Sony PlayStation 3Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360
Platinum Games are possibly the world’s finest proponents of third-person combat gaming. Platinum’s catalogue of games from Mad World to Bayonetta and Vanquish are all about making the combat feel good. It’s all about the elegant, pacy and fluid battling you do with otherworldly beasts from the realms of fantasy and science-fiction, whether it be with fists, guns or something else entirely. The brilliance of a Platinum Games’ game is the balletic movement, the multi-layered fighting and the excitement which comes with it all whether you’re a novice bashing the buttons to deliver a basic battering, or an experienced fighter combining combos to clinical effect. With Anarchy Reigns things are a little more raw than in recent times, driven by the narrative to provide a brutal beat ‘em up in single player and a mesmerising variety of multiplayer options. Yet when all is combined you’re still seeing some of the deepest, most learned fighting around.
Anarchy Reigns was perceived as a massively multiplayer beat ‘em up and was due out Summer 2012 all around the globe. For reasons unbeknownst to us Sega chose to pull the US and European releases and just introduce it to Asian territories at that time. In the intervening months fans of the developers and genre have been pushing to ensure a release was eventually forthcoming and thankfully everyone got their wish early this year, and at a price point well below that of standard retail fare. So the good news is everyone anywhere can get to play the roughshod single player narrative - if you can call it that - and then get into the meat of the game online (more cheaply than they’ll have been expecting), but at what cost?
The single player content serves as a great way into the game, the roster of characters and sets you away on the never-ending combat learning curve. The structure however is somewhat peculiar. There is a narrative. You’re introduced to the playable character(s) by way of a cinematic during which you learn that some chap called Max (the game was called Max Anarchy in Japan) has gone missing and various people want to find him. You then get to choose the black side or the white side. Each has its own character - Jack Cayman in the former (of MadWorld fame) and Leo Victorian in the latter. You can choose which side you start on, but to finish the game and fill in the story gaps you’ll have to play both sides. Whilst there are various cutscenes filtering the gameplay and letting us know who’s who and what’s what, the fragility of the connectivity is clear to see. Some dialogue between characters is done as if introducing a fight between the pair, with floating heads facing each other and text both running across the screen and being spoken in parallel. So much so in fact that it is basically introducing the fight.
Once you’ve chosen your side you enter a free play area in stage one. There are up to six missions in this stage - three will advance the story and need to be played whilst three are there to play if you fancy it. Immediately no stages are available to play and you need to unlock each of the six by collecting a cumulatively higher collection of points. Points are collected by beating the thugs in the open world area, and then more are obtained for completing a free or story mission. Typically you’ll unlock free missions before every story mission. The variety of victory conditions is evident throughout, ensuring that you don’t end up doing the same thing over and over again unless through choice. You’ll be asked at one moment to face off against the overlord of a given region mano-a-mano, and another time you’ll have to make it around a racetrack five times over, ensuring you wipe enough bad guys out using your vehicle’s flamethrower to avoid any undue obstruction.
Each mission is straightforward at normal difficulty or lower and it’s only when you move to the hard difficulty that you’ll encounter significant issues in progression. The harder difficulty is normally due to the bosses taking more hits and hitting harder but it encourages you to learn the various attack patterns and work around them; evade at the right time and move in for the kill when you can - only for as long as you can. Keep the killer weapon moves or the rampage until you have the opening to make use of it. Rinse and repeat. Each character in the game (any mode) is non-customisable. They all have the same basic moveset, but there are still differences from character to character, especially as you get more used to them (e.g. their killer weapon). The world you’re fighting is in three-dimensional and you can move on all axes thanks to the analogue stick and jump button. You have a light and heavy attack button as well as one for grabbing your opponent (whether standing or on the floor). You have a killer weapon - unique to each avatar, meaning Mad Jack has a chainsaw but Bayonetta has her Wicked Weave. Once you fill your meter (by attacking folk) you can unleash your rampage too which allows you to just pummel an opponent to near-death for a period of time. If you’re getting hit a bit too much you can block (limited effect) and/or evade by rolling in any direction, hopefully to begin your attack once more. You can also attack on your way up in the air, or back down, too.
The trick in single player is as we say above - learn the attack patterns of your opponent so you know when to block, evade and hit back, but also delivering the most powerful, efficient combos depending on the situation. Start with a light attack or two, move into a heavy and finish with a killer weapon thrashing. Once the bad guy is reeling, turn on rampage and finish them. In single player this is easy enough whatever kind of combo you pull off. On hard you’ll need to really study what is coming at you and have an idea what you’re attempting to do to others as well.
