Man, life's pretty tough on the mean streets of Pimlico for thugs like me. "Community support" po-po on every corner, leaves swept up whether they're brown or green, anti-climbing paint on the walls and ample parking. As I sit here typing this, there's a POLICEMAN ON A HORSE outside my window. Everyone minding their Ps and Qs. There aren't even any derelict buildings. How are we meant to form gangs and become addicted to heroin and generally fall off society's radar when it's all so bloody clean and tidy? Thank goodness for games like Urban Reign. Keeping it real.
See, this is what we want. You are BRAD HAWK. You are a PROFESSIONAL. You ANSWER TO NO ONE. I didn't even write down what the city's called that you're in, but it doesn't matter; you know why you're here; you're here to go around beating people up for money; you're here to be MEAN and ANSWER TO NO ONE except that lady handing out the missions and SHE'S JUST A DAME.
Dame? Yeah, you know. She's a, uh, um. Oh fishhooks. Okay look, I admit it, this is total charlatanry. My working knowledge of gangsters is limited to what I've seen in The Shield and Guys And Dolls, and I haven't even seen the latter so it's even worse than it sounds. I don't like mean streets at all; I like choccy biccies and cups of tea. The closest I've come to drug taking is battling a cold by mainlining Lemsip. I use the word "jumpers" and listen to Belle & Sebastian while talking to my Nanna on the phone about watercolours. I talk about my feelings. The only thing I've ever "tagged" was my ruler in school, and even then I felt like I'd committed some great act of hate against Shatter Resistance.
Fortunately Urban Reign isn't much more real; it's the latest in a boringly long line of gang warfare games made by people, like me, whose first reaction to the words "loan shark" is "stingy aquarium!" It's about "gang warfare" in the same way that "the Coca Cola Championship" is about drinks. Really it's just a tedious slugger. In it, broad-chested nutter Brad Hawk wanders around Wherevertown beating up small pockets of people in 100 tiny story missions, using a decently varied array of attacks to take them down in little scrolling beat-'em-up style levels, listening to tedious people wax on about territory and the mean streets and all that jazz between levels. Naturally there are black gangs, bikers, Asians, all the usual stereotypical suspects. Say what you like about The Warriors, at least it had people in facepaint with baseball bats. This is the least imaginative development in thuggery since the Mitchell brothers returned to Eastenders.
There's no wandering on to the next area, no moving around; just you and one or a few nasties going toe to toe for two minutes or so until they're dead or until you have to restart. And where I said Brad was "broad-chested", it's something I could have applied to everyone: even the 12 year olds look like they were pumping iron in the womb; women look about as dainty as granite paving slabs. And guess where you fight? If you said, "carparks, bars, hotels and back alleys", you may take Maxim into the loos for five minutes and give yourself a trick.
Mind you, the combat's actually quite entertaining to begin with. Allegedly some sort of collusion between the teams that made Tekken and Soulcalibur, it's based on grappling, dodging, striking and running. Well, you don't do much running. So it's mainly about grappling, dodging and striking. Grappling allows you to do clever twisty-body throws; to straddle fallen enemies so you can whack 'em in the face a few times; to do pile drivers and stuff. Striking is basic punches and kicks. Animations are plucked seemingly at random, which gives it a dynamic feel, and moves vary based on how you're using the analogue stick and how many enemies are in the vicinity. You also have some advanced moves that unlock after a few levels, and there's a special move meter that fills up and then allows you to do Matrix-style twisty air-kick things and the like. The collision detection is excellent so it feels very solid despite the otherwise seemingly ropey game engine. Can you upgrade stats between levels? Hell yeah bitch!
So what's the problem then? Surely all this set-up wasn't just to rip into the gang war crap? Well no indeed. It has lots of problems. Foremost of which is the concept of "dodging". When it works, it allows you to deflect (or "SUPER DEFLECT" gnngngngh) a blow and then counter with a strike of your own. You can also counter grapples and so on. All well and good, except enemy AI is FEROCIOUS. You think you're getting the hang of it, and then enemies start hitting you unblockably between animations, and then juggle you in the air between them for several seconds; they wait off-screen until you're reaching for a health pick-up on the ground and then rush you at cheetah speed while it's technically impossible to react; they gang up on you (HA!) and fight perfect fights. It's a good incentive to learn the game system properly, sure, but nothing else in the game gives you any particular desire to. There's nothing in terms of pay-off to compare to the likes of Ninja Gaiden or God of War in the roaming beat-'em-up genre, which, thugs or not, this is up against, and there's nothing in terms of depth or balance to compare to Virtua Fighter 4 or Soulcalibur for one-on-ones. Anyway, do you honestly want to play something that looks and sounds extremely boring and derivative when its main trick is stamping on your face when you can't do anything about it?
The initial apparent competence distracts you for about 20 minutes, then, before it becomes impossibly hard and you stop caring at all and decide to play something else instead. The inclusion of some unlockable Tekken characters and a slightly more balanced multiplayer mode might be enough to give you a fix if you do absolutely nothing else in life but play beat-'em-ups and you've actually run out, but otherwise there's no reason to take an interest. Beat-'em-ups should be fun and playable however good you are, and become appreciably better the more you understand their subtleties; Urban Reign is rarely fun or playable however good you are, and is about as subtle as, well, its tagline. "Are you hard enough to break some skulls?" I'm not, no, and you gave me no chance to be. Back in your ho.