style. They have cool names, cool clothes, cool hair, and cool skates, and the game's animated accordingly. Whether it is in the character select screen, where the chosen skater does a little dance when selected, or in the game world where a full flip can be completed mid-jump from one rail to another, the animation is flawless and beautiful.
This sense of style overflows into pretty much every aspect of the game, including the interface and menuing system. Every menu is crafted in a hip, Japanese, graffiti-like, style. Menus are easy to navigate, and load time is minimal. The most inventive menu, though, is the game mode select screen. I suppose screen is not a good word to describe it, though. You see, a fully three-dimensional model of the inside of the GG's hideout acts as a game menu. By pressing either left or right on the analog stick, you move through the hideout to select different options such as the single player game, the tag-editor, VMU manager, the official website, and even a jukebox which can be used to listen to the JGR soundtrack. You can move through it quickly, thus it doesn't slow down play, and it adds just one more immersive element to the game. The character select screen works in a very similar way. All of the members of the GG's who are at your disposal can be seen chillin' in the hideout. You move between them in 3D, and then select the one who best suits you.
While many modern games have excellent graphics, very few seem to be able to nail down an impressive soundtrack. Jet Grind Radio, on the other hand, has one of the best soundtracks ever created for a videogame. The original Japanese release was filled with around 20 tracks from a few Japanese hip-hop, techno, and punk artists such as Hideki Naganuma, David Soul, and Guitar Vader. These songs are for the most part all great, and fit in perfectly with the style of the game. For the American release, even more tracks were added, while still retaining all of those from the original. We get a sampling from some American acts such as Rob Zombie, Jurassic 5, and Mix Master Mike of the Beastie Boys (who also just completed a few tracks for the soundtrack of Electronics Art's PS2 launch title, SSX). While the American music isn't quite as impressive as the Japanese selections, it's not really a problem because Sega didn't remove any of the music from the original release. The more the merrier, I say. During gameplay, music tracks are mixed together with DJ-like scratches so you won't ever hear a gap in the soundtrack... nice! The character voices are equally good. Some of the voices were changed from Jet Set Radio, which is odd because most of it was in English anyway, but the new voices are equally solid. Sound effects are crisp and also well done. Though they aren't spectacular, but they get the job done. Overall, Sega did an excellent job.
Tagging is easy, assuming a pack of police dogs isn't trying to chew your leg off.
So, at this point I've pretty much talked about everything this game has to offer, except maybe the most important feature of any video game: gameplay. Jet Grind Radio once again delivers by offering an experience so unique, you'll realize that you've never before played a game like it. One thing that the creators of JGR want to make abundantly clear is that this is an action game. It is not an extreme sports game or a Tony Hawk Pro Skater clone. And I promise you, it is filled with action. The basic premise is simple. You skate around the city, avoiding the cops, while trying to cover any rival gangs' graffiti with your own. Graffiti comes in three different sizes: small, medium, and large. A simple tap of the left trigger sprays small tags. Medium and large tags require you to perform controller moves with the analog stick, which are displayed onscreen. This can be difficult to do because often the police are right on your tail. Cops will come at you in different ways throughout the game. While there are the normal deputies and guard dogs which try to hunt you down, the game has a sense of humor. You see, police choppers will fire heat-seeking missiles at you. Groups of cops with flame-throwers will attack you. And later, when the evil corporation sends its goons your way, you'll have to avoid kamikaze thugs with bombs strapped to their chests and grenades in their hands. Who'd have thought that being a teenage tagger could get you into so much trouble?
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