Looks like another savior has been resurrected for the cult genre that is the beat 'em up. Coming from God knows where, Urban Reign's Brad Hawk is taciturn, ugly, and bland as hell. Precisely the point. With the genre now in good company with the shooter and the adventure as wallflowers of the video game social - frequently ignored, increasingly obscure - it needs someone who can yell "Yippie-ki-yay" (or in Brad's case, not), jump in, and get things done and make things break. Pesky exposition has been thrown out. Dialogue is notched down to a minimum. And a plot that takes two sentences to explain is adding an extra sentence nobody has time for.
So here goes: the city's a mess and hot gang ringleader chick hires Brad to wring his hands in blood and mop up. Usual meathead plot, but the designers creatively circumvent the (practically inherent) flaws of the brawler. Urban Reign is stacked like Soul Calibur's Quest Mode: choosing from a list of areas on a map, the game's a rapid succession of fight scenes, each with their own quirky goals. While surviving is always goal number one, some missions stipulate that you need to kill the boss to finish, or working only on the legs, or taking everybody down within a certain amount of time. The arenas are tiny, sometimes not much larger than a Soul Calibur grid, but it keeps the action focused and tight.
I Want a Reign Life
But we know what you're thinking. Another urban fighter? Another "hip" and "edgy" sausage party? The fighting engine's a lot better than people might give it credit for after reading the box. It's not as deep as Dead or Alive or Virtua Fighter, as becoming a maneuver memorizing fest would only distract from the breakneck 'fight first, don't ask questions later' pace. But it's getting there. Punches, debilitating kicks, throws, and weapons to pick up to hit people in the brain with: name it, and some variant or combo of it is probably here. And everything looks fantastic, with a specific move for any position you might find yourself in and they're all relatively easy to pull off. Anybody watching you play will let out murmurs, perhaps even an occasional cheer, of adulation for the way you grind people into the pavement with finesse, and they'll ask "How'd you do that?"
Everybody, it's all about timing. Unlike recent brawlers that have dumbed down the mechanics in a misguided bid for accessibility and fluidity, Urban Reign challenges the vogue by upping the moves list. The best moves have a split-second window of opportunity, so you're going to get a fist up the nose if you're not fast enough on the counter button or don't press the triangle button twice to unleash a double attack move when in the middle of a bastard sandwich.
As it should be with any beat 'em up, multiplayer is the best part of the game. There are plenty of modes, and the pick-up-and-play controls are easy on even the most sensitive of thumb, while the perfectly balanced timing of the higher end moves gives everybody something to practice on. There are enough normal moves so that anyone who doesn't know how to play doesn't really need to do counters and such, especially when there's someone more experienced to back him up, but pulling them off makes the game that much more satisfying. Either way, good times all around.