Once a staple of the arcade and home console scene, the beat-'em-up genre isn't what it used to be. Though series like Dynasty Warriors have been popular lately, urban-style beat-'em-ups haven't evolved much. Urban Reign attempts to address the void, offering a solid fighting engine and solid visuals to go along with an impressive 100-mission story mode. Unfortunately the game grows stale rather quickly and is hampered by a ridiculous difficulty level and repetitive gameplay.
The game starts off pretty easy. You play as Brad Hawk, a freelance brawler who has just been hired by the fetching Shun Ying Lee, leader of the Chinatown triad. A gang war has broken out between Shun Ying's crew and other rival factions, so you'll spend your time in Urban Reign's story mode laying the smack down on various gangbangers. The first few missions of the game go by pretty quickly as you are introduced to different aspects of the game's fighting system. With each mission, you'll earn skill points that you can use to upgrade your various abilities--such as striking, grappling, toughness, and more--so you can fine-tune your character depending on your personal style. But as you go along, you'll find that the game's story mode gets old quickly. There's no real exploration involved. You simply get dumped into various fighting arenas--such as a bar, a motel parking lot, or a junkyard--and are tasked with beating up one or more of the enemies you find there. About the only variation you get is whether you're asked to beat up just one really hard opponent or four or five not-so-tough ones. There's no city to walk around or explore, and you'll find yourself quickly beating down the same enemies over and over again in the same arenas as you make your way through the levels.
Thankfully, the fighting engine in the game is pretty good. Your two basic attacks are strikes and grapples. Tapping on the strike button will unleash a combo, while you can use the grapple button to throw or simply restrain your opponent for a moment as you beat on him or her. You can modify your strikes and grapples to focus on one of three areas of an enemy--the head, upper body, or lower region. If you continually do damage to one area, the enemy will take bonus damage and can be disposed of more quickly (you'll see each enemy's stamina bar as you target them). You also have the ability to run and do lunging attacks, run up walls and vault off them, or pick up weapons. Enemies on the ground can be pounced on and punched in the face or simply kicked while they're down. There are also special arts attacks that you can use to hit multiple enemies or to break out of combos and dizziness. These special arts moves cost you bars from your special arts gauge, which you must build up by hitting your opponents or taking damage.
The game gains some real depth by allowing you to dodge strikes and reverse out of grapples. If your opponents are trying to hit you, you can simply tap the dodge button to gracefully sidestep their attacks. Dodge a few in a row, and your character will automatically grab the opponents and push them aside, giving you a brief advantage in initiative. If you get caught in a grapple, you can try to quickly guess which sort of grapple (head, upper, or lower body) it is and reverse out of it to counterattack. Once you figure out how to do it, dodging and reversing out of enemy attacks is very rewarding. The result of all these options is that as you learn to play, the fights appear more varied and more exciting. There are a lot of different animations for the various attacks, so once you get used to everything, the fights can be pretty pleasing to watch, like a choreographed martial arts movie.
The biggest problem with Urban Reign, aside from its repetitive and bland story mode, is that it doesn't scale up in difficulty in a fair manner. Before you know it, you'll find yourself dealing with some very difficult opponents to complete levels--the AI opponents will play almost perfectly. They'll dodge your strikes, reverse out of all your grapple attempts, and use their special arts meters (which start full in each mission and recharge faster than yours) at the perfect time to break out of your combos. They'll also come at you with strikes that can't be dodged, and they'll juggle you mercilessly. So basically any single mistake you make means losing a good chunk of your stamina meter, with no way to block, dodge, or reverse out. There are also missions where you end up having to deal with two or more boss-level enemies. Some enemies drop health-recovery items, but even if you can successfully pick up an item and run away, the time it takes to imbibe the item means you'll surely get nailed by a pursuing enemy. So while each mission takes only a couple of minutes to complete if you are successful, the game artificially pads its playtime with a ridiculous level of difficulty. Though some easier missions are mixed in with the really hard ones, don't be surprised if you find yourself swearing at the TV and throwing your controller in frustration. But even if the game weren't this hard, the repetitive nature of the story mode prevents it from being all that compelling.
If you can stand making your way through the game, you'll unlock challenge and free-play modes in which you can take on unlimited waves of enemies or play any of the story mode missions with unlocked characters. Takken's Paul Phoenix and Marshall Law make cameos in the game, and you'll be able to unlock other characters you fight and meet along the way during the story mode. Urban Reign's multiplayer action is also pretty decent for a game of this type. You can't play the story mode cooperatively, but you can set up a variety of different matches, ranging from standard knockout fights and free-for-all rumbles, to object-destruction matches and a wacky weapon-scramble mode, in which the person holding the weapon at the end of the timer wins the match. The multiplayer modes are pretty customizable--you can set the timer and number of rounds. Two players can play against each other on a single PlayStation 2, but there are no online modes.
Urban Reign offers a good presentation. Aside from the smooth and varied animation we talked about earlier, the characters themselves have a respectable amount of detail, and the levels also give a good amount of interactivity. Chairs and other bits of furniture break as you throw bodies on them. Shelves shed boxes and other items as you slam people's faces into them. You'll also find that other objects, such as cars and pinball machines, break and shatter as your fights rage on. The beginning of the game also offers quite a few cutscenes to set the scene, but these don't look particularly great, and their frequency peters out as you make your way deeper into story mode. As far as sound goes, the game's strong point is the sound effects of hand-to-hand fighting. The impact of fist or foot meeting flesh is satisfying, as are the impact sounds of bodies being thrown into walls and other heavy objects. The voice acting is average and forgettable, but the soundtrack offers a good, thumping backdrop to all the fighting.
Urban Reign's best qualities are its smooth fighting engine and the satisfying and varied animation in its fights. Watching Urban Reign played by a skilled player will make the game look a lot better than it is. Unfortunately, the cheap difficulty and blandness of the story mode make the game difficult to recommend to all but the most hardcore beat-'em-up fanatics. If you've got a Mike Haggar tattoo and don't mind beating down the same thugs over and over again a hundred times, you may get some mileage out of Urban Reign.