Ever since the decline of the arcades and 16-bit home console era, there have been quests to find worthwhile modern examples of the genres that were driven close to exctinction by the arrival of cinematic, story-driven games. The beat ’em up is one such genre that flourished in the late 80’s and early 90’s but quickly became irrelevant to the mainstream. Developers attempted to take advantage of polygons and update their classic franchises but the results were a mixed bag to say the very least. After all, the likes of Fighting Force can hardly be discussed in the same breath as Final Fight…not by anybody with any taste anyway!
The PS2/Xbox/GC era was a particular low point as far as beat ’em ups go and there genuinely aren’t many decent ones to speak of. When they did appear, they weren’t quite the same as their 2D forerunners. I’ve already reviewed Final Fight Streetwise here but that game – along with Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance – included semi-free roaming gameplay as well as other features such as stat upgrades, side missions and cutscenes. The core beat ’em up objective (to smash the crap out of thugs and hoods) was still there but the purity of the arcade classics was lost.
One game that frequently gets brought up when gamers are questing for a good beat ’em up from the new millenium is Namco’s Urban Reign for the PS2. Like its rivals however, Urban Reign isn’t quite the game you might expect and simply expecting it to be a straightforward beat ’em up actually invites disappointment as I recently discovered.
I was expecting Urban Reign to be a 3D version of the old-school arcade beat ’em ups. You would have thought I’d have learnt by now that this just isn’t enough to sell a game in the modern era but even so, I popped the disc in and was prepping myself for perhaps ten to fifteen stages of ‘scrolling’ through streets and alleyways, punching thugs and making my way towards a boss at the end of each level. Bloody hell…get with the times old man! That shit was so 1992.
Instead, there is a brief cinematic introduction to the main character (Brad Hawk) who is apparently the new hard-arse in a town ruled by crime and violence. Brad starts working for Chinese crime boss, Shun Ying Lee, a female swordswoman equipped for the Playstation 2 generation of videogame marketing with a low-cut jumpsuit and an eye-popping B-W-H ratio that doesn’t exactly reflect a typical East Asian woman. The plot is henceforth communicated via narrated text boxes before each mission and is your standard guff about rival gangs, turf warfare and all that stuff so nothing new to see here. I was expecting cut-scenes perhaps but almost thirty missions in (yes, I’ll get to that in a moment), it was still just text explaining why Brad needed to go and beat up a rival gang boss or why Brad had to survive an alleyway encounter with a mob of gang members. Pretty soon I was skim-reading the ‘plot’ and just skipping it all. Wuthering Heights this wasn’t.
This was beginning to look bad. Urban Reign didn’t sell very well by all accounts and it isn’t difficult to see why. The main character looks bland, the cover for the game is boring and the usual mid-2000’s videogame tropes are all correct and present: female character with huge tits and highly impractical outfit? Check. Generic homie ‘gangsta’ enemies? Check again. Unnecessary plot that tries to hard? Big fat ol’ check. The other probable reason that Urban Reign underperformed at retail (aside from barely being marketed at all by Namco) is because the gameplay itself was likely not what punters expected. Perhaps gamers made the same mistake I did and expected a modern take on the classic beat ’em up style with the same game structure. It’s difficult to know for sure but what you actually get is something a bit different.
Instead of long, roaming stages that trap you with groups of enemies before allowing you to move forwards, Urban Reign serves up bite-sized missions that can be cleared quite quickly. The player is enclosed within a confined, limited arena-like space (be it a street, alleyway, bar etc.) with objective of simply beating all of the enemies. Sometimes you have to take down a more challenging foe in a one-on-one scenario and sometimes there are extra conditions such as defeating opponents within a time limit but the basics are the same. It feels like a series of small challenges and the game more than makes up for the lack of a complex structure with the sheer amount of these self-contained missions.
Repetition – in terms of both the gameplay and the reasons the game gives you for having to fight the next assortment of undesirables – set in with me quite quickly but after clearing thirty missions, something amazing happened.
There’s actually MORE to this game?
So I beat the thirtieth mission and FINALLY a cutscene and some form of plot progression! By this point, I was seriously not expecting it at all but here it was. More importantly, the game gives you a selection of partners that you can take along with you into battle (a roster that gradually increases as you beat key enemies and they join your cause) and this brings special team-up style attacks to the mix. You can also issue directions to your buddy and get them to take out certain enemies or initiate special team-up moves.
Before I get into discussing the actual game mechanics, I need to take a moment to really look at this late introduction of the rest of Urban Reign‘s features. For it to take thirty missions for the game’s plot to wake up and decide to continue is crazy, even more so when you consider that Urban Reign is not a walkover. I played the the game on the default difficulty setting and many of those first thirty missions were incredibly challenging (for reasons I will discuss when talking about the actual gameplay in a moment) and took a lot of retakes and patience to beat. It’s not hard to imagine gamers getting frustrated by the challenge with (seemingly) no game development being dangled in front of them like a carrot to keep them pushing forwards. That and the fact that it takes this long for the partners to become available. It’s almost as if you have been playing a massive tutorial for all this time except the road certainly isn’t your standard tutorial difficulty.
