The brawler has always been a genre light on narrative. From Double Dragon’s “Dude, they punched your girlfriend” to God Of War’s “Dude, I punched my girlfriend”, it doesn’t take much to motivate a fight. Rockstar’s 2005 brawler The Warriors takes this classic setup at face value, and in doing so forces the player into their own unwitting satire. The Warriors is a gang that loves to battle its rivals: like the player, its members relish fighting, robbing and generally misbehaving. Yet when the head of the largest gang in New York City tries to bring everyone together into an organised syndicate, it ends in disaster. You get to indulge in every kind of crime a 1979 New York City gang would, but the end result is deflating – you can never go beyond them.
The game begins with a rendering of the movie’s opening sequence. Cyrus, leader of the Riffs, gathers every gang together in Pelham Bay Park. No one is fighting, rival gangs are standing next to one another peacefully, and no one is bickering over their turf. There are 60,000 kids in gangs, but only 20,000 cops in New York City, and all you have to do is count to realise the possibilities. Cyrus shouts, “Can you DIG it?” to the enormous crowd’s cheers. But then the leader of the Rogues, Luther, pulls out a gun and shoots the Riffs’ main man. As he falls back, the cutscene fades out and the game begins three months earlier. The question posed here is one of the unanswered themes of the film: what went wrong?
Naturally, you play as The Warriors, an upstart gang from Coney Island that has to claw its way from being two lone members into controlling the southern tip of the Bronx. As you progress through the main campaign, each member experiences a unique flashback mission focused on their origins. Rivalries are formed, gangs from the film are bopped with, and you proceed through a linear series of missions, optional side-missions and tasks that can be completed from your home base hub in Coney. You spend these missions taking over stores in Coney, fighting the rival gang present there, and then exerting your influence throughout New York City.
What makes the game’s missions and hubs unique is the way they create the illusion of being in control of Coney Island but never allow you to be more than a violent gang. In one mission there are stores that you smash until their owners offer you protection money, which you can collect from mid-mission or when you’re protecting Coney from invading gangs. Yet wealth does not accumulate. Drugs can be bought, money can be stolen, car radios snatched and spray cans help you tag walls, but what you steal in one mission does not carry over to the next. You may own Coney, but the game design offers no benefit to this, nor is there any way to expand territory. Unlike a gang simulation such as The Godfather or Saints Row, which encourage a sense of enterprise and control in the player, The Warriors is instead a mostly chaotic experience. You will be in the same abandoned warehouse at the end of the game that you start out in. You never upgrade to a Grand Theft Auto-style mansion or buy fancy clothes. As a gang, the Warriors are more interested in brawling, sex and their reputation than actually running an organised crime syndicate. And in the game, despite all of Cyrus’s talk, that’s all you’ll ever end up doing.
The way you fight reflects the fact you’re controlling a bunch of thugs rather than the usual collection of ex-military blackbelts. The simple brawling system revolves around dealing with large numbers of enemies instead of fancy moves, and boils down to alternating between a strong and light attack while building up your rage meter to do more damage. There is no elegant kung-fu and no flashy multi-part animations: you punch and kick wildly in a fight. One example for many: a dashing attack is here a bodily tackle rather than an elaborate jumping kick.
Yet the game presents this prosaic violence in gritty and satisfying slow motion. Pick up a brick and smash it across an opponent’s face, and the game slows the animation so you can watch their expression twist in agony. Drag an opponent over to a wall and you can introduce his skull to it slo-o-o-wly. What keeps this tactically challenging is constantly managing the crowds. Get surrounded and you’re finished. A quick strike ahead, a lunge behind and a grab to the left are constantly rolling off the controller while you negotiate the space of the brawl. Although members have varying stats for strength, mugging or stealing, they all play in the same manner – Rembrandt may be the best spray painter in the gang, but it doesn’t make that big a difference since these activities boil down to minigames anyway. Some members do more damage and have better rage attacks, but as a general rule they’re indistinguishable.
Cleon, the Warriors’ leader, will bust any member who tries to break rank, and his stats make him the best brawler. Yet as a leader he is never shown caring about anything except his gang’s reputation. When Rembrandt, the spray paint artist, wants to win an art competition with the Warriors’ tag, Cleon dismisses it as a waste of time. Ajax is voiced by the original actor who played him (James Remar), and like the film reprises his role as the pushy tank of the gang. When you first encounter him he’s borderline assaulting a girl. Later he nearly gets himself killed because he takes a break to have sex with a rival gang member’s girlfriend. As in the film, he ends up being arrested by an undercover police officer posing as a prostitute. Other gang members vary from being contemplative sociopaths to being just as violent as Cleon or Ajax. Unlike GTA: San Andreas, in which the protagonist will refuse to do drugs, these characters all regularly take cocaine (albeit called “flash”) and drink. They are never depicted as anything other than violent, uncaring individuals. There is no moral high ground in this game. If you’re seen beating up another gang a bystander will comment: “That’s what I like to see – trash taking care of itself”.
It’s why the game works so well as a prequel to the film. Contrasting the 20 or so missions of brawling over debts and turf are intermittent cutscenes of Cyrus discussing his plans for the city. He explains to his lieutenant that to organise the gangs, “peace and unity are all that matters”. These bickering groups must give up their fight for turf and unite. When he begins to plan his grand meeting he argues that “it must be with respect, not force, that they accept our invitation”. No one is going to be beaten into joining the alliance. And yet you’ve spent the entire game playing a bunch of thugs whose only interests are fighting and their reputation. The gangs you brawl with, often seen beating women and taking drugs, are little better than you. The game design’s emphasis on never having any real control over yourselves or territory emphasises the greater point that you simply enjoy the action. Cyrus’s dream of a unified organisation was never going to work in the first place because the gangs, along with the player, don’t care.
The final mission of the game recreates the film’s plot, and details the long trip from Pelham Bay Park back to Coney. When the surviving Warriors finally manage to catch a safe train back home they fall into an argument about Cyrus’s dream of ruling the City. “It’s all out there – all we gotta do is figure out a way to steal it,” Cochise declares. After a few moments, Snow adds: “Sounds great – what’s worth stealing?” Just as in the film, the scene is interrupted by a pair of upper-class couples staggering on to the train and sitting across from the gang. Even with the now-awkward-looking PS2 visuals, the moment holds together for its stark contrast of the two groups. There are no clothing upgrades, no way to get rich by saving money, and thus no real way for the gang to be anything but what they are.
As much as the game’s narrative may poke at the limitations of the Warriors, it is Cyrus’s vision of a grand organised crime syndicate that really twists the knife. For most of the characters, and the player, the appeal of being a gang in late ’70s New York is not hard to understand. But the consequences are lost in the immediate thrills: appropriately enough for a prequel, the future gets bound up in the present. And the point of the whole thing? As one rioter comments during the brownout mission early in the game: “This is the American Dream, baby! Fucking shit up and not worrying about the consequences!”