Sega's first-party titles for the Sega Dreamcast have one undeniable quality unique to them: They turn heads and raise eyebrows. The reason for this is quite simple—Sega likes to shoot for the stars in attempting to achieve a new level of cool. Games like Crazy Taxi and Space Channel 5 were loud, fast and unrelenting, and each took a fresh, in-your-face approach to established genres—almost to the point where it seemed a new genre was created. But if there was anything negative about those games, it was the arcade-style presentation and gameplay, which made for somewhat linear experiences. Each game was a feast for the senses the first time around, but they seemed to sour just a bit with every subsequent session.
Jet Grind Radio is like the love child of Crazy Taxi and Space Channel 5. Take Crazy Taxi's gameplay, Channel 5's visual flair, and the music from both games, and you basically have Jet Grind Radio. Though the game can get repetitive, and the frustration factor is higher than it should be, Jet Grind Radio fares much better in the long run than its would-be parents. Sometimes the gameplay has a hard time living up to the graphics and music (which are phenomonal), not to mention a reckless attitude so explosive the game can hardly contain it. As a result, Jet Grind Radio doesn't play quite as fun as it looks, but it's still hard not to have a good time anyway.
It all starts up just fine, serving up a full platter of Professor K, the DJ of Jet Set Radio—a pirate radio station that functions to free the masses with music. This Professor K looks kinda cool, and he succeeds in charging the game with a quick burst of energy, but a little of this guy goes a long way. His later appearances throughout the game grow really tiresome as he rarely says anything sensical or provocative (much less funny), but we get to know this character much better than any of the others, so the game is able to get away with using him as an anchor. Once we're rid of the good professor though, the actual playing of Jet Grind Radio commences. You start the game by recruiting members into your gang, the GGs, so you can combat the other roller-blading, graffiti-spraying bad boys and girls for control of Tokyo. Building up your gang is done through events called "rival showdowns," and it's a good way to start. You get wanna-be hip-hopper guys and freaky girls to join you by playing a game of follow the leader. If you can match their skills—they're in, and they become selectable characters. It sort of works like an in-game tutorial (although there is a seperate tutorial feature outside of the regular game mode). It does a good job of refining your skills, and it prepares you for what lies ahead in the game. My only problem with it is that you don't have any control of the recruiting process, which quietly avoids some interesting gameplay possibilities. The game predetermines everything for you, and you can't advance in the game until you can aquire the next member that's lined up for you. Like the rest of the game, it's fun, but it's also very straight forward.
After the first two kids—Tab and Gum—join up, you can dive into the core of Jet Grind Radio. From the gang's hideout (a vacated garage) you can select from a variety of different things to do—a process borrowed from that horrible Dreamcast game, Speed Devils, though it fits more neatly into Jet Grind Radio. In the garage, you can change your graffiti designs (or design your own through an integrated paint program); access the Internet, where you can download graffiti designed by gamers from all over the world and upload your game ranking to see how your skills compare with other Jet Grinders; save your progress or even sample some of the excellent music in the game—all while the gang grooves to the funky tunes. (In fact, once the GGs are maxed out with members, the atmosphere in the garage is like an enormous party.) It's also from the homebase where you hit the streets and do battle with rival gangs. The territories of the various gangs, which sport names like the Noise Tanks and the Poison Jam, are laid out on a city map. Once you select which district you'd like to conquer, you pick a character and you're off.
At first, the object of the game seems simple enough. You skate around different parts of the city, marking your territory with graffiti and pulling off tricks along the way. You can also pick up Graffiti Souls—special icons scattered throughout the levels that unlock new graffiti designs. Then the cops come in, led by the maniacal Captain Onishima. Of course, being the vandal that you are, it's your job to keep as far away from the law as possible. Initially, all the cops chasing you around is kind of light hearted—it reminded me a little of the Inspector always trying to catch the Pink Panther, or the Coyote chasing after the Road Runner. Then the paratroopers armed with machine guns come in, then the riot cops with tear gas, then the helicopters, then the tanks—the whole tone of the game seemed to change as the cops went from bumbling fools with billy clubs to a military strike force. It's no fun tagging the side of a bus when a helicopter is behind you launching sidewinders, neither is covering a billboard with graffiti while a tank bombards you with shells. This jarring violence contridicted the game's cartoony appearance—Jet Grind Radio lost some of its charm for me when I realized that the authorities were out for blood.
