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25 to Life is a lifelessly generic shooter that, at times, feels like Max Payne without the fun.
In 25 to Life, you can play as either a cop or a gangster. Set in the heart of today's cities, the game lets you experience the gritty lifestyles of police task forces or, as a gangster, survive the local neighborhood thugs while fighting your way up the ranks.
Throughout the early and mid '90s, there was a boom in movies that took place in "the hood." This urban-themed movie trend really kicked off due to the success of John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood. After that, the "me too" phenomenon kicked in, and there was suddenly a glut of gangsta movies--the quality of each steadily declining the further in you got. The same phenomenon is happening with games. While games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas stand out as Boyz n the Hood or Juice equivalents, we're also getting our video game equivalents of junk like Tales From the Hood or (shudder) Phat Beach. 25 to Life is the latest in line, and this third-person shooter is, in a word, dumb.
25 to Life is an overly simple third-person shooter that has a story-driven single-player mode and a team-based multiplayer mode. The single-player starts you out in the role of Freeze, a gangster who's trying to get out of the game and escape with his wife and son. You're asked to do "one last job," which, of course, goes spectacularly wrong and messes everything up. You'll also play as a cop surrounded by dirty cops and as a gang leader who gets banished to Mexico only to end up taking over the organized-crime scene there by force. The story is all over the place, and since the playable characters are to a certain extent connected, you're never really sure if you're playing as a good guy or a bad guy. But the narrative is so lame that you probably won't care.
The single-player action boils down to hiding around corners, popping out, and mowing down as many enemies as you can. You'll come across a bunch of different weapons--including pistols, dual pistols, submachine pistols, assault rifles, and even a LAW rocket launcher or two. In case you're silly enough to get up close, you'll also be packing a melee weapon, such as a knife or a hammer or something. There's almost always enough ammo around to prevent you from having to turn to your melee weapons, and there's usually enough health around--at least on the default difficulty setting--to prevent the game from ever being too difficult, assuming you're careful and don't stand out in the open. An onscreen radar displays enemy positions, which is good for letting you know when you're safe and when you've got trouble coming around the corner.
The environments vary, giving you outdoor and indoor levels to play in. You'll run through some Los Angeles-like streets, rob a bank and a casino, run through the streets of Tijuana, and break out of a prison during a riot. There's a good amount of variety, though none of the environments are particularly noteworthy. Most simply contain singular paths that take you from start to finish as you blast your way through the game's short story mode.
As you play through single-player, you'll be unlocking new custom items for use in the multiplayer. The team-based multiplayer is cops versus criminals for up to 16 players in four modes. War is your basic team deathmatch. Raid puts the criminals on the defensive as they protect their stash from the cops. Robbery puts a series of loot items on the map, which criminals must steal and return to their base while the cops try to prevent them from doing so. Tag pits criminals against criminals in a graffiti war. The taggable walls act as control points, and it's up to your team to hold down as much of the map as possible to earn points. If you like, you can disable or limit respawns to adjust the finality of death.
While the multiplayer setup's focus on team games makes it resemble Sony's popular SOCOM series at a glance, you won't find any of that game's tactical elements here. Death comes quickly if you expose yourself to enemy fire for too long. Overall, it's a simple mode that doesn't beat out its competition on any of the three platforms.
25 to Life is available on the PC, the Xbox, and the PlayStation 2, and the experience is roughly the same across all three platforms. The PC offers slightly better control, with its standard mouse-and-keyboard setup, but the Xbox and the PS2 versions control just fine. However, a bug in the PC version caused all of the music to constantly skip, forcing us to disable it. The Xbox and the PS2 versions come with a soundtrack CD, though it is conveniently missing all of the game's best music, while the PC version comes with a Freeze playing card for use with the collectible card game Street Warriors.
Graphically, the game isn't much to look at. The bland environments and generic character animation stick out, and the rag doll-like physics of falling bodies look cheap, especially when dead bodies clip right through solid objects. The sound effects are similarly standard--you've heard gunfire in a video game before, right? The voice acting is passable, though the script's low quality negates any of the game's better voice actors. The soundtrack is a quality mix of hip-hop, both old and new. It's good, which makes the PC version's music bug all the more disappointing. Containing classics from Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy ("Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" plays during the prison riot scene, which is a perfect fit, even if your in-game motive doesn't match the song's), it's the high point of the entire package.While 25 to Life works as intended, the third-person shooting doesn't differentiate itself in any way, making it feel like a sad Max Payne clone--lacking that game's style and acrobatic shot-dodge maneuvers. The multiplayer is functional, yet thoroughly unexciting. Even if you're a fan of the subject matter, you could certainly do better than 25 to Life.