Game Reviewby Todd Ciolek,
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
In this loosely connected follow-up to MadWorld, bounty hunter Jack Cayman and cyborg officer Leonhardt Victorion head to the hazardous, mutant-filled expanse of Altambra in search of rogue agent Maxmillian Caxton.
Anarchy Reigns is a game divided. It's in the way the storyline splits to follow the grimacing, chainsaw-slinging Jack Cayman and the sleeker, slightly nicer Leo Victorion. It's in the difference between the game's focused missions and the more aimless exploration of a shattered city. More than anything else, though, it's in the gulf that sets apart a disappointing single-player plotline and a serving of deliriously fun multiplayer carnage.
The background of Anarchy Reigns is conveyed in a few loading screens, and it all comes down to this: things in the future are bad, and nowhere are they worse than in the city of Altambra, where towering lizardmen and surprisingly well-armed mutant gangs roam amid the ruins. In this dilapidated venue, the player can choose between Jack's “Black Side” story and Leo's White one, though the two cover similar territory. The profane, thoroughly cynical bounty hunter and the clean-cut, partway idealistic cybrid-cop prowl one section of Altambra at a time, unlocking specific missions once they've pounded enough enemies. Along the way, they'll encounter a motley parade of bosses—some resurrected from MadWorld, some invented for Anarchy Reigns.
Between Bayonetta and the undervalued Vanquish, Platinum Games shows an undeniable gift for chaotic variety, and it's at the core of Anarchy Reigns. Every playable character, from the two heroes to the smorgasbord of unlockable faces, gets a largely unique set of aerial moves, dashing strikes, a rising sweep, and a momentary burst of destructive power. Each combatant's special ability is easily enabled through a shoulder button and a power meter. The raucous cyborg Big Bull whips off his missile backpack and swings it like a hammer. Leo's comrade Sasha plays with a fleet of frigid remotes. The obese mechanic Oinkie temporarily transforms into a green-skinned hulk. Rin Rin and her sisters imbue their weapons with fire, ice, and electricity. And Jack relies on the same telescoping chainsaw gauntlet that saw him through MadWorld, only it's now two chainsaws. That says something about Anarchy Reigns.
It's all enjoyable at first, rampaging through one punk horde after another, seeing just how much of Altambra can be casually destroyed, and riding to the top of a skeletal skyscraper just to dive into the payment below. Yet it wears off rapidly. Fairly small and limited in their diversions, the Altambra neighborhoods are just there to set up the game's various missions, and those have problems of their own. Aside from the boss encounters, most of the missions are unmemorable in their aims. It's usually a matter of destroying a certain number of enemies, protecting some hapless Bar-Bot, or enduring a mediocre mini-game. Scoring high in one mission unlocks the next, but those who earn fewer points have to make up the difference by replaying missions or brawling around the city. Neither really excites upon a return trip. It's all at least visually striking, though the soundtrack is a morass of forgettable beats about mutants and ruthlessness.
The most memorable sights of a solo Anarchy Reigns run are the bosses, but that's due more to their elaborate appearances than the challenges they put up. The story around all of them remains the stuff of trashy comics; there are hyper-macho heroes, women whose chests and asses are introduced before their faces, and moments of stony-faced gravitas. Even if the serious tones worked in Anarchy Reigns (and they usually don't), we've seen much of this before, right down to the grizzled, uncaring veteran hired by a fallen hero's daughter. The lighter scenes remain just as familiar, though the localizers certainly embrace it. Jack's most persistent ally is the Baron, a pimp who bears “F*CK OFF” on his gold teeth and refers to himself as “this token black guy.” Does that make it better or worse?
One thing is evident: Anarchy Reigns is less gory than MadWorld's dark and heavy-handed satire. For all of its gruesome, atavistic overkill, the game pulls punches. Major characters bleed normally, but random thugs explode into showers of blood that's Kool-Aid blue instead of red. And while every boss died a hideous death in MadWorld, they're spared in Anarchy Reigns just so they can join the heroes later on…and add to the sense that the one-player mode is just there to feed the better half of the game.
Anarchy Reigns gives itself away at the title screen, highlighting “multiplayer” by default when the first menu scrolls up. There's a standard complement of two-player cage fights, flag-capturing diversions, tag battles, and whopping 16-player melee. The real strength of it lies in the character lineup and the variable hazards of the stages. Altambra might not be intriguing when you're exploring it alone, but its multi-tiered environments become excellent playfields when rocket-powered robot bulls, piston-armed cyborgs, and other misfit warriors are tearing into each other all at once. Nor do the levels remain static. Submarines and jets bombard the landscape, black holes toss characters around the map, and power-ups appear at random. Then there's the Deathball arena, which rewards actual teamwork in its matches.
You're free to ignore the single-player lures entirely and go straight to multiplayer. While it's a little easier to unlock new characters in Jack and Leo's journey of murderous self-discovery, gaining ranks in Deathball and Mad Survival is far more rewarding. The various modes aren't as balanced as a more traditional fighting game (might extra character Bayonetta be a bit overpowered?), but the reckless fighting prevents any consistent advantages.
The biggest problem, of course, is the implicit reliance on the online community. Anarchy Reigns isn't the latest Halo or Street Fighter, and already there's a wait if you're seeking Deathball teams or 16-player matches. The single-player story of Anarchy Reigns may be disappointing, but it'll be the same sort of disappointing ten months from now. The multiplayer angle is the real heart of the game, but it could dry up in short order. Platinum might have mollified this with local split-screen play for the smaller multiplayer venues, but there's no such option.
If the best side of Anarchy Reigns may be short-lived, that's all the more reason to embrace it now. The mediocre single-player experience lacks the impact of Platinum's better works, but it's just a long and simple by-product of the richer multi-character clashes that await online. And when Anarchy Reigns hits that frenzied stride, few modern brawlers can compete.