Black & Bruised (PS2) - Jason Julier - 4/10

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Black & Bruised [game information] Version Tested: PAL Genre: Fighting Publisher: Majesco Developer: Digital Fiction

Since the leap into three-dimensional videogames, boxing has failed to take advantage of the new possibilities offered by this extra dimension. Just like its real-life counterpart, the sport has become a visual extravaganza full of prima donnas - all style and no substance.

Electronic Arts has developed out the consistently average Knockout Kings series, and the sadly defunct Rage managed to deliver the luscious Rocky, which arrived twenty years too late to take full advantage of the licence (and save the developer in the process). Boxing should be enjoyable and challenging without having to resort to the unbelievable moves of its beat 'em up cousins. Yet time and time again each release comes up shorter than Mike Tyson's bank balance - or should that be temper?

Black & Bruised is the latest contender to enter the rankings and has no doubt been influenced by the wonderfully arcadey - yet simplistic - 'Ready 2 Rumble' series. There are multiple moronic characters to choose from, and all hail from far-flung reaches of the globe: Kid is suitably loud and brash (or American, if you will); Pharaoh needs no explanation; likewise the bulky Bronto; and El Luchador seems to fancy himself as a Mexican wrestler. Gender equality sees the token inclusion of several female contenders, including Holly Vixen - a girl who wears more axle-grease than perfume - and she's joined by the usual Hillbilly and Japanese contingent. In spite of the adequate billing, no individual fighter is memorable, original or even remotely endearing; this is poor character design at its most stereotypical - a bunch of has-beens and losers. The incentive, therefore, to open up hidden characters is lacklustre at best.

The more Gamestyle played Black & Bruised, the more we realised this was decidedly a short-lived experience that should be priced competitively at £19.99. Anything more expensive would sustain the impression that this game contained degrees of skill, substance, and stupefying practice that would justify its price tag. By ignoring the standard convention of a career mode, Digital Fiction has removed any time-consuming onus to play the game. Benchmark selections such as Survival, Versus and Tournament are all present and reasonably correct; upon completing the latter (and at a prescribed difficulty setting) the player is rewarded with statistics of the tournament - there is no entertaining FMV closing or incentive to continue. With only a handful of fights needed to reach the final, one is left with the sinking 'Is that all?' feeling upon victory.

Black & Bruised feels like a limited project with no real ambition, scope or desire to achieve anything beyond merely being released. Outside of the aforementioned selections, the only real spark of ingenuity is displayed briefly through Boxer's Life mode. Here you can play through the story of each individual boxer, shown through appropriate cut sequences, which do serve to highlight its adequate engine. Alas, these only provide access to more rounds with various conditions attached; such as ten knockouts or only boxing one-handed. As the opponents lack any redeeming qualities, you have to question if anyone will bother. There is no opportunity to improve the attributes of a character, nor even create your own comical boxer - which would have provided some stimulus.

No genre it seems is safe from the visually impressive punches of 'cel-shading'. Everything in Black & Bruised is typically bright, colourful and retains the cartoon look of the visuals. However, outside of the innovative Jet Set Radio (and the forthcoming XIII), the outer limits of this technique have never truly been broached beyond mere exploitation. While the arenas are thematically based on the boxers, they look mediocre, and lack any outward movement or discernible features. In the case of Black & Bruised, Gamestyle would question the use of cel-shading. It brings nothing to this release other than a superficial attempt to differentiate the game from its rivals. It may boast facial animation, damage-modelling and pressure sensitive controls but really, underneath it all, these have little bearing on the game itself.

Thus far Gamestyle has delivered an unstoppable barrage of critical blows, but can the action itself save Black & Bruised? Well, in short bursts it can prove enjoyable and it does meet all the 'arcadey' prerequisites - however prolonged play shows up the flaws in its AI and power-up system. Dependent upon punches landed successfully, each fills up the power meter which can then be cashed in when full. Before triggering the effects, the player can take note of the icon on screen that will reveal the potential power-up. Refreshingly, there are several types on offer - ranging from defensive shields to health boosts and super moves. Each power-up is split into three levels, and here the player can judge whether to invoke level one or work towards reaching the superior levels. During fights it becomes more of a race to land as many quick punches as possible, and not to floor your opponent, because the power-ups are the true regulators of damage. Any tactical thoughts are shattered by the fast arcadey feel of the fights, which rarely allow a player to reach the upper echelons of the third level.

Black & Bruised is button-bashing at its best, as the boxers do not rely on a replenishing power meter for landing blows. Instead they are able to throw and land as many punches as possible; becoming more of a street brawl than any boxing match. The control system is well thought out with each button throwing a particular punch, but forget any tactical or statistical considerations before entering the ring. This is one release that will make up the numbers on the Playstation 2 and fittingly so.

Game Score: 4/10 Reviewed By: Jason Julier