After hearing Sega was taking another stab at the Shenmue formula, Yakuza caught my interest. It also seemed to be one of the few games to come out of Sega lately that didn't suck. (Shadow the Hedgehog, anyone?) That was really all I had heard about the game before playing it. While I can see the Shenmue comparisons, the game is really a beat-em-up, like Die Hard Arcade or even Zombie Revenge, with exploration areas to get to the action.
Shenmue was about being able to explore everything, for better or for worse, and getting caught up in everyday life. To really enjoy the game, it had to be played with a "stop and smell the roses" attitude. Rush through the main objectives and the game could last about 10 hours. On the other hand, spending time talking to characters about finding sailors, going through every drawer in the house, or standing in a parking lot hitting the punch button repeatedly is not everyone's idea of a good time. The pace was definitely slow as the game tried to mimic reality, sometimes down to the boring parts, like waiting for a shop to open. The fighting engine was great, at least for the few fights in the game.
While not a direct off-shoot, Yakuza seems to take Shenmue and redirect its concepts towards action. You can't go and walk into every single building, but for every building you can get inside, there's something to buy or do (as opposed to hearing how they didn't see anything unusual on the day with the strange weather). Fights are way more frequent and follow the standard beat-em-up, rather than Shenmue's VF-based style. Grab objects and knock some fools out just like the arcade games.
At first, world of the game felt fairly limited - it's not massive like the GTA series and not nearly as detailed as Shenmue. After becoming familiar with it, the place did grow on me. There are plenty of people bustling around and enough familiar characters to make the world seem alive.
Speaking of which, the story is pretty important to the game, but with a huge range of characters, it can get hard to keep track of who's who at times. In a nutshell, it involves the Yakuza Kazuma taking the spill for his mentor's murder. Ten years later, he's out of jail and finds himself caught up in a huge mess that involves an orphaned girl and a ton of money. The story is told through cut scenes, where the voice work is decent, but nothing spectacular. There's an overabundance of f-bombs and the voices loop over and over during fights, which can get grating. The biggest problem is that the dialogue was matched up with the lip movements of the characters when they were speaking Japanese, creating several unnatural pauses in speech.
Fighting is pretty much standard for the genre, with punches, kicks, blocks, dodges, and lots of items laying around, waiting to be used as weapons. To mix things up, the game utilizes a HEAT mode. As enemies are beaten up, the HEAT gauge fills and special moves become available. Every enemy defeated will add to the experience points. Get enough of these, and Kazuma can power up and develop new attacks. This keeps the fights interesting, as there's always a new move to try out.
The biggest problem with the fighting mode is the camera, which seems to be an issue in a lot of 3D games. During fighting, the camera can move and swing around, but it doesn't guarantee that Kazuma and his opponents are all in the screen at the same time. The game buffers all of the commands, meaning button-presses can be input while other motions are going on in the screen. This isn't necessarily good or bad one way or the other, but it does give the fighting a "canned" feel.
The other part of the game is the adventure - walking around town, talking to people, keeping up with the plot of the story. This is where people like to compare the game to the GTA series or Shenmue. It's not a completely open-ended game since the story must be followed, but in between missions, side quests can be taken on and the town can be explored. There's over 40 of side quests in the game, which range from helping people find their glasses to playing bouncer for a night. The place is littered with mini-games in the form of hostess bars, massage parlors, casinos and arcades. Of course, walking around without being able to get into trouble isn't fun, and there are plenty of battles along the way.
This is one of the biggest complaints I've heard about the game - the random battles. Honestly, barring a couple of exceptions, I haven't had a problem with them. This is a fighting game. The goal is to take a large street cone and whack punk over the head with it. I will admit that it can be annoying when a fight happens right before hopping into a burger shop for some much-needed health, but I'll pay the price and keep the random battles.
Complaint number two? Load times. When walking from one scene to the next, there is a short pause as the game loads. In between every movie (sometimes scenes between movies), there is a load. Is this a valid complaint? Yes, and it does seem to be a problem. Fortunately, it's nowhere near the ridiculousness of VO: Marz.
Overall, Yakuza is really an evolution of the beat-em-up genre. In an arcade, someone could throw a few quarters in the machine and they'd get the chance to beat the snot out of some chumps for a while, but on a console, more is demanded than these short and to-the-point arcade games of the past. Take the basic fighting, and mix it up with an adventure mode to the give the player greater room to interact with the city and walk off the beaten path. That's the basis for Yakuza, and it finds success in updating the genre.