Any conversation about Wreckless: The Yakuza Missions begins with graphics. No matter what else we can say about it, this game looked absolutely awesome for its time. Consider the lighting effects; the damage physics; the sunlight brightly reflecting with gaudy lens flares and cinematic motion blur. All of this in a 3D re-creation of Hong Kong with hapless civilians darting everywhere and interactive scenery just begging to be destroyed by your speeding vehicle.
In fact, Wreckless is a unique case where a video game looks too good. The game has a very low internal resolution to keep those monstrous visuals running smoothly. This results in a grainy presentation that’s harder to appreciate on modern televisions (even when forced to boot in 720p). On a CRT television in 2002 though, there’s no denying how jaw-dropping this overproduction looked. It was certainly one of the premier launch titles for demonstrating the raw power of the Xbox in those early days.
Wreckless borrows its formula from Climax Entertainment’s Runabout series where players tear up the streets of a famous city in various mission-based races. It’s an arcade game at heart, with scenarios that usually involve smashing into other cars whilst dodging traffic and navigating the labyrinthine streets of Hong Kong.
Whilst its spectacle can’t be denied, the game is nevertheless infamous for its clunky handling that puts vehicles in constant danger of tipping over. There are many frustrating missions whose various objectives are all strictly timed. One requires players to perform aerial stunts to reach predetermined spots on a pier. It’s a soul-destroying exercise to be sure. There are no easier difficulties for those hoping for a reprieve; just some harder modifiers that don’t even register on the high score screen.
The fast and furious nature of certain missions does create some enjoyable moments, as do the unlockable cars and shortcuts that lead to faster completion times. Nevertheless, players need an iron will and buckets of patience to endure the frequent pratfalls and unreliable navigation aids.
Wreckless bungles many more aspects of its presentation. One small example is the first option on the pause menu being to retire mission — be careful around that one! The lack of autosave forces players to exit two menu screens just to record their progress, and even something simple like changing the music volume is fiddly.
More egregious is the lack of a free roam mode. It’s harder to appreciate the environments when you’re forced to view them during a hectic mission with limited time. It might sound quaint in 2021, but a free roam mode would have been a welcome novelty in this time before the Grand Theft Auto-inspired open worlds had become the new standard.
Cruising around this beautiful city whilst enjoying some carefree carnage would also make the replays more attractive. Wreckless is very keen on replays featuring special effects and filters that can be saved to the Xbox’s hard drive. It’s a cool feature let down by the obnoxious slipping sound of the car tires, as well as a lack of custom soundtrack support. Another problem is that intense mission difficulty which can make capturing a compelling replay more trouble than it’s worth.
There are only 20 missions in total, so Wreckless also suffers from pathetic replay value. The thin story is played for cheap laughs (not that it’s particularly funny), and a promising multiplayer mode was sadly scrapped during development.
Whilst the game was originally an Xbox exclusive, ports to the PlayStation 2 and GameCube were released towards the end of 2002. Interestingly, these ports were re-coded from the ground up by UK developer, Stealth Studios. The graphics were toned down to achieve a cleaner presentation and there are adjustments to the physics and handling, as well as several new missions and vehicles to improve replay value. I’ve not played these versions before, but the changes certainly sound positive, so maybe I’ll try them someday and see for myself.
Because in spite of its obvious flaws, I do have something of a soft spot for this annoying little game. There is a certain pick-up-and-play mentality here that reminds me of Crazy Taxi’s quickfire thrills, even if the entire thing can be finished in a day or two. It outs Wreckless as the typical launch title cliché. It’s representative of many early console releases: an effort whose raison d’être is to look pretty whilst having almost no depth whatsoever.