We've pretty much forgotten how to marvel at 3D graphics these days. Even on the small-screen formats a few well-formed polygons are expected, not appreciated, and we don't tolerate blocky textures or rough edges particularly easily. But Nokia's long-awaited beat-'em-up, ONE, is an incredible reminder of what stunning, cleverly handled 3D visuals can do for a game.
Anyone who bought a Sega Saturn on the strength of Virtua Fighter 2 will recall this feeling of astonishment at typical gaming elements put to spectacular use. This new N-Gage game is a reminder not only of how impressive 3D can (and should) be, but makes us realise that we'd begun to regard N-Gage as just another mobile platform. There might not be many games currently showing off the ability of Nokia's recovering games system, but ONE should be a severe kick up the arse (literally) for any subsequent developers who intend to impress us.
Taking a quick look at the gameplay is a good place to start, as it's pretty shallow and straight forward. This definitely isn't meant as a criticism, however, as any good tournament fighter that attempts to complicate its essential brawling gameplay does so at its own peril. A beat-'em-up should be immediate in its impact - grabbing gamers by the knuckles and wringing the blood from them through relentless button-mashing addictiveness - and that's precisely what ONE does.
Viewed mostly side on (though the camera does rotate around the action in an expert way, never missing a beat or obscuring the view) this is a simple four direction, two button fighter. Kick and punch combine with each other in sequence, and also with the directions to provide your martial system. While the list of moves isn't exactly unending, the abilities of your fighter are always at your fingertips and never ineffective. This is one of those well-sculpted beat-'em-ups that doesn't pander to the button masher, instead favouring the fighter who takes the time to learn their art.
You can back-flip, roll and dance your way around the enemy as much as you like; positioning yourself for precisely the right moves, or running in to perform combinations or to grab them by the hair and inflict a knee-induced migraine. To suggest the speed of the game is fast doesn't quite carry the right implication. Certainly the game never struggles to run its own code, far from it, but the actions of the characters are as fluid and accurate as any athletic human's would be. This delicate precision is a vital factor in the addictiveness of ONE (something Virtua Fighter also recognised, where many other beat-'em-ups employed superhuman characteristics to plaster over their cracks) and the reason it plays so competently.
Coupled with the outstanding animation (achieved through intensive use of motion capture from real martial artists), this strong lilt toward realism is what makes ONE stand out as a king among its genre. The equally detailed urban environments create a recognisable world for our fighters to live in, and watching them trip-the-heavy-fantastic through these inner-city arenas is quite a marvel.
There's a loose storyline to follow, though it's lame enough to make a pretty decent Jean Claude Van Damme movie. It does make for a simple way to go up against some random opponents, however, and balances the difficulty level in quite a logarithmic manner. An adversary, for instance, might send a couple of cronies in first to soften you up, who are generally easier to beat than their boss. This ensures you always get a good fight session in, and don't wind up sticking on the same brawler whose style always seems to best your own.
There's also an impressive amount of customisation, from shoes and hair to martial technique and name, which can all be taken online to battle it out with other violence addicted gamers at the N-Gage Arena, or via Bluetooth if you're staring-down a real life opponent. Although it depends on your connection, the game speed appears to suffer no noticeable lag, and considering Nokia is giving away prizes for this virtual world street fighting tournament, getting online is a supremely appealing prospect.
There's no pretence that ONE is aimed at any niche other than the beat-'em-up fanatic, but we won't drop points because the game only utilises your mind when employing its shell as a weapon. The outstanding visuals come at no cost to the playability of ONE, and right now there are few other games that bring N-Gage so close to the next-gen console gaming sphere.
ONE delivers competition to the PSP like a roundhouse kick to the temple.