It's taken a countless number of years for a developer to fully understand what it is about beat-em-ups that make them so addictive. That's what happened to Urban Reign, a brutal, unrelenting, and nearly classic take on the genre. It works when the basic combat engine is in full, and fails when you look at what's surrounding it.
While most beat-em-ups are happy to slap a few combination moves and throws together and call it involving, Urban Reign is varied. The number of moves, accomplished with a few buttons, are simple to execute and it's easy to grasp the concept of the gameplay in a matter of minutes. It's more like a pro wrestling game at certain points, with a focus on grappling and high-powered moves.
That's where the game comes alive, and brings the genre new life. Even without blood, Urban Reign is by far the most brutal depiction of over-the-top hand-to-hand violence ever created in a video game. Each hit causes a sharp jerking action from the person taking the hit, and their reaction sells these blows. You can literally feel the impact of each strike, and a new stage brings more moments that are hard to watch. The way these blows connect is almost indescribable, and it's all sold by the force of these moves. That's how the game avoids repetition, something other games that came before it have tried desperately to do.
By creating a game engine focused on variety, it's odd that the locales and stage design is lacking the same focus, There are only a small number of environments, and with over 60 levels, you'll know the small confines of each one in a matter of hours. They also offer little of the standard action beat-em-ups are known for, giving the game a melee fighter-like feel since the stages are closed.
That's not what Urban Reign is trying to be though, and the multi-player proves that. The simple defense system requires timing and not necessarily skill. Running makes the characters hard to control. In the single player story mode (with no multi-player), it's not an issue since you'll either need room to move away from the aggressive bosses or keep the rather stupid enemies close. When fighting a friend with any of the default or unlocked characters, it feels sparse and dull.
There's also a difficulty curve at work that's not right either. Though numbered in each section, it's not always the best move to start from the bottom up. By gaining points used to evolve your fighter for each cleared mini-stage, it could be more beneficial to take on the higher numbered ones first. There's no way to know what to expect other than you'll be beating people up. Mission objectives are meager, and only vary from the number of enemies you need to take to clear it.
These frustrating little quirks keep Urban Reign from completely succeeding. There's no question this fighting engine deserves a second chance, especially since it's strong enough to make the annoyances seem minor. It would work remarkably well for a wrestling game, certainly one that could compete with the Def Jam series. Until then, Urban Reign is disappointingly a rental and a game that should have become one of the best brawlers in recent memory.