Saturday, September 12, 2009

PS2 look: Urban Reign

Urban Reign is Namco's only stab at the beatemup genre that I know of. Released late in the PS2's life this game is a 3D Brawler similar to titles like Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance, Spikeout Xtreme, Final Fight: Streetwise, and The Warriors(which all seemingly happened to come out around the same time-frame). Where Urban Reign differs from those games and practically the rest of the genre is that instead of having stages where the player treks through a variety of locales beating people up as their paths cross this game is broken up into about 100 stages made up of fights between 1 to 4 people. It sounds overwhelming but these encounters last maybe a couple minutes at the most making it a very easy game to pick up and play.

In a city where crime is rampant and gang wars threaten the innocent, one man in a snake-skin jacket can make a difference. You know how the story goes. There's the corrupt mayor, gangs from both China & Japan, a woman who fights in an outfit that shows off her perfect breasts, and even some ex-army dudes for variety. Luckily Namco threw in a handful of secret codes that unlock all of the characters & stages so you don't have to bother with the story mode if you don't want to. Personally I'd recommend it because the story mode is one hundred stages long and even though that's less than four hours it's still a long time with the same character. 

No matter what you decide you'll find that the cast of Urban Reign is well-equipped for brawling. These guys offer something for every style of fighting whether the player is looking for a good striker, somebody with excellent comboing ability, a more technical fighter, or just some monster. While many characters share moves and styles there's still varying stats to give them a bit of uniqueness. Furthermore some have a particular weapon they're good with.

My biggest problem with 3D beatemups is that a lot of the time they lose the ease of play that makes standard beatemups so entertaining. Sometimes the player has to lock-on to the enemy, get into some stance, memorize a bunch of silly combinations, and just make this complicated setup to punch a single foe a couple times. Urban Reign avoids this entirely by using a combination of context-sensitive moves and simple button commands to make fighting a breezy yet still immensely satisfying affair. There's one button for strikes(punches, kicks, etc) and by holding the d-pad up, down, or forward the player can attack the head, body, or legs. Another button is used for grabs and it works the same as strikes as it can also target different parts of the body. There's no jump button but there is a run which can be used to perform slides, jump-kicks, and so on. 

The one button players should really get used to however is the dodge button. There is no blocking in this game. Instead the player must effectively dodge attacks while evading grapples. Dodging strikes is easy since the player can just mash the button to dodge entire strings of attacks. Grabs are a bit more complicated though as not only must the player hit the button but they must also be holding the d-pad in the direction the opposing grappler is going for. Luckily the timing here is pretty loose so it's not too hard to break out of grabs. Special attacks however can not be dodged.

The special attacks come in four flavors. There's the one that hits all surrounding enemies to knock them away, a single powerful strike, a combo string that does great damage(though it can be countered by another special), and a charge move that gives the player a special ability for a short time. All of this is handled by a special gauge that rises and falls due to different factors. Like most fighting games this gauge will rise when the player gives and takes damage. Special moves can drain it but more importantly attacks that the opponent dodges cause the player's gauge to drop. The last thing the player needs is an enemy to dodge all of their attacks and then they respond with a special that wipes them out.

Rounding out the abilities of the player and their foes are the context-sensitive actions. Depending on the position of all parties certain attacks can be used. While attacking one enemy and another approaches the player can switch directions to perform a certain combination to push them back. When two characters approach one other they can do a double-team attack on them. However the one character can perform an attack that hits both of them if properly timed. There's more options like grabbing an enemy out of the air, evading a juggle combo with a very timely dodge, and so on. Despite everything going on the game is never bogged down by unnecessary combinations and it doesn't take much work to get fun out of the system. There's even a lock-on button just in case.

While there are other factors involved like weapons and the surroundings this is essentially all the game is about. There's no stealth missions or anything that involves not beating the heck out of someone. Since the stages are so short -- as I stated earlier all stages have 1 to 4 opponents -- the focus is on fighting with style. Like many other recent games it's not simply about surviving. To really master Urban Reign the player has to get a handle on the scoring system through a large number of factors. Beating the enemy quickly is a good thing but getting through fights without taking a hit is even better. Sure one could use the strongest characters for an easier time but weaker ones offer a higher bonus. There's also difficulty settings to further round this all out. It's a great system since it adds a layer of depth that will keep gamers interested long after the thrill of hitting someone repeatedly is gone. There's also a mode that plays more like a straight-up fighting game but as you know that's not really my thing. All the same it's a nice addition.

Even without that extra bit of depth in scoring the fighting system is still excellent. It's expected of course since this game is by the people behind Tekken but it applies so well to a beatemup format. Paul Phoenix and Marshall Law even show up as playable characters which makes me wonder why Namco doesn't just use the Urban Reign system for the "Tekken Force" modes that have popped in various console Tekkens. 

There's a lot to love about Urban Reign and unless you're not a fan of the genre I can't imagine avoiding this title. Even your friend who doesn't play these kind of games can easily get involved thanks to the excellent controls. Definitely pick this up anywhere you can find it.

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