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Taking It To The Streets
If there’s one thing I have to give props to GameKiss for, it's their attempts to publish games that don’t fall into the norm. At the same time, however, some of these games kind of fall short of the potentiality that they represent. For instance, Valkyrie Sky was a great MMO but at the same time it fell short of a lot of the great concepts it represented to the community of massive multiplayer online gaming. The exact same thing can be said of Freestyle, the MMO sports game that was once hosted by Sierra and is now headed up, globally, by GameKiss. Freestyle features the standard-fare leveling, stats, skills and so on and so forth of what you would expect from an MMO but with the added real-time gameplay of an arcade basketball game. Sounds cool right? Well, on paper it sounds awesome but in practice it draws up more fouls than slam dunks.
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JCE Entertainment spared no expense to include some original stylistic elements into a street-ball based online sports title and the whole conceptual implementation pays off well with convincing aesthetics, characters, clothing, accessories and even the game modes.
It’s impressive that the game has a fleshed out multiplayer component and an equally satisfying series of single-player modes to help players hone their skills. A full-fledged tutorial is present for new players and mission-based assignments are optional ways to help increase player stats and earn points, much like Invictus’ Project Torque or Reality Gap’s BattleSwarm: Field of Honor.
In addition to mission-based assignments there are standalone Episodes that feature progressive-story based missions involving the preset characters on the game. Players can pick a male or female baller and play through various storyboard events involving the selected character. It’s a good way to familiarize oneself with the different playing styles, as well as testing one’s grit through varying challenges.
In the case of conceptualizing an idea and implementing it into a thematic, sports-MMO package, I definitely can’t put a pin in the balloon of the developer’s efforts. However, it’s a sad shame that the rest of the game doesn’t quite live up to that standard.
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The problem in Freestyle is that it’s a poor game designed on top of an amazing concept for an MMO. While at first glance it seems like the controls work well and the gameplay is fluid and adaptive. However, after putting in more time and desperately trying to understand the game’s varying classes (conveniently broken down into guards, centers and forwards, each with their own pros and cons) there’s a startling realization in the game’s core mechanics: they’re just too amateurish.
Unlike the old 2D arcade title, Street Hoops, which was fast and somewhat obnoxious but cleanly designed with fluent controls, Freestyle lacks fluidity for certain in-game transitions that should be smooth. For instance, it’s horribly difficult to judge where to jump for rebounds since there’s no way to properly angle the camera. When using certain skills, such as the one to dive for the ball, the character(s) will inadvertently dive in the wrong direction even when pressing the appropriate button.
Stealing the ball is a wild shot in the dark most of the times, as most players will just crowd around flailing their hands in hopes of knocking the ball away from opponents. This is not to mention that blocking shots is almost entirely left up to the host’s latency. Yes, if the game is laggy expect to miss a lot of shot-blocks.
The core game should have been tightened much more than what it was. The poor playing mechanics will be sure to drive many players away, especially given that there’s no real way to fine-tune the control sensitivity, similar to games like Project Torque.
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It’s not all bad in Freestyle, though. When performing simple maneuvers it’s like smooth butter sliding off a warm platter. Passing in the game nearly works like a dream, and the more advanced passing skills usually go off without a hitch, when it comes to functionality. The shooting controls are about on par with what you might find in any standard NBA game, and running around to guard opponents is operable enough.
However, pulling off complex moves (like diving for the ball after a rebound, trying to grab rebounds or setting up to block a shot) is like moving a mule up a ten foot hill made of manure. It’s a messy result of ill-timed animations and bad responsiveness. The control scheme itself is not to blame, but the reaction time of the characters, the adjustment of the animations to the position of the ball (or ball carrier) and the overall lack of character fluidity for getting around the court.
In a sports game like this, the controls and the in-game play should have been the prime targets of quality-driven design. When the two most important aspects of a game is on its knees and nearly broken, it ultimately renders the entire play experience frustrating and mindfully exasperating.
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Graphics And Sound
Strangely enough, despite the game’s lacking fluidity in controls and pacing in gameplay, the graphics and sound are pretty much spot-on. In fact, Freestyle has one of the most enjoyable video game soundtracks I’ve heard in a very long time. Gamers who enjoyed Sega’s Jet Set Radio Future will definitely hear strong similarities in the Freestyle’s soundtrack, as the game sports a mixture of hip-hop tunes, breakbeats, and funky jazz music. Seriously, the eclectic mix of tunes from Mr. Sync, Sataan, Pe2ny and many other underground, international musicians is one of the best mixed soundtracks out there. If you’re the kind of gamer who remotely enjoyed some of the tunes from Jet Grind Radio or Jet Set Radio Future, the soundtrack of Freestyle is definitely worth checking out.
The character designs and visual style of the game is nothing worth knocking, either. Freestyle houses a cel-shaded look (no doubt, with a similar color grade to S4 League and, you guessed it, Jet Set Radio Future). The characters have an edgy design and the assortment of clothing and accessories in which to outfit the characters with is quite impressive. Players can modify their character’s height, weight, skin tone, face, hair and gender. As players move up in the ranks it becomes increasingly difficult to find clones. If I had one complaint about the visual style of the game, though, it’s that the resolution gets a little jagged in-game at a distance, other than that the visuals are great.
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In a game where players are forced to party together to form three-person teams and face off against other players, it would seem like a game like this would have tons of player interaction, feedback and high spirits among players. However, it’s anything of the sort due to a few faltering flaws on the end of the game’s design. For one thing, there are a ton of young players who are on Freestyle, and they don’t take into account that they’re actually playing with other humans. This results in tons of ball-hogging, lots of name calling, and plenty of players cursing out teammates when the opposing team scores.
One way of alleviating this problem could have been to force players to go through mandatory teammate-tutorials to help a lot of the little kids learn how the game is played. Unfortunately, if you’re not a snot-nosed, bratty little 12-year-old, you may have a tough time starting off in the game and actually enjoying it. Kids who can barely type (yet conveniently know every curse word known to man) can seriously ruin the experience when they use the team chat to swear and yell unintelligible commands. What’s worse is that there just doesn’t seem to be anyway around it when playing Freestyle.
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GameKiss picked another original game to publish, but only at the expense of the game not being very fleshed out in the gameplay department. Despite the poor, immature player base, the fun-factors could have stayed intact if the control system was more refined and some of the gameplay mechanics were fixed up.
The only thing keeping this game from getting a one-star is the fact that the soundtrack rocks hard and anyone looking for original, funky tunes you don’t usually hear in most other games will at least find that feature quite noteworthy in Freestyle. Otherwise, despite its originality, this MMO sports game is best left on the digital shelf.