Replaying ‘The Warriors’ as Rockstar’s Only Movie License Game Turns Ten

Released ten years ago, the Grand Theft Auto makers' take on Walter Hill's cult movie remains a grimly alluring part of their history.

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24 September 2015, 7:18am

All screens courtesy of Rockstar Games

The recent gathering of The Warriors fans at Coney Island, where the cast of the 1979 movie showed up to sign stuff for people who'd been waiting in lines for twice the length of the film itself, was, to quote VICE's coverage, "kinda bleak". People wore appropriately branded vests for the occasion, and it rained on them. A costume contest was cancelled. Sick of It All played. Sounds shit.

A substantially less-sucky celebration of Walter Hill's cult-acclaim slice of highly stylised violence was Rockstar Games' October 2005-released video game adaptation of the movie, the sole movie license game the company's ever developed (although it did co-publish 2001's The Italian Job). It's a curious project that came out between the company kicking off its Red Dead series and its much-celebrated school-set sandbox adventure Canis Canem Edit, or Bully in the States. Picture Rockstar's output in your mind now and it's hard to think beyond the Grand Theft Auto games and, perhaps, Red Dead Redemption. L.A. Noire and Max Payne 3 had their qualities, too; but it's GTA and its cowboy analogue that dominate public affections.

The Warriors was a hit for Rockstar though, despite the years separating movie from game. As time's passed, so appreciation of Hill's film has grown. Its story isn't much – members of the titular New York gang must make it back to their home turf of Coney Island after a city-wide summit at Pelham Bay Park goes disastrously south – but uniquely relatable/despicable characters and sharp cinematography have kept fresh viewers glued as the decades have passed. By 2005, the film had belatedly become as big a student must-see as Trainspotting was almost a decade earlier, and so the game version benefitted from heightened public awareness. Profits for Rockstar ultimately ran into the tens of millions (of dollars), a drop in the ocean of GTA revenues, but still: better to be well inside the black than caught short in the red, whatever the costs.

The critical response at the time was positive, too. "It might just be the best game adaptation of a film ever, in terms of capturing the mood of the original movie," wrote Game Informer. The mood – dark and gritty, filthy to the touch, everything bathed in a synth-edged soundtrack – certainly does transfer well. But for much of The Warriors, the game, you're not actually following the events of the film it's based on, which in turn was adapted from a 1965 Sol Yurick novel of the same name (which actually drew its inspiration from the Ancient Greek story Anabasis, where a troop of mercenaries must march home from waging war in Persia).

Rockstar puts you in control of a number of the Warriors in the weeks and months ahead of the movie's dramatic opening sequence. Eventually the story catches up to the gang's against-all-odds run for home, but a solid two-thirds of the game is plot-expanding material, exploring the relationships between The Warriors and rival factions in the run-up to Cyrus' invitation to unite. Complete stages and you unlock playable flashback missions that go deeper into the formation of The Warriors themselves. It's open-world, but not: each stage is a small sandbox area with both main and bonus objectives to tick off, sometimes violent and sometimes as simple as burning over rival tags. Okay, often violent. The Warriors is a game that doesn't shy away from bloodying itself up against broken bottles and shafts of wood torn from broken fence panels.

In 2005, disbarred American attorney Jack Thompson was waging a one-man war against the apparent evils that Rockstar and parent company Take-Two was putting in front of young gamers. He unsuccessfully filed several suits in an attempt to prevent or heavily restrict the releases of a handful of Grand Theft Auto titles, Manhunt 2 and Bully, or simply to squeeze a company-busting amount of cash from the studio, but The Warriors appeared to bypass his misfiring radar of controversy. Which to me, having gone back this week and replayed a decent chunk of the game, appears a little odd.

The Grand Theft Auto games can get violent, of course, but there's much more to them than law breaking in its many and varied forms. In comparison, The Warriors positively revels in destruction, in physical assaults and vandalism, mayhem and mugging, from the very start. Within minutes you, initially as the character Rembrandt, are beating up homeless drunks as "training" for what you'll face later in the game/on the streets. You need money to buy cans of spray paint, and the quickest way to get it is to assault a passer-by, grapple them into a state of unconsciousness, toss them against a dumpster and steal their wallet. Alternatively, smash your way into jewellery stores and make off with the merchandise, or break car windows to unscrew car stereos.