So with that mini rant out of the way, let’s have a look at the actual gameplay itself because it’s reasonably interesting for a beat ’em up. The most surprising thing for a three dimensional beat ’em up is that there is NO block/guard button. Instead, the whole fighting system is based around countering. Pushing the square button at the precise moment will allow you to avoid a strike or grapple. However, to really do damage and beat the tougher enemies, you also need to get countering and you can either do this by responding immediately with a combo or by pushing the analogue stick left/right while dodging which shifts your character behind the opponent, opening them up for difficult to avoid counter strikes or grapples.
It’s an easy-to-grasp, tough-to-master mechanic and you can get away with not being good at it for the easier missions but many bosses will simply not hit the deck unless you can consistently counter their attacks and punish them with follow-up combos and throws. What this system does in general is force you to either stand your ground and learn to counter or run away and find space but enemies in Urban Reign will catch up to you very quickly so the second option isn’t exactly reliable. It’s a case of getting good…or else!
(Analogue) Stick it to ’em
As far as the offensive combat goes, the analogue stick pays a crucial part. Mashing the attack button will unleash a character’s basic combo string but attacking in conjunction with pushing the analogue stick up or down allows to target their upper and lower body regions with the latter usually being some kind of sweep that can provide crucial seconds to breathe when under pressure. You can also attack downed characters by pushing down on the stick when next to them.
Grapples work in the same way, allowing you target specific parts of an enemy and deal greater damage when it comes to “destroying” one of three body zones, allowing for bigger damage when targeting said zone with further attacks. Perhaps it goes without saying but there are different holds and throws available depending on whether you are in front or behind an enemy. Sprinting takes a bit of getting used to because instead of double-tapping the analogue stick or holding a button whilst moving (as in many other 3D action games), you press the X button once and your character begins running automatically, only stopping once you go for another input. You can slide-tackle enemies or even run up walls and leap off to attack enemies from above.
There’s a reasonable amount going on but the real fun comes when experimenting with creating big combos of strikes and grapples. This being made by Namco, there is Tekken-style juggling and wall-bouncing which is both a help and hindrance. On one hand, you can use it to your advantage to extend combos and even grab enemies mid-air for context-exclusive grapples. The downside is that you can get destroyed very quickly by enemies when being smashed against a wall over and over or trapped in mid-air, being comboed by multiple foes. In a sense, losing feels extremely cheap when the CPU goes apeshit on you like this but the counter system does work mid-combo and in mid-air albeit with strict timing so it isn’t entirely unfair. It simply forces you to get good at the game rather than rely on button-mashing and it’s this that sets Urban Reign apart from old-school 2D beat ’em ups. There is some depth to combat here and if you want a better visual demonstration, check the game out on Youtube where there are videos from players doing an amazing job of utterly schooling the toughest enemies on the most savage difficulty.
One issue which I can’t really forgive is the fact that it doesn’t take much to stun your character and render them momentarily dizzy, leaving you unable to respond to attacks with dodges or counters. An SPA (Special Arts) move will immediately snap you out of this state but it consumes precious meter which you are (obviously) trying to conserve to go on the offensive.
There are a hundred missions in Urban Reign‘s story mode to clear and once those are polished off, there are some more interesting things to have a play with. Multiplayer for instance gives you more of a fighting chance when an actual person is controlling your partner (though the AI is actually quite solid in this respect and often wins the missions for you). There is also a Challenge mode (think ‘Survival’ against individual foes) and a Free Play mode which allows you to replay all of the story mode’s missions for a rank. This last mode is of greatest interest as you are no longer restricted to using Brad Hawk and can roll with a tag team of any two characters providing they have been unlocked. All of the main allies from story mode are present but you can also unlock the random enemies/thugs as well as brand-new characters including guest stars Paul Phoenix and Marshall Law from Tekken!
But should you persevere with the main game and go to the lengths of unlocking characters? I would say “yes” because Urban Reign might not be what most people are expecting i.e. a mindless (not meant in a derogatory way) button-mashing beat ’em up that harks back to the 2D days but the game is great in it’s own way. The combat is very satisfying once you have gotten to grips with the counter system and learnt some combos and there is genuine challenge on offer. So many missions made me think “Damn, this is impossible; how are you expected to win here?!?” but you keep coming back and trying again, slowly getting better and better at the game until you get that perfect run on a mission. True, you sometimes have to rely on flukes, CPU slip-ups or cheap tactics to win but for the most part, you feel like you have earnt that victory and it is SO satisfying to finally overcome an against-the-odds mission.
The major downside is the amount of time that Urban Reign needs to get going. Without trying to sound impatient, it takes far too long for any story progression and – more importantly – too long for partners, weapons and all of the special moves to become available. Gradually developing a character’s skills and unlocking stuff in games is nothing new but the issue here is that it DOES take too long and the game does a poor job of communicating your actual progression and end goals. This combined with the often ruthless difficulty will be off-putting to many – especially if they expected a different kind of game structure – but if you can stick with it and learn the mechanics then there is a really enjoyable beat ’em up experience here and certainly one of the best of its generation.