Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance
PlayStation 2, 2005
Suppose Grand Theft Auto and Tekken had a beautiful child. With the solid brawling mechanics of a fighting game and the free-roaming edginess of a sandbox crime game, this child would have been destined for greatness; a perfect storm of depth, complexity, and replay value. But what if I were to tell you that this child hated its parents? That it eschewed its inheritance? That it hated the concept of being a video game so much that it gave up all its aspirations, dropped out of college at age 20, and became a creepy townie? That game, my friends, is Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance.
But hey, let’s be honest, creepy townies know how to party, and I’m not ashamed to say that I had a good time throwing back a few with Beatdown. I’m not sure if it was the good time its creators intended, but it was a good time nonetheless.
Set in the fictional city of Las Sombras, the action in Beatdown is held together by a patchwork of cliched revenge narratives. You play as one of five gangsters, who have been framed for… I don’t know. I played this game for over ten hours, and I have no idea what my motivation was. There was a plot, though. Here’s the beginning:
And, if you’re not spoiler averse, here is the end. In between? Let’s just say this sandwich doesn’t have any meat. The less you think about it, the better; in Beatdown, you’ve been wronged, and your ultimate goal is to beat up the people that have wronged you. Beatdown’s story serves only to point you towards the end of the game. The less said about it the better; it literally makes no sense.
While Beatdown has a critical path consisting of a dozen or so missions, you’ll usually find that your character is somewhat underpowered to deal with them as they arise. As such, you spend most of Beatdown wandering the streets of Las Sombras randomly assaulting its citizens to gain the money, power and experience necessary to progress. This is where Beatdown gets interesting.
In Grand Theft Auto, or any of its numerous clones, you’d accomplish this feat by randomly slugging a pedestrian and taking whatever cash or items they had on hand. Beatdown doesn’t let you do that. Before you can assault anybody, you have to actually TALK to them. And you know what? The citizens of Las Sombras aren’t actually bad people. Some of them are a little antisocial, but the overwhelming majority of them seem content to give you a little bit of advice, pay you a compliment, or simply ask your opinion about something wholly irrelevant. Take, for example, this dude:
This tracksuited fellow can always be found jogging in comically small circles at the Las Sombras basketball courts. Should you interrupt his workout, he’ll cheerfully inquire as to whether you like the sport of basketball. You can answer him however you like. Should you say “yes,” he’ll confide in you that he once hoped to make it to the pros. Should you say “no,” he’ll simply encourage you to give the sport another try. Regardless of your response, you’re then presented with the opportunity to beat the ever-loving dogshit out of him – and there’s really no compelling reason not to. Theoretically, you COULD just go on your merry way, contemplating your own hoop dreams, but to do so would be to forfeit the cash and experience that you need to press onward in your ill-defined quest for revenge. So it goes.
But you can’t just go around chatting up citizens and indiscriminately cold-cocking them willy-nilly, oh no. You see, in Beatdown, your character is being hunted by both the police and rival mobsters. This means that you have two separate “wanted” levels to keep an eye on. The violence you inflict on citizens causes your notoriety with both groups to rise, rendering you prone to random assaults from roving gangs of thugs and police patrols. In most open-world games, simply lying low for a while would cause the heat to die down – but not in Beatdown. Once you’ve raised the ire of your enemies, they’ll stay on you until you affirmatively do something to shake them off.
That “something” is changing your appearance. The “best” way to do this is to get plastic surgery, physically altering your character’s facial features. This will decrease the attention you receive from both cops and robbers. Makes sense, right? They can’t catch you if they can’t recognize you.