The main missions - which are all effectively a boss fight of some kind - are the situations you’ll find yourself most often struggling with as opposed to the free missions. It does feel like the jump from normal to hard is too big a gap and something in-between may have been beneficial. Having said that, whilst the gap is large it does afford one the opportunity to repeat missions to obtain a better score and that all important rank. The aim is to get a Platinum Anarchy rank on each individual mission within a stage and in so doing obtain the Platinum stage rank too. Not only will this look prettier in-game it will also improve your leaderboard position. You’ll find yourself wanting to replay missions (each lasts only a few minutes) in order to achieve the top rankings but driven by a desire to improve; to better your fighting skills, your strategies and prepare yourself more for the unpredictable world of online multiplayer. You’ll likely choose to replay the whole campaign once finished in order to experience the alternative side but also then if you're still appreciating its charms, mop up all the trophies and continue bettering your leaderboard position.
Multiplayer though is where it’s all at. Or meant to be at least. Once you’ve finished the campaign you will have unlocked the full rostrum of characters for use in the online arena. There are a few ways you can enter an online matchup. You can go for a ranked match or unranked, you can search for a quick fight or a custom fight whereby you can choose the mode you want to play and the region you want to limit opponent’s locations to and more. You can create private lobbies which are filled via invite only. Pretty standard in this day and age. Unfortunately once you start searching for a game you begin to encounter all manner of issues that in some cases will be technical, others choiceful and some down to the oddity of the release schedule.
Depending upon the game mode you choose there will be a different number of players required before the game gets going. If you’re looking for a mode with a high number of players then you will find yourself waiting a long time in lobbies whilst players join the game and then sort themselves out to the point they’re ready. There seems no obvious way around this aside from exiting that particular lobby and finding another, but the problem there is that the slow filling of any given lobby is due to the paucity of players online. Partly down to the stilted release in the West leading to fewer copies purchased than might have been expected but also because those who have had the game from its Asian release (either in that region or via import) have been playing it for six months and have now moved on. Trying to find another lobby also means another round of matchmaking which is slow in itself and often fails - you’ll enter a lobby only to be told it’s full. Why then did the game let you enter given it was searching for available sessions?
Once you actually play a game things are, thankfully, very different. There wasn’t any lag detected during our playtime on a number of occasions during weekend daytime and weekday evenings, over a wired broadband network on PlayStation 3. This netcode heaven allows you to focus on the actual fighting, which as it turns out is vitally important given you will just get absolutely destroyed as you begin, especially when you come up against those who are up at or near rank fifty and far, far better than you. Over time you learn, of course. You take the skills developed in the single player campaign and apply them. Then you learn the nuances of your chosen online character and when to do what. You take the chances you get against lower ranked players and obtain that first kill, build up your rank (although this is a much slower process than found in other multiplayer titles) and eventually start to have a presence in all manner of online matchups, as opposed to just seeing the kill screen over and over. What you’ll find is that your approach in single player isn’t good enough. Multiplayer is a step-up whatever happens. Your real opponent is not going to be restrained by some fixed rote of attack patterns and timings; they will not take kindly to continued pummelling as if it were some extended Street Fighter Ultra, or a Bayonetta player in the zone. They will stop you. They will attack back. It will perhaps feel more like a traditional three dimensional beat ‘em up than anything else. Until you get hit by one of the other fourteen players in the game. There are different modes which do add to the variety and ensure you’re unlikely to ever get bored with the game if it’s in anyway your thing such as one on one cage matches, deathmatches and some co-op games. The problem though is in the less than ideal matchmaking and the unfortunate lack of active players. The progression through the ranks and to the point when you know a character well enough to succeed online, coupled with the above issues, means you’re unlikely to persist with the game as so much time is wasted.
The game is technically superb but with only passable presentation. Menus are minimalistic and provide the first indication of the less than stellar graphics. Each character model is drawn nicely enough and the world is fully formed but textures are minimal and everything has a slightly dulled and washed out look as if we’re watching painted cardboard rather than fully formed three-dimensional models. The engine allows for speedy movement and there are no issues in making full use of the skills of your character - aside from your own experience or executional abilities in terms of dealing destruction. You don’t get the feeling of perpetual motion that you had with Vanquish but that feels a choice given the more street fighting nature of the game, and you’re still able to move brilliantly in accordance with your avatar’s abilities. The audio is fine, no substantial or spectacular surround sound soundtrack but it’s all very good including the voicework. The music is entertaining enough and enjoyable and very fitting to the type of game delivered here.
Everything adds up to a frustrating title in the end, one that impresses upon you the feeling of a missed opportunity. The single-player game is entertaining enough and full of replayability but the structure and narrative suggest it was an afterthought when the idea of a multiplayer only title, or the challenge of learning the game in an online arena, was deigned unreasonable. The online world is fascinatingly well done and encouraging when you get the chance but given the issues the mode is flawed. It’s a shame because the opportunity offered by multiplayer combat to really continue learning how to fight and - importantly - how to fight better, as opposed to just finding a way to win as with Platinum’s single player games is a great one. It’s just not made really clear.