It seems like we haven't enjoyed a decent brawler in years. Games like River City Ransom and Streets of Rage used to routinely dominate our lives, representing a simpler time when we didn't require unlockables and completion bonuses to justify the pure Zen of whomping wave after wave of baddies, taking down an occasional boss, and moving to the next level. Our expectations have matured, but by and large, the beat 'em ups havení¢â‚¬â„¢t.
Apparently the gaming industry is hip to this, evidenced by the recent wave of beatfests storming shelves. Fighting giant Namco offers the latest contender, and the pedigree is impressive - Tekken and Soul Calibur's production teams joined forces on this one. Unfortunately, the resulting offspring was obviously dropped on its head. What happens when tons of potential turns into ounces of execution? Urban Reign.
The dapper star of this black eye is Brad Hawk. That's you, tough guy. The sexy lady is Shun Ying Lee, Chinatown gang leader and your new boss. Your job? Beat the crap out of everyone in the city of Green Harbor for no good reason. Ití¢â‚¬â„¢s like a Chuck Norris movie sans plot, only you look like Jean-Claude Van Damme and dress like Steven Seagal. You gotta be a badass to wear a snakeskin blazer.
In classic beat í¢â‚¬Ëœem up fashion, the action hops right into the punch bowl thanks to the simple controls. Your primary attacks consist of only strike and grapple, which can be modified by pressing Up or Down. There are also a few í¢â‚¬Ëœspecial arts,í¢â‚¬â„¢ which are the only things that can stop or dodge another special attack. Forget blocking or sidesteps; hell, Brad caní¢â‚¬â„¢t even get off the ground unless he runs up a wall.
In lieu of blocking, you can attempt to deflect your opponentí¢â‚¬â„¢s strike/grapple by guessing which area of the body theyí¢â‚¬â„¢re going for, then tapping dodge and a direction at the right moment. Be warned, though - if they connect with the first punch, you woní¢â‚¬â„¢t dodge the rest. Your opponents are insanely good at this game, and if given the opening will pound away much of your health before you can even get up. Ití¢â‚¬â„¢s like getting caught in a juggle nightmare from the kid at the arcade who used to kick your ass all over the place in Mortal Kombat II. But heí¢â‚¬â„¢s not around to throttle anymore, so expect some new dents in the wall shaped like PS2 controllers.
The presence of weapons like bats and clubs does little to even out this equation. Ití¢â‚¬â„¢s more of a risk to sluggishly bend down and pick up a pipe than to just ignore it and use your fists. The camera sure doesní¢â‚¬â„¢t want to help, either. An autoface button aims at the closest human punching bag, but that doesn't suffice in the all too often five-on-one scuffles.
The only place this shiner really shines is in one-on-one combat, easily the most strategic part of the game. The limited techniques that drown in a sea of gang fights come up for air here; focusing on one guy instead of six illuminates the fighting system's few good points, even though it's still quite tough. You'll gain a taste for the sick satisfaction of finally reducing your nearly-unstoppable nemesis to the punk you knew him to be. Unfortunately, these missions are far and few between, and in no time you'll be unceremoniously tossed back into the fray.
The only thing to cool down your boiling blood is the laughable plot of Story mode. The í¢â‚¬Å“city full of gangsí¢â‚¬? tip was hackneyed enough in Final Fight, and that was 14 years ago. Really, the backdrop of Story mode is an excuse to put these thugs on that map. At least this time thereí¢â‚¬â„¢s no girl to rescue, because she's the one telling you who to stomp next.
All 100 missions (read: fights in a room/alley) are chosen from a central town map, and each has a short briefing, never straying far from í¢â‚¬Ëœbeat everyone up.í¢â‚¬â„¢ As you lump your way past some of the tougher thugs, they join you as teammates, drawing your attackers away and generally helping out. You can issue simple commands and can even assume control of them, should you be that desperate.
Once you finally struggle your way to the top, you unlock Challenge mode and Free mode. The former is just a boring chain of battles, while the latter lets you play through Story mode as another character, and neither are very interesting after having slogged through one hundred rounds of button-mashing fury.
But wait, thereí¢â‚¬â„¢s more. Though thereí¢â‚¬â„¢s no online or co-op play, you and up to three friends can get stupid in Versus mode, which attempts to offer some spice with the poorly planned Weapon Scramble and Object modes. Weapon Scramble works like musical chairs. Hold the weapon when the whistle blows, and you win. This makes the whole fight up to that point useless unless you use said weapon to knock your opponents out first. Object mode also shows off some of the programming flaws pretty nicely, requiring you to keep a hammer away from your opponent and smash their statue with it. When you swing the hammer, it automatically aims for your enemy instead of the statue, but you still win if you just use the hammer to bash their skull as opposed to the statue. So much for innovation.
Following suit, the canned metal riffs that resonate throughout Green Harbor are appropriately angry, but age quickly. The sound effects are B-movie whooshes and whacks, the voice-acting is absurdly cheesy and the tiny cutscenes are so ridiculous, your jaw will hit the floor in despair. 'Don't touch my crew!' Huh?
At least the graphics are hot. The animations are terrific even though the same moves are shared by many characters, and the framerate is unshakable. The characters themselves are well-detailed, donning standard 'urban' fare, do-rags, denim vests and all. The levels might be cramped and repetitive, but most are chock full of stuff to knock your enemies into or through. The í¢â‚¬Ëœgrapple camí¢â‚¬â„¢ shows up-close madness of leg-drops and full-nelsons without being jarring. A round of back and forth dodging ends up looking pretty sweet. All in all, frustration never looked so nice.
But despite their high pedigree, Namco's dev teams really dropped the ball on this one. Had it been given a little more depth pretty much everywhere, this may have been a sleeper hit. Instead, ití¢â‚¬â„¢s just a sleeper. While entertaining enough for a weekend rent, by Saturday night you'll be eager to choke-slam Brad and leave him in the gutter.