Though not nearly as horrific as the critics would have you believe, several glaring problems drag down the experience.
First off, I believe this game is underrated. Now, I've read a number of reviews by both critics and gamers in general, and it leaves me with the impression that they either: 1) Didn't play for very long, or 2) Had already convinced themselves that they were about to play the most horrific creation in all of mankind's history. The premise of Beat Down is this: five members of the Zanetti mob family (the cream of the crop) are on their way to a big deal going down at the wharf. When they arrive, however, they find members of the Cartel they are dealing with dead, and the goods nowhere to be found. To make matters worse, it appears that members of their own organization have set them up, causing them to split up and go into hiding. Granted, not too original but it works. Now a fugitive, you have to avoid both the cops and the mob, assemble your own crew, and get revenge.
At the game's outset, you can choose between any of the five. They each have their own fighting styles, starting amount of cash, and change of clothes. To avoid detection, you outfit yourself with new clothes and accessories, tattoos, and even cosmetic surgery. All this is to disguise yourself from your pursuers so they will not be apt to attack you when you pass them on the street. This is represented by two percentages (one for the cops and the other for the mob) and changes depending on your actions.
Now, this is where a big problem arises. Though the aforementioned methods lower these numbers immediately, they are really on functional on an aesthetic level. Simply passing a mobster or cop will cause your ratios to rise, making your disguises useless on a long term basis. Honestly, I just wore what I thought looked good and paid no heed to said numbers. And even if you are attacked, your enemies are so weak that they will hardly provide a challenge, except perhaps in the endgame when you have to take on a great number of them at once.
Obviously, combat is a huge part of the experience, and thankfully it is pretty easy to get into. You have your punch, kick, guard, grab, item, and negotiation buttons, and most are pretty self-explanatory. Negotiation is used to acquire funds ("rob"), get information ("interrogate"), murder ("beatdown"), and recruit your enemy. Negotiation can only be used in one on one fights (as opposed to group battles) where the enemy has a pride gauge. This gauge, represented by a flaming bar, depletes as you taunt and lay into your enemy, displaying the word "negotiation" when it is completely drained. This is your opportunity to initiate the aforementioned options. Most enemies in the game can easily be beaten into submission, with exception of a particular type (I believe the "Knuckle Master" type) which seem to do nothing but guard everything you can throw at them, striking you fast and hard when you let up your attack. Items can be equipped for battle as well (only two), which can be used to restore health, or simply as a weapon to slaughter unarmed opponents (you cannot guard weapon attacks without a weapon of your own). These items are used on the spot, and take some time to use, which can leave you vulnerable. Weapons will also break with repeated use, so don't rely on them too much.
Experience is gained through combat, though mostly through one on one fights, and upon each level up, you get three points to distribute among your three stats: stamina, attack, and technique. The battle system is a little skewed in terms of opponents, as group battles have you facing many weak opponents, while one on one fights have you facing a single easy opponent with considerably more health (or several opponents, one at a time).
Money is also earned in battle, either through robbing opponents through negotiations, or after you've turned a group of enemies brains into hamburger on the concrete. Robbing downed opponents often causes your cop ratio to rise, even if no one is around. And since this is one of the best ways to get items for free as well, it gets to be annoying. Buying items, recruiting members into your gang, and generally slaughtering those who oppose you affect your criminal level, which reflect your pride as a criminal. Aside from helping recruit some members, it really doesn't have much bearing on gameplay.
What does, however, are the frequent loading times. They are legion, they are long, and they are annoying. Imagine sitting through one for about 15-20 seconds while an area loads. You then pass through this area in about 10-15 seconds, enter a building, and sit through another 20 seconds of "Now Loading....". Then a cutscene pops up for about half a minute, and ANOTHER 20 seconds of loading. It's not an exaggeration, and it's a big problem...and woe be to you if you lose a fight with all three members of your team. Whether you decide to continue or head back to the title screen, expect an eternity of loading. There is no reason for this many loading times, especially when the graphics aren't pushing the limits of the console.
Speaking of graphics, they are not the best I've ever seen, but they are pretty good. There is the issue of clipping with some hairstyles and clothing, but it's minimal. Also, as characters take damage, they get bruised and bloody, which look pretty good but can be turned off in options if you prefer. The environments all have that urban look, but are repetitive, just like a real city, I suppose. It seems as if the city is trapped in perpetual night, however.
The sound is... average, I'd say. There are only a handful of tracks that play throughout the game, but I hardly noticed while castrating my opponents. It's forgettable, and at the same time, passable. The voice work is more of a mixed bag. The lines are delivered with some measure of emotion, but there are so few different voices to begin with. Main characters obviously have their own voices, but most of the people you meet have one of about a half dozen voices, depending on gender. There is liberal use of cursing, and f-bombs are dropped all over the place. But considering I hear that from most of the wannabe gangsters around my neighborhood, I suppose it's in context.
Aside from being pretty easy, it's a short game, taking me about seven and a half hours the first time through. There a number of side missions available however, and a versus mode including boss characters you have unlocked through the story mode, but nothing that really stands out. A cooperative story mode would have been nice, since it is single player only as it stands.
Overall, it's not a great game, but a good one. Load times are very bothersome, and replay value is pretty limited, so I'd give it a rental if you're interested, as that's about as long as it will take you to finish. However, seeing as how you can get it online at places like Amazon.com and Half.com for under $10 including shipping (like I did), you may be better served to buy it.
And while you're at it, look into Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects as well. Trust me, I've had it since it's release back in September of 2005, and it's not nearly as bad as the reviewers would have you think.