(At the moment, I'm overly pressed for time, excuse this review's brevity.)
Fates Worse Than Death is the first game ever for gaming upstart Vajra enterprises( http://www.vajraenterprises.com/ ) It uses Vajra's own ORC(Organic Rules Components) as a base system. The theme is a post apoclyptic future, the apoclypse being american culture. Immediately someone may be reminded of cyberpunk, but the setting is different in clear ways, one of the first pages points out the key differences.
One of the most important differences is: even though in many cyberpunk setting a very high number of the world's population is in abject poverty, typical Cyberpunk stories focus on the rich elite, wheras Fates Worse Than Death gives the main focus to the impovershed and homeless masses.
The game's setting is some of the hardest science fiction I've ever read, which is impressive considering it includes Psionics. In the game, Psionics has mostly low-key uses as the only things they can effect are the minds of others. It's not treated as a replacement for magic but a coherent element of the setting which consequences and symetry with the world around it.
The Year is 2080, the place is Ney York, and society progressed pretty much as one may suspect it to have, with an ever-growing divide between the rich and poor. The rich live in gated communitys meant to keep the lowerclass out so they have little interuptions to their virtual reality program addictions, the poor live in the streets of a decaying New York. There's a very strong gang element, which most city-dwellers turn to in need of protection and community.
If PC's are from gangs, they have a lot to choose from, 51 or so. Each gang is original both compared to the other gangs and rpg settings in whole. Gangs describe the communual lifestyle of it's members and culture; While gangs are usually arranged over it's niche in the society, characters within gangs have much variety in what niche they serve for the gang, this is much more intereasting and realistic than when a game's organizations are defined by all of it's members having the same role. It should be noted that gangs in the game are comprised of a much larger population than what they are in the modern world, and therefore are much more diversied, only a few are specificly aimed at running drugs, and there are few staples of modern gang culture, and no trace of derivitives from rap-based gang-mythos.
And intereasting note is the rarity(But existence) of firearms in the setting, I believe the story's reason being that they were illegalized and made very hard for the poor to smuggle into the city. It makes the game's combat more unique and intereasting, with more room for daggers, street weapons, martial arts, etc, the gang leader of the Freaks, a chaotic circus freak-gang(Think HBO's Carnivale) vomits scorpions on his opponents in lieu of traditional combat prowess.
There's an incredible amount of back history for almost every element of the game, espically the various gangs; It's all great stuff, showing coherent plan and style, instead of the written-by-council incoherence that alot of games of it's size seem to have. The best way to describe the tone is 1/2 hard science fiction, 1/4 Pulp(More Silence of the Lambs and less indiana Jones), and 1/4 Urban Legend. It combines great elements of believability and cinematic stylings.
Describe what you want to do, the GM sets a difficulty number(10 Easy, 20 Moderate, 30 Hard, 40 Legendary), roll 1d20. Add relevant attribuite(s), add +4 for every skill level(1 to 6), adjust for special modifiers(Advantages, Disadvantages, the skill gives a bonus to certain techniques, character is using drugs.) whether it meets the number or above is failure/success, how much it lost by/won by can have effects in the game. It's quick and unobtrusive.
Combat is patterened after realism, and is considerably lethal. There is a definate focus against blindly attacking everything in sight, running a combat centered campaign is perfectly possible, but for normal PC's to survive, they'd have to use tactics and diplomacy. The tactics are of the in-character variety vs. meta-descsions, which I appreciate greatly, and the game has many, many intereasting options for diplomacy.
Most games are rather dismissive of the concept of diplomacy, briefly addressing it is a neat idea or a supposedly better way to solve problems than combat(Strange as those games very rarely have another word said about diplomacy, and 30 pages of combat rules.) and portaying the image of a stereotypical, dry-spoken diplomat, but diplomacy never works in game because you're fighting random hordes of stereotypical evil that are invulnerable to thinking the whole situation through.
Fates Worse Than Death deviates from that in a appreciable way, any antagonistic force is made of real people who have realistic connections to the world around them, and therefore is vulnerable to diplomatic manuevering(Though many gangs have more general connections with other gangs than gangs who may have more of a solitary lifestyle. The strongest connections are usually between characters rather than between gangs, anyway.) There are many different presenations of strong leaders/diplomatic types, alot of them having more unstable and unique personalities due to the nature of the world than typical gaming fare, a facet I really love.
Recomend if you like the premises of Cyberpunk but are turned off by the execution and prefer something original, if you like games honestly geared towards intelligent soloutions, if incredibly good writing turn you on, if you like independant publishers who put out responsibly priced($35 MSRP) books of considerable substance(464 pages), if you just WILL NOT play in a modern/predesigned setting, look up the ORC basic rules, also, check out Tibet from Vajra enterprises. I hope that it's as excellant as this game, in which case I would seriously have to peg Vajra Enterprises as a company to watch.