Crash! Pow! Ahhhh! Oh, sorry. I was just playing with action figures. What’s that? You don’t know how to play with action figures? It’s simple, really. You just take this dude in the leather jacket with a chain saw for an arm and smash him into that cyborg guy with the swords coming out of his elbows until one of them breaks. Watch out, here comes a giant robot to kill everyone! No!
Wait, this isn’t an action figure. It’s Anarchy Reigns, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 sequel to 2009’s Wii-exclusive MadWorld from Platinum Games. While its predecessor is best known for its stylish black-and-white-and-red color scheme and game show plot, Anarchy Reigns drops those in favor of something that looks (on the surface, at least) more like a traditional third-person brawler.
A third-person brawler that you can easily confuse with smashing toys together, that is.
What you’ll like
It tries to do everything
The gameplay is a little difficult to pin down. To put it simply, it’s a beat-em-up crossed with a fighter crossed with a shooter crossed with whatever you call Dynasty Warriors. In the campaign, you drop into a level with little to do but punch hundreds of dudes until you earn enough points to unlock the next mission, most of which involve punching hundreds of dudes. Periodically, you face a boss battle that acts more like a fighting game, in which you take on an enemy 1-on-1. And throughout the levels you can pick up sniper rifles and rocket launchers or hop on mounted machine guns to give yourself new ways to kill bad guys.
The combat itself is fairly straightforward, which adds to the classic beat-em-up feel. You have two attack buttons (one normal and one heavy), a block, and a grab. Each character also has their own flashy Killer Weapon. These Killer Weapons are basically just a way to make your moves do more damage (and look cooler), but figuring out their intricacies is the most fun part of trying out each of the 16 different characters.
Most of the gameplay isn’t original, but the way it mashes up different genres is surprising.
While you can use a handful of different guns in the campaign, the different multiplayer modes are where the shooter influence really stands out. You get the expected brawler-friendly competitive and co-operative choices, but then things get a little bit Unreal Tournament when you throw in less traditional options like Capture The Flag and Death Ball. Capture the Flag is just what it sounds like, and while that mode is common in every first-person shooter these days, it still feels kind of fresh in a beat-em-up like this. Death Ball, on the other hand, throws all of the usual dude-punching into a mode where you only get points for carrying a ball into the other team’s goal. OK, that does sound a lot like CTF or Halo’s Oddball, but the whole thing poses as a professional sport. A Jumbotron-equipped stadium replaces the normal multiplayer stages. It sounds simple, but it’s pretty exciting to see a bunch of ridiculous characters charging down a field and then beating the crap out of each other as they literally fight over control of a ball.
However, the best part of multiplayer is when it’s at its most straightforward: the Battle Royale mode, in which 16 players fight each other for the highest score. It’s a blast to navigate through the level of onscreen craziness that ensues when over a dozen superpowered men and women are all trying to murder each other as quickly and explosively as possible. Throw in environmental hazards that will make specific areas of the map too dangerous to stay in like monstrous squids, carpet bombing jets, and rampaging giant robots and you get what is easily one of the craziest multiplayer experiences since the Super Smash Bros. series.
This is where that whole action figures thing comes in, because every character — from the ones you can play as to the nameless grunts you have to kill — wouldn’t look out of place hanging on a peg in a toy store. You have a ninja, a pig man, multiple robots (one that looks like a bull and one that can transform into a jet), and a few sleek cyborgs that look more reminiscent of Platinum’s high-speed shooter Vanquish than the postapocalyptic world of Anarchy Reigns. The most cohesive part of these characters’ designs is how incongruous they are, and nothing illustrates this better than the dual protagonists, Jack (returning from MadWorld) and Leo. One of them is a grim and gritty cigar-chomping brawler that seems perfectly suited for a game like this, and the other is a long-haired pretty boy who … also seems perfectly suited for a game like this. It’s bizarre, because while some of the characters don’t seem like they should even exist in the same universe as the others, they all manage to fit together in a weirdly disconnected way.