Naturally, the game is trying to depict an oppressive society—one in which the gangs are the only truly free citizens—but should that come at the expense of the energetic, innocent spirit we see at the beginning? I felt the developers missed an opportunity at giving the game a big injection of humor by exploiting the relationship between the gangs and the cops, which might have worked as a love-hate thing—a both-sides-needing-each-other deal. Instead, the police are a bunch of trigger-happy, militant bastards that would rather shoot first and ask questions never. The game even delves further into the realm of the strangely serious by eventually ditching the cops all together in favor of gansters and hired thugs who like to scream, "Die!"
I guess all of this allows for more action than the game would have otherwise had with a lighter tone. That wouldn't normally be a problem for me, but the slippery controls and confused game camera turn the hectic action into one of the more aggrevating confrontations I've had with a game in quite some time. I don't like how control of the camera is given to the player instead of the computer choosing the most optimal point of view. Furthermore, I don't like how the camera control shares the same button with the spraying paint action. When things get hairy and you're trying to make a quick escape, the perspective can get messy in a heartbeat. Correcting the viewpoint with the camera button will put the camera behind the player, unless you're near a wall—then it moves to an overhead view. If you're near a graffiti point while you're trying to fix the camera, you'll switch the tagging perspective—not the sort of situation you want to be in when a group of mercenaries are hot on your tail, or if you're teetering on the ledge of a tall building.
Another factor that contributes to that throw-your-controller-against-the-wall feeling is the amount of trial and error that goes into clearing any given stage. I felt that this was especially unfair when you consider how the game doesn't allow much room for error. Sometimes it can take a dozen tries before you discover where you're supposed to go or what exactly needs to be accomplished, and it only gets worse as the difficulty increases. The game might even cheat a little to further your anger—like when the game cuts away while you're in the middle of a crucial jump to catch a rail in-between skyscrapers, just to show the reaction of the group of psycho killers you just escaped.
All in all though, the nice variety in the gameplay makes the journey worthwhile. For instance, after you take over another gang's turf, you then have to run them out of town by chasing each member down and tagging them with paint. I would have liked to have seen the rival gangs fight back in these cases instead of just running away from you, but it was still one of the moments in the game that I looked forward to. Other welcome breaks in the action come in the form of free runs through the city streets and one-on-one friendly races.
Jet Grind Radio is never so difficult that all seems hopeless, nor is it so frustrating that it discourages you from playing. It's the kind of game at which you want to keep plugging away until you beat it, and even then you'll have to play it again to pick up stuff you missed the first time around. I liked some of the story development, though the many subplots seemed to slow the game down at points. Worthy of special mention are the game's stellar 3-D visuals, which are rendered in cel animation form—giving the game a look and style completely different from anything else out there. Also, it's been a while since I've played a game in which the graphics and music are so dependent on each other—they really go far together in establishing Jet Grind Radio's unique flavor. The soundtrack is a combination of an original score and licensed tracks. Of the two, the original stuff is the most inventive and enhances the game more, but some of the pop tunes work well, too.
Jet Grind Radio shows us a new and fun visual style and combines it with great music and fast gameplay to create one hell of an initial thrill. There are a lot of things to do within the game, but sometimes it's more concerned with overloading your eyes and ears with color and sound than it is with trying new things gameplay-wise. You could even say it relies a little too much on the graphics and music instead of giving more depth to the game world and refining the suspect game camera. This is not to say that the graphics and music aren't worthy of such attention (because they are), but there were times in Jet Grind Radio when it needed just a touch more emphasis on making the game geniunely fun rather than making it just look fun. However, its high energy and outlandish vision are able to cover up for any holes a finicky gamer like me might find. Ultimately, Jet Grind Radio is another distinctive title from Sega, and one that could define what next generation games are all about.