As a movie, The Warriors is more of a sinister fantasy than an accurate depiction of youth gangs. Walter Hill's New York of 1979 seems like the feverish dream of a paranoid citizen fed his daily dose of crime stories in the local newspapers. Accordingly, the gangs which the movie presents have a certain cartoonish feel to them. With their fancy costumes and their strange way of communicating, they are exaggerations seen through the eyes of someone who cannot comprehend all the secret codes of youth culture. In order to maintain this dreamlike atmosphere, Hill leaves the streets of the city abandoned. His gangs of New York lack a context, a world around them. At least they did, up until Rockstar Toronto decided to transfer The Warriors into the realm of interactive entertainment.
Basically the game is a classical beat 'em up like Double Dragon or Final Fight and although it incorporates some stealth missions and various other sidequests, the main premise remains fighting other people. Structurally, The Warriors is less of a free-roamer than, say, Grand Theft Auto (GTA) , but is more of a mission based game with a straight forward progression. Storywise, it concentrates on the events leading up to the dramatic climax (which is the original plot of the movie) although it dibbles a little in the Warriors' collective past. Fortunately, Rockstar didn't feel the need to explain any further motivations or character traits and leaves the protagonists' inner worlds as enigmatic as they were meant to be. The movie was more about how rather than why, and so is the game. But as close as Rockstar stayed to Walter Hill in a lot of regards, one aspect radically alters the world of the Warriors : The notion of a brutal reality around them.
First of all, the streets in the game are not abandoned. Passers-by stroll through them, groups of do-no-gooders hang out together, policemen are patrolling. And the backdrop is no longer timeless but rather set in a very specific era. From the clothes of people, to the music blaring from radios, to the graffiti covering the walls (which are all original artworks by legendary NY writers like Seen, by the way), Rockstar once again proves their savvy knowledge of pop-cultural history. The Warriors have finally been given a context. And what a context that is. While the streets are alive with pedestrians of all sorts, the backyards of New York are filled with the poor and hopeless, lost souls abandoned by society with nothing to live on but a faint hope for a better life. I can't honestly remember any game that ever depicted poverty and social decline in such a detailed, unvarnished fashion. Drunk weirdos mumbling nonsense and begging for a bit of change. War veterans searching trashcans for food. Homeless men sleeping in piles of garbage. It is hell, a hell all too close to the real world that The Warriors depicts.
This unsettling feeling of decay and bankruptcy is matched and mirrored by the merciless nature of the brawls which take place before that hostile backdrop. The intensity of the fights in The Warriors is shocking to say the least. Bashing an opponent on the back of his head with a brick, pummeling someone with a billiard cue till it eventually breaks in half, kicking a helpless victim who tries to crawl away begging for mercy and a lot of other possible atrocities give the confrontations an almost nightmarish feel. It seems oddly out of place to talk of a "fun experience" in this regard. A grim thrill and an adrenaline-drenched sense of excitement may be better terms whenever the game sticks to what it is fabulously good at—creating a raw, unpolished sense of physical confrontation.
In reality, fighting that occurs between human beings tends to be far less organized than Martial Arts movies make one think. There is neither time nor space for an elaborate choreography. Accordingly The Warriors let me participate in very haunting, chaotic and improvised street fights, where no rules seem to apply and everybody takes every chance available to do as much harm as possible. This intensity is a key point in upholding the game's general aura of urban angst. If it weren't for a certain uncomfortable feeling whenever I engaged in an open confrontation with a rival gang, the game's eerie atmosphere wouldn't have worked that well.
Nevertheless, The Warriors has a few weaknesses. The controls can be a little unnerving when it comes to climbing on roofs and similar acrobatic adventures like leaping over gaps. Also some of the boss fights seem a little too comical and the camera isn't always on top of its game. But for me all these little flaws withered in the face of the astounding atmosphere. Rockstar Toronto took the movie they based their game on very seriously and managed to add a whole new layer of meaning to it. While the basic premise of The Warriors on the silver screen remains intact in its videogame adaptation, it is confronted with a gritty sense of realism, which gives the original artistic vision of Hill a whole new angle. And that, dear Mr. Ebert, is art indeed.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the XBOX version of the game.