This might not sound like something that should belong in the “What you’ll like” section, because I wouldn’t even say that most of the characters look particularly interesting or well designed. They all seem like something you’ve seen before, if not a million times before, which really adds to the feeling that this whole thing is the video game equivalent of you and your friends dumping out a box of action figures and pretending to have them all fight each other. This interpretation doesn’t excuse the semi-boring art direction, but it does put a lens on it that colors the experience as more fun and more easy to digest than you would expect.
What you won’t like
It doesn’t do anything particularly well
While Anarchy Reigns’ attempt to mash together so many styles and genres is clever, none of it really works as well as it should. Having every character play relatively the same might be fine for a beat-em-up, in one-on-one combat it doesn’t leave enough room for much strategy beyond deciding when to block and when to use your more-powerful attacks. Conversely, those more-powerful attacks are usually so strong that it’s overkill to use them in almost any situation other than one-on-one combat. Sure, you can use your best moves and mow down hundreds of grunts in spectacular fashion, but if a fight against the annoying giant mutants pops up, you’ll be left with nothing but to pepper them with weak jabs as your lives (or a time limit) ticks down. So it’s not deep enough to work as a fighter, but the fighting segments require you to save up the skills that would make the beat-em-up parts more fun, which makes neither of them as interesting as they could be.
As for the shooter elements, they basically boil down to occasionally giving you a long-range weapon that is so powerful it’s pointless to use it outside of the tougher fights, which again makes the simpler fights even more boring.
It’s not that the developers at Platinum should’ve bitten off less, it’s just that the most fun combat choices you can make are best saved for difficult situations (lest they be even more difficult and even less interesting), which leaves most of the moment-to-moment action feeling too dull.
The whole campaign
Anarchy Reigns’ single-player mode is split into two storylines, both of which you must complete in order to unlock the final level: the “Black Side” (which follows MadWorld’s Jack), and the “White Side” (which follows Leo, who is basically a cyborg cop).
Both Leo and Jack are trying to track down the same man, another cyborg cop named Max who (and this is the actual plot) took too many PTSD drugs and went crazy after murdering Jack’s daughter. Both men have their own reasons for wanting to catch him, but since they’re rivals and on opposite sides of the law, they decide to do it separately. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from visiting the exact same locations in the exact same order. Granted, they stop in different areas of those same locations, but that boils down to Jack taking the left side of a larger area and Leo taking the right side, with a few common places in the middle. What this means is that you have to play each level twice with only slight differences between them (most of which are cosmetic), right down to having to fight the same bosses. Instead of a clever narrative approach, it comes across as a way to extend the length of the game without having to create paths more specific to the two characters or their stories.
But this is not the worst part, and it’s not the worst attempt to artificially extend its length. That comes in the form of the way you progress through campaign. As I explained earlier, you have to earn a certain number of points in each mission in order to unlock the next, but the scoring system is far too punishing to guarantee that you’ll manage to do this every time. If you don’t reach a certain milestone, you can either replay earlier missions (which you can only do for some), or you can just farm points by staying in an area and waiting for the thugs to respawn. In a way, it forces you to get better by making you practice, but it also punishes you by making you work through beat-em-up segments that aren’t nearly as much fun after you’ve already put in so much time doing the same thing over and over again both in and out of missions. Anarchy Reigns is at its best when it’s throwing crazy shit at you, but before it will do that you need to suffer through its absolute torturous worst on every level multiple times if you aren’t good enough to rack up near-perfect scores.
Oh, and you can’t skip the campaign in favor of multiplayer, because it locks most of the playable characters and special abilities behind single-player progression.
Anarchy Reigns lives and dies on the amount of craziness it’s able to throw at you. When things are going well, like in its over-the-top multiplayer modes, it’s reminiscent of every great action figure battle you ever had as a kid converted into digital form. When things are slow, it’s a painful slog through the same repetitive scenarios over and over again. And due to the nature of its gameplay and approach to progressing through the campaign, things are slow much more often than crazy.
Anarchy Reigns tries to be many things, but what kills it is that it is too often the one thing it never should be: boring.
Anarchy Reigns was released on Jan. 8 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a copy of the 360 version for the purposes of this review.