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The first hour of The Warriors teaches you these ropes, and kind of culminates in a blackout riot where members of other gangs mix it up with cops and storekeepers as trucks smoulder and windows shatter. (And some dude keeps on calling out for a seemingly very lost Maria. I don't know if she was ever found. Remember Maria, people, always.) Almost any NPC – perhaps all of them, it's not like I tried – can be locked onto and attacked, from officers of the NYPD to the dude who sells you health bar-boosting "flash" (whatever it's meant to be, it's taken nasally). Combat is deeper than your standard button-masher, with a range of combos available via sequences on two face buttons, plus opponents can be grabbed for either pinning on the ground or pummelling in the face. If you're controlling one of The Warriors' senior members, commands can be issued to your gang, such as to wreak chaos, to attack everyone, to split or to simply follow the leader.

Once the basics are in place the game accelerates: more and more rivals are run into as The Warriors have to defend their reputation and protect their turf, which means wiping out a game-exclusive group, The Destroyers. And I don't just mean you disperse them: you beat the shit out of them, until bodies lie lifeless. Stealth sections become more frequent, too, as you creep up on enemies and chop them from behind to knock them out. The police presence only grows as The Warriors' rep does, so as greater challenges are faced, the law becomes more aggressive in its manner of protecting and serving. And it gets tough. The Warriors doesn't hold your hand like many modern equivalents do.

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And it also doesn't make things all that easy, controls wise. Playing on a PS2 (the game also came out for the original Xbox and Sony's PSP handheld), I found the stick sensitivity incredibly twitchy compared to how these sort of games are geared nowadays – a lot of time was accidentally spent rubbing my controllable Warrior up against a wall, and camera movement is also feels unnecessarily twitchy. When tagging over rival graffiti, the game requires that you steer a cursor using the left stick, along a "W" shape (which varies from spot to spot). Granted, there's no obvious easy way to do this, but with paint cans lasting barely ten seconds at a time, a couple of mistakes per tag – and it's easy to stray from the line – can really screw up bonus objectives in some levels. Checkpointing isn't brilliant either, and the autosave dumps you back at the beginning of any given stage, regardless of how much progress you made prior to having to switch your console off.

If the game can be fiddly though, to return to an earlier point, its presentation is top notch, even by modern standards. Atmospherically, The Warriors is great, and while it can look pretty muddy at times, textures rough about their edges to say the least, remember this is a PS2 game – by my reckoning, it's pushing the console pretty far versus something like San Andreas, which was frequently an ugly experience made bearable by, well, everything but its visuals. Radio broadcasts are full of period tunes, and the DJ reports on the incidents of the previous stage while The Warriors are hanging out at their safehouse. Plenty of the original cast returned to play their characters again, too, lending a greater connection between movie and game than almost any other licensed tie-in.

Roger Hill, who played Cyrus in the film, was not invited to participate though, and subsequently filed a lawsuit for quarter of a million dollars against Rockstar and Take-Two for use of his voice and image without permission. Take-Two responded by confirming their possession of a valid third-party license. It isn't clear from a spell of internet searching how the suit was settled, but Hill died in 2014.

Should you (come out to) play The Warriors, ten years on? If you're into investigating the lesser-known releases in the Rockstar catalogue, absolutely – It's easy to see how this is the work of the same studio that made GTA and Bully, while its linearity in comparison to those more traditional sandbox games, akin to how Max Payne 3 unfolded, ensures that the story remains the focus. And if you're a big fan of the movie, giving this the once-through is a no-brainer: it's the prequel that there never was and never will be on the silver screen, and much like the film it's now crystallised as a single entity, as no sequel is likely to follow. Rockstar toyed with a spiritual follow-up, a game set in 1960s England called We Are the Mods, but that ultimately came to nothing.

The Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto IV was New York through a sardonic lens, the urban sprawl as a contorted cartoon, grey and grim but drawn in thick lines, detail lost in the need to deliver recognisable landmarks to an international crowd. The Warriors' New York, actually made by Rockstar's Toronto team, is equally gritty, but strangely feels realer than many a modern-day open-world game, its environments scarred by poverty, neighbourhoods yet to become as gentrified as they are now. If this was out now, on a contemporary console, it'd be shiner, crisper, HD. Because of the PS2's graphical limitations, The Warriors is played in murk, constant shadow, making every block seem like a threat. The format suits the fiction, perfectly. Can you dig it? You really should, you know.

@MikeDiver

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