Joystiq hands-on: Yakuza

A hit in Japan since it was released last winter, many of those who knew about Yakuza were ecstatic once they heard a version for the English-speaking crowd was coming stateside. Today, I was able to get up close and personal with a title that, on the outside, may resemble just another GTA clone, but really has the potential to be more than that. Taking players inside the hidden nightlife district of Tokyo, Yakuza is looking to position itself as one of the final standout games for the PlayStation 2 when it's released in the U.S. on September 5. But will it really pull that off based on hype alone?

The Yakuza culture
With such a notorious culture and reputation on which to build upon, Yakuza is rich with subtle nods toward a gang life that is as much as a part of Japan as the cherry blossom.

In the game, players will assume control of a recently incarcerated Yakuza member, Kazuma, as he is reintroduced into the real world along with a complex situation of a girl named Haruka and $100 million of lost Yakuza cash. Sega has made sure Yakuza is as true to life as possible, with everything from characters sporting Yakuza-designed tattoos to gambling minigames (10 in all) and massage parlors.

Even getting health back has more of a realistic feel. Instead of collecting health packs and such, the player will simply walk into a restaurant and sit down and have a quick meal. There are convenience stores scattered about you can walk into carrying real-life magazines ready to be flipped through. With all this immersion, Yakuza is going to be a very deep game upon its final release.

But it does "look" like GTA
I hate GTA comparisons to everything but, in some cases, it's practically inevitable. The series was so popular and so groundbreaking that it's just one of those things game writers have to do.

So, with that, Yakuza does look very similar to GTA. Besides being in a different setting, the characters within the game bare a striking resemblance to those you'd find in GTA and even the mini-map in the bottom left corner is eerily similar. I suppose it just harks back to the old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Yakuza definitely has its own distinct city look and aura to it, but if we said it wasn't heavily reminiscent of GTA we'd be kidding ourselves.

Fight club
The fighting system in Yakuza takes a bit of a departure from GTA, however. Instead of just being able to fight any civilian at any time -- the producers assured me this was because Yakuza simply wouldn't do that -- the game will launch you into a sort of virtual arena on the street and a brawl will ensue. I was told this doesn't happen every time, but most of the time.

The controls for fighting are very similar to The Warriors, with the player able to pick up objects and break out into punching and kicking combos. There's nothing terribly unique about the fighting, but it is satisfying to pull off. In all, there are over 300 items and weapons inside the game at your back-breaking disposal.

With exploration, storyline and fighting all in check, the game also has a sort of RPG-lite feel with the addition of an experience and leveling system. The level cap is set at 10 and players will be able to upgrade certain aspects of their character as they progress.

Also, you will be able to accumulate various items and weapons found throughout the game, much like you'd find in a traditional RPG. There are over 70 side-missions, besides your main objective, for you to explore at your leisure.

Overall impressions
So, really, what do we have at the end? Is it just another GTA clone or is it something that builds upon the genre and adds something truly unique? From my time playing the game, I'd have to go with the latter. Yakuza has already proven to be a successful formula in Japan and, with such a huge PS2 install base in the U.S., there's no reason it can't be here as well.

In fact, to say that it's the most anticipated PS2 game besides God of War 2 and Okami, wouldn't be far off the mark and, so far, it looks like it can live up to those expectations.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.