For some reason, beat'em ups are all the rage again, and now Namco has jumped on the bandwagon with Urban Reign. The developers of Tekken and Soul Calibur got tired of making awesome games, and collaborated to release this brawler/fighting hybrid. That has multi-person battles and controls of a brawler, but it is structured more like a fighting game. It's also happens to be one of the most frustrating games I've played in a long, long time. It has been several years since I've last thrown a controller… until now. Urban Reign, has ended that streak, and it ended it only 25% into the game.
After playing the pathetic Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance, I was hopeful that Urban Reign, with its impressive pedigree would renew my faith in developers' attempts to resuscitate the beat'em up genre. You play the role of Brad Hawk, who has been hired as an enforcer for Shin Ying Lee, the leader of a Chinatown gang. Amidst the throes of a gang war, she has enlisted you to bring an end to the violence, with of course, more violence. Unlike Beatdown, the game's light on story with only a few cut-scenes sprinkled amongst the 100+ levels. Before each mission, Shin provides a short synopsis for why you're fighting, but the stories are inane and not worth listening to.
The bottom line is that you've got to fight lots of people that don't like you. Your goal is always to take out the bad guys, but you'll often get specific instructions on how to go about this. Sometimes you'll want to fight one guy without getting another person involved, other times you'll need to focus on a specific body part, or use the environment to your advantage.
If it weren't for the fact that the controls were so simple, you could probably consider Urban Reign a full-fledged fighting game. Circle attacks, triangle grapples, square dodges, x runs, and that's really about it. Specific areas of the body can be targeted by pressing circle and a specific direction. This allows you to pull off leg sweeps, upper cuts, and roundhouse kicks. Special attacks can be performed by pressing the triangle and circle button along with a direction. Grappling is best done when your opponent is stunned, and like the normal attack, different moves are performed depending on which direction you are pushing. Once your opponent is on the ground you can hop on them with triangle and then beat them to a pulp with circle. It's all very satisfying… for a while.
After each mission, you'll earn points that can be distributed to power up your attacks, grapples, and special moves. This system is shallow, and rather pointless. It's obvious it was thrown in at the last minute as a way to gradually introduce new moves and add some depth to the fighting; but it doesn't help.
There's a map of the city, but it's primarily there for decoration. You can often choose between a couple of missions, but there is no exploration, and no living city; you're just teleported from fight to fight. The first couple of brawls are against single opponents, and they're rather enjoyable. The combat is easy to pick up, the fights aren't too tough, but then things start to go south. Most of the time you'll find yourself fighting more than one person, which becomes a big problem because it's too easy to juggle, or rather; it's far too easy for the CPU to juggle. You'll be winning a fight no problem, and then the computer comes at you with a flurry of punches and kicks, lifting you into the air, where you stay for a long, long time. If you happen to be in the corner and you're fighting one of the tough opponents, it's over – simply retry the mission. You do have some moves that can take on two or more enemies at once, and when they work, they're great, but when they don't, they leave you very vulnerable to attacks. A major issue is that two moves are mapped to the same button, making them both unreliable. Hitting triangle when between two opponents will perform an attack that takes them both down, however, if you're in the wrong position, you'll try and grapple, often grabbing nobody, and getting your butt kicked as a result.
This leads to the game's biggest problem. Its cheap tactics and sudden increases in difficulty make it a game only the most patient of people can tolerate. After cruising through a few fights, the game gets exponentially more difficult, pounding you with cheap juggles, backing you into corners, and performing miracle comebacks just before you were going to win. The first couple of times this happens, you fight through it, go on to win some easy fights, but it slowly gets worse and worse. You'll have a guy beat, another guy almost dead, and all of the sudden he beats the hell out of you in ten seconds. If you try and drink some of the health that enemies occasionally drop, the computer will run up behind you and beat the living tar out of you when it's in its "kick your ass" mode. It shows no mercy. The game is repetitive enough as it is without the cheap way the developers have artificially lengthened the game, and all this does is make it difficult to enjoy.
Urban Reign's a decent looking game, but there isn't a whole lot of variety in its presentation. You'll fight in a bar, an alley, a warehouse, a parking lot and so on. There's some decent lighting, and you'll notice little touches like reflections in puddles, and rain falling as you fight. The few environments that there are look pretty good and feature lots of destructible objects like tables, chairs, shelves, pinball machines, and much more. It's very satisfying to throw your opponent into a table and watch it smash to pieces.
The characters look good from a technical standpoint, but their design is nothing exciting. You've got your big-boobed Asian, thug, martial artist, slow-yet-strong-guy; you've seen it all before. There are many different types of fighting styles in the game, from martial artists, to boxers, to brawlers; each style is unique and instantly recognizable. The animations are smooth, and each character has quite a few. Unfortunately, the camera does its best to hide these moves by getting stuck in corners and only focusing on you, which leaves you susceptible to attacks from just off screen. It doesn't ruin the game, but you will occasionally lose a close fight because you couldn't see what was going on; yet another frustrating part of the game.
Urban Reign's audio is purely average. You could play the entire game on mute and not miss a thing. The voice acting ranges from decent to poor, and the weak plot and script don't help matters much. The music isn't bad, and it blends nicely into the background, which is about all you can ask for from a game like this. Punches and kicks sound like they would in a movie, and the sounds of people being slammed into things, and objects breaking and shattering are quite satisfying.