January 03, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

Inside the Japanese Mob with ”Yakuza”

(Sega, PlayStation 2, Mature)
In the Land of the Rising Sun, every aspect of life teems with rich tradition, even — as we learn here — organized crime. This choppy (and chop-socky) game lifts the curtain on these Japanese mobsters — or yakuza — and makes them out to be just like other dysfunctional crime families. The main storyline is actually pretty compelling: You step into the role of Kazuma Kiryu, a tough but treacly ruffian who, after selflessly taking the fall for a murder committed by his best friend (who has since turned against him), returns to the fictional city of Kamurocho after a 10-year prison sentence and gets mixed up in a ferocious gang war that’s erupted over a pilfered sum of 10 billion yen. The dialogue, featuring voicework from Hollywood vets like Michael Madsen and Eliza Dushku, is solid (though it would have us believe that Japanese gangsters drop enough F-bombs to make David Mamet blush).

This adventure, however, runs into major problems when it strays from its engaging narrative and reverts to a run-of-the-mill videogame. Yakuza‘s action amounts to brief but frequent ”Battle Mode” sequences in which the game’s flow grinds to a halt in order for you to beat up various boilerplate street bullies and gang members. The fights themselves aren’t particularly difficult — you can win all of them by using the same sequence of button mashes — but they’re all infuriatingly repetitive and exhausting.

Not all of Yakuza‘s interactivity is a bore. One level features a car-chase shootout that’s refreshingly different than Battle Mode. You can also explore the streets of Kamurocho with a startling amount of reckless abandon. In this virtual sin city, you can gamble at casinos and pachinko parlors, imbibe at the local watering holes, talk up the ladies at one of those infamous hostess bars, and, um, admire the wildlife at strip clubs. (Did we mention this game was M-rated?) The prudish needn’t worry: There are no depictions of nudity. In fact, the only things that are shamelessly exposed are the game’s feckless fisticuffs. CGary Eng Walk

Star Fox Command
(Nintendo, DS, Everyone)
Any Star Fox fan will tell you that the popularity of this long-running franchise boils down to one thing: shooting. Which is why the GameCube’s Star Fox Adventures and Star Fox Assault, with all their awkward land-based missions, failed to advance the series. In Star Fox Command, players never leave the cockpit of the Arwing unless they’re navigating their ships through turn-based tactical maps (à la Advance Wars) — once their ships make contact with a missile or enemy fleet, the shoot-outs begin.

Command uses the DS touch screen for every aspect of control (except the firing of the Arwing’s weapons, done via the buttons). While this provides pinpoint accuracy for steering and aiming, the ship’s double-barrel rolling — accomplished by moving the stylus left-right-left — is too easily triggered, sometimes costing you the money shot. I have a wish list of features Command should have included — more diverse enemies, cooler bosses (remember battling Andross at the end of the Super Nintendo game?), in-game wingman interaction — but Star Fox Command, with its branching story and multiple endings, takes a small step the right direction. B+J.P. Mangalindan

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