In SEGA's Yakuza, you play Kazuma Kiryu - "the Dragon of the Dojima family". He's well hard, which, you quickly realise, is just as well. The game begins in one of Tokyo's vice-fuelled suburbs on 30 September 1995. Life is good. You've quite a reputation as a bit of a nutter. You've got a lovely girlfriend, Yumi, and a mate, Nishiki, who's like a brother to you. Things are going swimmingly until one of your clan's head honchos goes and kidnaps your bird. Nishiki heads off to sort him out, but he loses the plot a bit, and only goes and blows the guy's bloody head off. Not good.
You take the rap, on account of Nishiki having a poorly sister. You're expelled from the clan and sent down for 10 years. All this happens after about half an hour of game time. Fast forward to your parole and Yakuza really starts to kick in.
Things have changed. You're given a new fangled gadget (something called a mobile phone), your girlfriend has disappeared, Nishiki has gone slightly bonkers and wormed his way up to head his own family, and all you have to go on is a letter from the head of the clan telling you to meet someone in a club.
Before you know it you're framed for the murder of the clan boss, 10 billion Yen goes walkies, Yumi and her sister disappear and all bloody hell breaks loose. It's now up to you to follow the main story arc or stick two fingers up at the designers and dip your toe into the pulsing neon lights and incessant chatter of the seedy Tokyo streets.
And here's where the obvious comparisons with GTA come in. It's a sandbox see. There's a mini-map on the bottom left of the screen. Also, there's a load of swearing. Thing is, freedom in Yakuza never feels as free as freedom in San Andreas: the city itself isn't so big, there are no cars to hijack, nor is it possible to beat up innocent bystanders just because you feel like it.
Comparisons might be unfair. It's not trying that hard to add itself to the ever growing pile of GTA clones, it's just that it feels as if the game is desperate to break free from the shackles of its own limitations. It's like you're given the key to the city, only to find it doesn't unlock every door. Side quests are indulged out of curiosity rather than desire. Kazuma, for a ruthless Yakuza, isn't averse to the odd spot of humanitarian work either - he's just a big softy really.
There's plenty of reasonably entertaining Shenmue-esque time-wasting pursuits for sandbox fans. The city offers Pachinko, Club SEGA, baccarat, baseball, binge drinking and, my personal favourite, hostess clubs. They're interesting enough to pique your interest for five minutes or so, but you're never compelled to stay for long. Stripped down, they're just simple mini-games.
Take the chatting up hostesses lark. Once you figure out what drink, food and presents a particular girl likes, you're on a one way ticket to get down tonight. If only women in real life were governed by such reliable logic.
Walking the streets evokes memories of Leon in the Resident Evil series. For saving, replace typewriters with phone boxes (minus inventory slot wasting ink ribbons). For item storage, Resi fans will feel at home with the familiar chest system. There's even the sporadic glinting object lying on the ground, something the Resident Evil massive will spy with unerring ease. Then, more often than not, Yakuza goes all Final Fantasy on your ass and throws in a random battle. It's a mish-mash of tried and trusted game mechanics.
By the way, I hope the Tokyo tourist board never gets its hands on Yakuza. I'm sorry, but the suburb depicted in the game is a death trap. You can't get from one strip bar to the next without being collared by some goon who takes offence to your well-manicured couture. Obviously there's good and bad in every town, but if parts of Tokyo are half as dangerous as this game makes out, I'll take my chances on Streatham High Road instead.
Which brings me nicely to the combat. It's initially enjoyable, but eventually repetitive and ultimately rudimentary. Controlling Kazuma with the left analogue, you use square to punch, triangle to kick, circle to grab and X to dodge. Add to that R1 targeting and an L1 block. It's not rocket science.
Combos, unlockable as you level up (more Final Fantasy goodness), can be unleashed for added bone crunching satisfaction. You also have access to special moves of course, available when Kazuma enters 'Heat Mode'. Quick-fingered gangsters can add extra hits by following on screen prompts, but the real fun comes from picking up random objects and using them to break some heads.
Like a bench. Or a stone pillar. Or a bicycle. It's not quite Dead Rising, but it does afford the occasional snigger, and quickly becomes the only interesting aspect of a combat system which would otherwise be a complete bore.
But, inevitably, you soldier on with the main quest. Japanese gangster obsessives hoping for a storyline on a par with a Kitano "Beat" Takeshi classic will be hugely disappointed. It's just too convoluted and clichéd for its own good.
The set-pieces can be quite entertaining. Infiltrating the funeral of a Yakuza boss, getting busted, and then fighting your way out is mildly entertaining. I was surprised to find myself under attack from a stripper who turned out to be a hit man with a shotgun. I was even more surprised to find myself, in a game so full of over-the-top macho trash talking, to embark on a quest called "Save the puppy!".
For a gritty gangster action adventure, it's all a much of a muchness. I've got a few gripes. For me, everyone in the game sounds like they're either part of 50 Cent's Asian tour entourage, or part of the Soprano's Land of the Rising Sun branch. The voice acting certainly doesn't smack of Japanese Mafioso. The character models are Japanese, of course, but the accents and language coming out of their hate-filled mouths is all US gangster cliché. I can't remember how many times some street punk has threatened me with the wholly original quip: "Hey you! Lemme borrow some money! Come on get it out!" It grates, not because of what it is, but because it doesn't fit within the Tokyo-esque game world SEGA is presenting.
The voice talent is obviously a huge coup for SEGA. Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker; Rachel Leigh Cook, the voice for Tifa in the English version of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children; Michael Madsen, the wacko from Reservoir Dogs; Eliza Dushku, Faith from TV series Angel; and Michael Rosembaum, aka baldy Lex Luthor from Smallville, all lend their suitably throaty and threatening tones to the soundtrack. The appearance fees alone must have totalled enough Yen to buy a lifetime's supply of sushi, but the game is no better for it. I would have loved to have had the option of the original Japanese language with the existing English subtitles. That would certainly have helped with the ol' suspension of disbelief.
It's got an 18 certificate from the BBFC, but nothing's adult about Yakuza; it's more WWE than Kill Bill. I can even see young urban teenagers, who aren't legally allowed to buy the game, dismissing the cringe worthy mudslinging out right.
There is fun to be had, usually experienced while creaming six punks with a bench, and at 30 quid, it's decent value, especially when you consider some so-called next-generation games are 20 pounds more and less than half the fun. It's just that while being a competent and perfectly enjoyable pick'n'mix of some of the best games of the last 10 years, Yakuza doesn't excel at any aspect it borrows. It isn't greater than the sum of its parts.