The PSP is almost a year old and it seems like we haven't yet had our onslaught of original titles yet. Say what you will, the best games on the handheld at the moment are puzzle games (Lumines) and racers (Wipeout, Burnout, Ridge Racer, Need for Speed, Midnight Club). With that in mind, Sony is trying to set things right or at least trying to do something new and The Con may very well be the most innovative title we've seen thus far on the PSP.
Looking at the game's title, you'd swear this involved casino heists or some version of Three Card Monte game. And you'd be wrong. Looking at the packaging, you'd think this was a straight beat 'em up like Final Fight or Beatdown or Def Jam Vendetta. And you'd be wrong. What The Con boils down to really is a hybrid between Super Punch Out, Def Jam Vendetta, a fighting game, a dress-up Barbie game, a Scorsese picture, a Vegas gambling simulator and a loan-shark looking to make a profit. For gamers, it's something old and something new wrapped up in a nice package. The Con also requires a good blend of strategy, cleverness and a good sense of timing.
The main mode of The Con is Story Mode in which your character (which you have complete freedom in creating) forms a crew and makes his/her way up the fighting ranks with the ultimate goal of fighting in "The Big Time". Along the way, you will recruit members, make a few friends and a whole lot of enemies. One of your first friends is a character uncannily resembling Queen Latifah's Matron Mama Morton from Chicago. Under her tutelage you will learn the ins and outs of The Con and realize, with every step, how deep this game truly is.
The first step in the general flow of the game is to line up a fight. Here you'll generally choose to fight one of six different teams. These teams are ranked in various ways and allow you the freedom of accomplishing different tasks by fighting various factions. Next, you'll be able to set-up what your team will be doing in the weeks leading up to the fight. This involves resting (which helps you lower your fatigue level), training (which raises and lowers various stats) and checking into the hospital (which, for a fee, heals all your injuries in the course of one week). You'll also have access to shops and customization screens to change the look of your team, what they are wearing and their combos. Finally, you get to the betting screen where you will see the odds for/against your fighter. Here is where The Con really shines. If you want money, you can bet on your opponent and simply take a dive. But the twist comes in the fact that all odds aren't locked from the onset. The odds change depending on the initial moments of the bout. You therefore have to "sell" the "con" by fighting good to raise the odds for you and then, in a believable manner, take a dive. You can also play this the other way and bet on yourself, fight poorly, wait for the odds to lock and then pull off an incredible victory. A meter on the side tells you how much money you are about to make and a meter in the center keeps track of how well you are "selling" your performance. On the other hand, if you just want to raise your rank, you can jump in and simply kick butt; but you'll need lots of money to buy your way into The Big Game.
All of the mechanics and strategy set up in The Con work perfectly well. And while most fights are never very hard since after a while you'll find yourself much better than the A.I., you'll still have to "sell" your performance and sometimes battle back from very low health to win. This is what makes The Con so brilliant.
All the strategy and mechanics in the world wouldn't mean anything though if the gameplay wasn't there. Luckily, The Con has a very deep fighting system to complement its other modes. The first thing to note is that you generally fight from a first person point of view. This is very reminiscent of Super Punch Out or Fight Night and actually helps you gauge the action with ease. Also, while there are five varying styles of fighting within the game (street boxing, wrestling, Jeet Kune Do, kickboxing and Tae Kwon Do) the face buttons all map out to the same basic forms of punching/kicking attacks (right/left high/low). You are also able to duck forward, sway back, dodge to each side, block/parry and Con/Fake attacks. Each fighting style also has throws associated with it (using a combination of buttons), evades and Special/Super moves that involve more evolved button combos.
As mentioned, while the fighting is never too taxing, it is very fluid, intuitive and lots of fun. Sure, it never reaches the depths of a Tekken or even a DOA game, but the fighting is only partially the mechanic at play in any given event. You also have to constantly sell your match and try to make as much money as possible.
The other modes of The Con are found under the Quick Play heading which includes a Create-A-Character mode (more on that later), Arcade mode (used for practice mainly), Time Attack (how fact can you go threw a select number of opponents?) and Survival (how long can you last meeting opponent after opponent with only a slightly regenerating health bar). There are records in all modes, easily viewed from the Quick Play menu as well. In these modes, you only have to worry about the fighting, but a few rounds spent here will help a lot in Story Mode (and multiplayer).
One of the highlights of The Con is its deep Create-A-Character. Not only can you customize the fighting style of your characters, but you can edit every possible facet of their appearance (from their physical look to their clothing) all the way to editing the combo strings your fighter can perform. While editing combos does take a little bit of getting used to (it's a little overwhelming the first time you try) after playing the game a bit, you'll soon get a feel for what you have time to string together and when to use them.
While the single player campaign can last a long time, sometimes there's nothing better than to play with friends wirelessly. Luckily, The Con is one of those few games that features Game Sharing for those who do not have their own copy of the game. Featuring wireless Ad Hoc compatibility, you'll be able to not only take on your friends but also risk items to sweeten the stakes. Multiplayer games are generally quite amusing and involve a great deal of trash talking. Lag is nonexistent and play is fast and smooth.
Graphically, The Con has a distinct look which is both "street" and "punk" at the same time. The graphics, while sharp, are a little on the dark side and the environments (of which there are very few) repeat too often. The character models are amazing and you can easily create really original looking fighters. Unfortunately, the fighters that you will face seem to all blend into each other after a while. The amount of items you can wear is threw the roof and the amount of physical changes you can perform on your character are staggering. Load times are short, but once you've gotten the hang of things, you'd wish they'd load a little faster, or a least skip some of the intro animations and get to the action already.
In the audio department, the voice acting is simply so-so, with dialog that is mostly over-the-top to begin with. Musically, the game feels very generic, but the songs hold up even after repeat listens.
As a whole, The Con may not be the Second Coming that we've all been expecting for the past year, but it is a strong step in the right direction. The game features a surprisingly deep fighting engine coupled with a "con" management aspect that is fun and interesting. There are lots of items to equip on your character and the create-a-character modes are really well done. The Con may not please everyone and may not even keep certain gamers interested past the tutorial stages, but those willing to really give it a try will be greatly rewarded. At the very least, The Con is a good sign of things to come and deserves at least a rental.