The 2.5D beat-'em-up was one of the most beloved genres of the late 80s and early 90s. It may seem amazing today, but there was a time where allowing players to move up and down on the screen as well as left and right was something of a revelation. From Renegade and Double Dragon through Night Slashers all the way up to the Dungeons and Dragons games Capcom made in the mid-90s, arcade audiences could not get enough of games about tough guys beating up hordes of similar-looking opponents. Then two things happened: video game consoles went 3D, and arcades stopped being interested in any game that didn't require players to put in a dollar once every three minutes. Attempts to bring this beloved style of gaming into the third dimension were famously disastrous—when Zombie Revenge is the high point of a genre, it's officially in trouble. Now, a full decade after it stopped being relevant, Namco has brought the beat-'em-up genre back, infused it with fighting game sensibilities, and put together the fun and stunningly accessible Urban Reign.
This isn't a beat-'em-up in the classic sense, though. There's very little scrolling to be found here, and instead of just a few large levels to be fought through, the game takes place over one hundred separate 'Encounters', which pit the player and a computer-controlled sidekick against one to five opponents selected from the game's roster of nearly 60 distinct characters. Obviously the sheer volume of these encounters mean that the player will come up against the same enemies more than a few times during the game, but the larger-than-usual roster of characters for a fighting game coupled with varied objectives within the missions make the game seem deeper and more complex than it actually is.
Not that a brawling game really needs to be deep. No, all it really needs to do is provide a satisfying fighting experience. Urban Reign most definitely offers that. In fact, it's a game that goes out of its way to be playable by both fighting game aficionados and amateur button-mashers. Not that there are many buttons to mash. All attacking is done with two buttons, one for physical attacks, and another for grapples. Combos and throws are performed by pushing in a direction along with the grapple or attack button. Each character has only four basic throws and combos, and they're all done the same way. These numbers are increased a bit by things like ground attacks, air grapples, and charging attacks, but unlike most fighting games, there aren't any elaborate controller motions to learn. Every move for every character in the game can be performed with just a few simple button presses, which seems like it would get repetitive quickly, but the wide array of moves and the different fighting styles of the individual characters ensure that each one plays differently, even if they're controlled the same.
What's truly stunning about the game, though, is just how fluid and intuitive the fighting system is, and how well the game uses its environments. Each level is irregularly shaped, and full of obstacles, both destructible and in-. The varied shape of these arenas alone opens up many strategic possibilities—players can find a narrow area to keep from being surrounded, stay near walls to take advantage of the bonus damage that's done when enemies are sent flying into them. The fighting is like a the middle ground between the fighting systems in Def Jam Vendetta and The Warriors, and it's better than either one of those. In fact, the only qualm I had with the fighting areas was the lack of multiple elevations. It's understandable why it was left out though—there hasn't been a fighting game yet that could crack offering decent collision detection between different levels.
It's no surprise that the fighting game mechanics are so well-done; after all, the game was most likely developed just down the hall from where Tekken and Soul Calibur games are made (in fact, members of both those teams receive special thanks in the game's credits), and the game features many move animations that will be familiar to fans of those series. This freedom to crib from other fighting games means that Urban Reign features a much wider variety of movesets than would normally appear in a brawling game. In addition to the fighting styles that many characters share, like boxing, wrestling, karate, and "street", there are a number of completely unique movesets only available to single characters, like kickboxing and tae kwon do. Actually, the latter character's fighting style is so amazing to watch in motion that it made me question why there aren't more martial arts films that focus on Tae Kwon Do.
Urban Reign does something pretty admirable. It manages to maintain the spirit of classic beat-'em-up gaming while modernizing everything about it. It offers its gameplay in short, satisfying bursts, which never drag on long enough to grow tiresome. There isn't a plot to speak of, nor any gameplay elements beyond the fighting. But the fighting really is exceptionally fun for novices and experts, which makes this game extremely successful on its own terms. Sure, it could do more, and maybe a sequel will, but that doesn't make Urban Reign any less of a great game.