On paper, Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance sounded like the logical next step for fighting games; a blend of fighting and role playing, with the option to fight battles on your terms, with backup as necessary. The plan was to broaden the appeal of fighting games and attempt to layer the genre with something beyond the punching and kicking aesthetic we're all used to. Upon playing it, it's difficult to see why they didn't just leave it alone. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, as the old clichè goes, and it applies here more than ever.
Beat Down isn't a completely terrible game. It's more of a 'watered down RPG and a watered down beat-em-up mashed together in a sort of unconvincing blob type thing' game. There are issues with nearly every aspect of it, from the graphics to the control system, but the most jarring aspect is the loading times. Yes, loading times affect many games, but it's something many companies have worked diligently to eliminate or reduce as much as possible. Cavia seems to have ignored the problem completely. It's like the Dark Ages of gaming all over again - I kept expecting to be prompted to turn the tape over.
But I don't want to stick the boot in too much this early so let's look at the positives. The game itself takes place in the fictional city of Los Sombras. It's your typical videogame city, crammed with warring gangs and the occasional smattering of police. Your character (of which there are five to choose from) has been double-crossed by one of your team-mates and needs to sort this whole mess out before mob boss Zanetti has you whacked. Serious stuff. Using a bar called 'The Hole' as a base, you have to take on a series of tasks and missions in order to build up your skills and clear your name - which is where the RPG-lite element of Beat Down comes into play.
To describe Beat Down's ranking system as an RPG is really an insult to proper RPGs when you consider just how basic it is. You only have three stats to upgrade (Stamina, Attack and Technique), and this is limited to three points per level upgrade. The other RPG elements include the ability to change clothes in order to escape detection from the police and the mob, but this is another aspect that really frustrates - even the process of buying the clothes becomes annoyingly protracted, as each new item needs to be loaded in. I think loading issues may become a theme of this review, so be warned.
'Calling in backup always results in a trek through several frustrating loading screens...'
The actual combat is divided into two main types: one-on-one brawls or free for all combat (think Tekken's Force Mode) with multiple enemies. Neither feels entirely satisfying, and both modes are much more reliant on cheap exploits than on fighting with any degree of skill. One-on-one combat also involves a negation mode that can be activated by taking down your enemy's pride gauge. This opens another attempt at adding an RPG element, allowing you to rob, recruit, beat down or interrogate your opponent. However, it's just another frustratingly limited system that feels tacked on. Combat can also become a team-based affair if you decide to either recruit one of your enemies or call on one of your existing allies, though it inevitably works out easier to recruit folks on the way to your mission. Calling in backup always results in a trek through several frustrating loading (you see!) screens and is never worth it. It's another system that is a good idea and could easily have been implemented in a much better way.
Certainly the combat itself is more layered than I would have thought, with combos and special moves, but they become redundant as you find yourself relying on the same handful of useful moves in every fight. Weapons and throws do mix up combat for a bit, but only in the sense of heavily misbalancing it. Some of the boss fights can also become very frustrating. In a couple of cases they follow directly after a much larger fight, leaving you with no chance to top up your health. This can easily leave you in a position of having to quit and go all the way back to your last save point. Very annoying.
You'd think with the poor loading times that the game must be caching vast areas and rendering beautiful landscapes, however, the exact opposite is true. Each area is tiny, and the graphics themselves look at best like a PS2 launch title. The characters and NPCs also look really bland, with mafia members and cops being represented by a handful of different avatars at most. The voice acting is also completely dreadful; one of the main characters has an Irish accent that is just horrible - it sounds like an American with no voice training has been asked to do an Irish accent or something. Truly dire.
The multiplayer suffers from the same flaws present in the combat aspect of the single-player game. There are a fair few characters to choose from (mostly unlocked through the single-player), but fights tend to come down to a few more powerful (and cheap) moves - you won't find anybody developing elaborate strategies here. There really is nothing that will trouble any of the other major fighting franchises.
Despite all of this, the basic idea does have something going for it and hopefully we'll see a game that fuses these two genres together in the future. Though, in this case, Beat Down is a disappointing offering from Capcom and is unlikely to appeal to the vast majority of gamers. Steer clear!