Perhaps by the seventh or eighth season of VH1’s so-snarky-it-hurts I Love the ‘80s, they will have hit the bottom of the pop culture minutiae barrel enough to be able to devote an entire episode solely to the urban side-scrolling beat ‘em-up video game.
Ah yes, the glorious beat ‘em-up. Starting with arcade favorite Double Dragon, the genre became defined by a series of clichés—mindless revenge plots (gang kidnaps girl), one man punching and jump-kicking his way through swarms of thugged-out gang members, and, of course, picking up and using metal pipes and baseball bats that just so happen to be left in the middle of the street.
In other words, beat ‘em-ups were the equivalent of Death Wish or Steven Seagal movies: simple, illogical, and entertaining.
Maybe the quintessential ‘80s beat ‘em-up game moment is at the end of the unfortunately titled Bad Dudes. After your bad dude defeats some kind of evil ninja, you rescue then-President Ronald Reagan. Reagan responds with a smile and a classic line, “Hey dudes, thanks for rescuing me. Let’s go out for a burger. Ha! Ha! Ha!”
Sadly, you are not required to rescue George W. Bush from angry Louisiana officials or disgruntled military moms in Namco’s new Urban Reign, but if ever there was a spiritual descendant of the classic beat ‘em-up, for better or worse, it’s this game.
In Urban Reign, you are tough-guy brawler Brad Hawk, who resembles a cross between Tyler Durden and wrestler-turned-actor The Rock. Your role is simple. As a thug-for-hire, you are contracted out to protect Shun Ying Lee, the attractive leader of one of the city’s main gangs. (It’s good to see that this genre has progressed to the point where women are actually used as more than helpless hostages.)
At any rate, a gang war has busted out between Shun Ying’s posse and other rival gangs, so you’ll spend much of your time in Urban Reign ridding yourself of every gang member you can find. This, of course, is not accomplished through class action lawsuits.
Instead, for 100 stages, you punch, kick, pummel, and throw until everyone is sufficiently knocked-out. And that’s definitely fun for awhile. The combat engine is top-rate; your primary attacks are strikes and grapples which can be modified based on the corresponding moves you make with the analog stick.
You are given the option to focus your attacks on one of three different areas of an enemy—the head, upper torso, and lower body—and can create bonus damage by continually attacking one area. Other moves come in the form of running up walls, flying attacks, midair throws, and “special arts” attacks that require building up a special meter by dealing or receiving damage.
And of course, in pure beat ‘em-up fashion, there are knifes, swords, pipes, bats, and other weapons conveniently lying around on the ground to pick up and swing around at your opponents… or have swung at you.
Unfortunately, like classic ‘80s beat ‘em-ups, the action gets repetitive after a short while because you face the same opponents over and over in the same warehouse, bar, or back alley stages. The combat, while fun, isn’t deep enough to overcome the all too familiar “I’ve played this before” feeling.
The other major problem with Urban Reign is the cheapness of your opponents and difficulty of the fights in the later stages. When playing through the normal difficulty setting, facing four or more opponents can be next to impossible because of their ability to, well, gangbang you.
I vividly remember one stage where my character was juggled between enemies and struck over a dozen times. All of a sudden, I was down one-third of my life bar without being able to counterattack.
There is no two-player cooperative option which is a disappointment considering the co-op nature of its roots. You can instead set up a variety of versus matches, ranging from knockout fights and free-for-all four player rumbles, to a crazy weapon-scramble mode, in which the person holding the weapon at the end of the timer wins the match.
At the end of the day, the best I can say about Urban Reign is that it’s a fun but flawed little fighter that makes me very nostalgic for the glory days of the ‘80s. River City Ransom, anyone?