Deathrow is an action-sports game that mixes elements of Speedball 2 and NHL Hitz to produce a delightful multiplayer spectacle of its own. I already knew this game very well, and after rediscovering it as part of my ongoing kick for the OG Xbox, my appreciation for its brutal charms has grown stronger than ever.
I’ll put aside the reason why for a moment to quickly introduce the basics. Deathrow presents a futuristic sport called Blitz where teams fight to control a hovering disc that they must hurl through an opposing goal for points. Like the movie Rollerball (which appears to be an inspiration here), violence is freely encouraged, with players able to injure their opponents to gain a tactical advantage.
Like any other sports game, the concepts of scoring and team play are handled well, but if you get bored of playing “properly”, it can be fun to ignore the scoreboard and simply beat your opponents into unconsciousness instead. If every member of a team is knocked out during a quarter, it results in an instant game over for them. Certain teams are built for exactly this type of strategy, with their slow yet brawny players more likely to deliver a beatdown rather than a scorching one-timer through an open goal.
Each quarter lasts two minutes (by default) and that two minutes is pure action all the way. Deathrow is fast, challenging, and a ton of fun. The controls will take some getting used to; punching and kicking can be imprecise and the AI players will stomp you into the ground if you aren’t ready for them. This is important because the many colourful teams are not balanced equally. The Crushers and the Demons are much stronger in combat for instance, whilst the Dragons and Sentinels are good at almost everything when compared to the miserable Marines or Disciples.
Every team has a distinct visual gimmick that makes them fun to look at. Deathrow as a whole looks good, in fact. For a widescreen sports game that features eight players in the arena at all times, the character models look really nice and the metallic arenas are beautifully lit. As fun as the game is to play, its presentation may yet be its strongest selling point.
Just look at the camera system that supports two diverse ways of playing. Sports view presents a traditional birds-eye view of the arena, whereas Action view places you directly behind a player to make the combat and general pacing feel more intense. Sports view has its charms, but the game was clearly designed with Action view in mind. Being able to see your throw lines in Action view is very helpful and although you have to guess when enemy players are running up behind you, the Action arenas have way more character to them and are generally more fun as a result. Either way, it’s great that both tastes were accommodated for.
Southend Interactive did a good job leveraging the Xbox’s capabilities for Deathrow. Away from the handsome reflections and bump-mapping, there is a system link mode that supports eight simultaneous players, and you can use your own ripped soundtracks as background music. There’s also a stacked Extras menu containing many unlockable items. Not all of them are interesting, sadly, but the fun multi-disc mode and the enormous number of playable teams still offer considerable longterm value.
The main attraction is Conquest. This is a fairly standard career mode where players must battle through an entire league of rival teams. There are some lite simulation and team management elements, but the Conquest mode is mostly a good excuse to build every team to completion.
Despite being the biggest feature of what I’ve already said is a fantastic game, the Conquest mode is also one of Deathrow’s biggest missed opportunities. The simulation elements are too lightweight for one. Upgrading your players amounts to little more than boosting their vague statistics and healing their injuries after a match. The message inbox tries to inject more depth through random events, whether they be bets, or experimental drug offers, or cash prizes for defeating certain teams.
All of that stuff is low impact though and earning money in this mode can be tiresome because there are several negative events that unfairly drain your cash reserves. Even worse is that these events scale with your total credit balance, so it’s perfectly possible to win big money from a successful match, only to return to the Conquest menu and find a vast percentage of it has been stolen by a hacker or used to cover up a sex scandal– which doesn’t even make basic sense if you’re playing as the robots!
Earning money damages the pace of this mode, but fortunately there is a cheat to give yourself a lump sum of extra credits. This trick only works once before you need to reset your Xbox, frustratingly, but it’s extremely useful for countering those stupid events.
The thing that rescues Conquest mode is the local multiplayer. Up to four players can drop in before a match begins, making this a fantastic option for cooperative-minded players. The prospect is improved even more by the abundance of settings that allow you to customise how the game is played.
These custom match settings are the reason why my appreciation for Deathrow has grown stronger. When I started experimenting with them, I discovered ways to make the game more balanced and enjoyable. By default Deathrow uses the “No Rules” option that puts no restrictions on fighting or scoring. It seems like a fun way to play at first, but it risks getting repetitive and boring. I can remember UK magazines of the time criticising the game for its wonky combat and slightly scattershot balance and I always found this to be true myself when playing without rules turned on.
After paying more attention to what each setting does though, I found ways to improve things. The Lockdown rule is the most important find. This rule punishes a player who attacks someone already on the ground by freezing their movement for several seconds. Enabling this penalty makes it harder for the aggressive teams to gain too much advantage over the weaker teams who can never completely avoid fighting to gain control of the disc. It also makes the entire process of fighting more tactical to begin with because you can’t just mindlessly spam the kick button on a downed opponent.
Disc re-spawning is another rule that encourages more tactical play as does turning off the distracting power-ups that trivialise the concept of healing injuries. Adjusting these settings made Deathrow a smoother game for me, to the point where I’m confused how the “No Rules” option became the default to begin with.
I’m not going to blame that for Deathrow’s poor sales performance because I think the game’s tone makes it obvious why that came to be. The violence isn’t really that strong despite what the advertising claims, but forcing in swear words comes across as juvenile.
This was the early 2000s approach to making “adult” games, I suppose, but it gets really tedious. Listening to a skinhead shout “ass wipe” is pure Beavis & Butthead toilet humour, and I really don’t need to hear the opposing team childishly exclaim “we’re getting *** in the *** here!” upon losing a quarter. It seems odd that there isn’t an option to disable this potty mouth considering there’s an option to tweak just about everything else.
On a side note, I’ve always thought the game looked unmarketable. The NTSC-U cover art has the tagline “Underground Team Combat” and a picture of a man holding up a bloody fist, but it makes the game resemble a beat ’em up rather than what it actually is. Likewise is the title “Deathrow” which doesn’t really mean anything either.
The charged throw a player can perform with the disc is technically called a “deathrow”, but aside from that minor reference, the game has little synergy with its own name. Look closely in-game and you can see signs that read “Blitz Disc Arena”; which was the game’s working title. It makes you wonder how far along development was when that change was made.
Being an Xbox exclusive wouldn’t have helped sales either, though I do remember having trouble finding this game in shops back in 2002. Perhaps publisher Ubisoft were reluctant to advertise it more than they did.
In one way it’s a real shame that Deathrow came along so soon. Xbox Live development kits were being distributed just as it was nearing completion, leaving no time to integrate online gameplay. This is something that could have done Deathrow a huge favour. The prospect of 4v4 matches involving eight different players over the Internet, perhaps with some team management systems and an online league, could have been truly awesome.
It’s certainly possible that Xbox Live would have made this a bigger hit than it was. Regardless, for those willing to learn its nuances, Deathrow is still one of the best Xbox exclusives money can buy and it remains a top tier choice for fans of local multiplayer.