For the overwhelming majority of the game, though, plastic surgery is far too expensive a remedy to consider. A new face costs $3,000, and your average citizen is usually carrying less than $20. This means you’ll have to resort to simply changing your clothes or getting a haircut. Each article of clothing you put on impacts BOTH of your wanted levels – some mask you from mobsters while attracting the police, and vice versa. Now, theoretically, this could be an interesting little meta-game, requiring you to carefully engineer your outfit as to garner the absolute minimum amount of attention from your pursuers. Except this whole system is broken. Completely and utterly broken. Just look at this:
There’s no delicate way to state this: dressing like a transvestite hooker always seems to reduce your notoriety to its absolute lowest. You want to walk through the raindrops in Las Sombras? Put on a gold lamé bra and a mini skirt. No one will notice you, I promise. If anyone catches you, you can always switch to a pair of daisy dukes and your favorite Hawaiian shirt.
Keep their eyes on your toned ass, and you can get away with murder. That’s what my grandpap always said, anyway.
Suffice it to say, then, you’ll spend most of Beatdown running around dressed like a gender-confused maniac, engaging people in idle conversation, only to inflict horrific violence on them moments later. It feels like a sociopath simulator more than anything else. And you know what? It’s so absurd, it’s actually kind of fun. Don’t take it from me – take it from Canadian rock legends, Loverboy.
That took three nights to piece together, but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
Now, if you were watching closely, you might have noticed that occasionally, you are presented with the option to “negotiate” with some of Las Sombras’ residents. “Negotiating” offers the chance to either interrogate, recruit, or rob the citizen in question. “Interrogating” occasionally results in useful information, but more often than not, it yields a useless gameplay tip. “Robbing” is similarly unappealing, simply giving you the option to extract more money from your victim than usual. Recruiting them, though – that’s where the action’s at.
“Recruit” is shorthand for “violently conscript into criminal service.” Once you’ve recruited a new gang member, they’ll follow you around the map, blindly accompanying you into whatever danger you lead them, whether it’s taking down a drug cartel or simply beating up that hobo outside the free clinic.
It bears mentioning that Beatdown has a needlessly complex combat system. Whenever you attempt to recruit a random thug or encounter a boss character, the game takes on the trappings of a fighting game, putting you in a one on one battle against your opponent. There’s sidesteps, juggles, parries, and all sorts of other fighting-gamey things. Each playable character also has cavernously deep move list. You can even learn new moves by beating up an elderly bartender. It’s all surprisingly robust, if not completely unrefined and unnecessary. On the default difficulty, you can simply get away with mashing punch and kick most of the time.
Beatdown also has a number of side-missions, which you can do to earn a little extra scratch to put towards a new halter top. Most of these seem to be either absurd, improperly programmed, or both. Take, for example, the following mission, wherein I was tasked with infiltrating a warehouse to steal some drugs.
Hmm. Looks like the guard won’t let me in unless I’ve got the right ink. Time to go to the free clinic to get a tribal tattoo. Yes, the only place to get tattoos is the free clinic. Astonishingly, everything at the free clinic costs money.
Being either drunk or stupid, I blatantly ignored the option to get a tribal tattoo, instead choosing to get a beautiful rose permanently etched into my upper thigh. That should be good enough, right? That won’t rouse any suspicion from the cartel.
See! What did I tell you? All you have to do is pull down your jorts, show the nice man your rose tattoo, and you can take all the drugs you want. This town isn’t so bad.
Like any good deadbeat townie pal, if Beatdown is guilty of anything, it’s a failure to thrive. It’s got nothing but potential. Solid graphics, a competent fighting system, decent production values… hell, it was published by Capcom. But Beatdown just doesn’t care. What’s the point in trying? It can do crime, but it’s never going to be GTA. If it wanted to, it could be a decent fighting game… but why try. It’s never going to be Tekken. It might as well just sit on its parents couch and coast.
But somewhere in this beautiful disaster, there’s fun to be found. It’s just ridiculous enough to keep you playing. Like your townie pal, you’ll probably forget Beatdown in a few years, but you’ll be happy to have it around before you move on to better things.
I can safely say I got my money’s worth out of Beatdown. It only cost me two bucks. Played on original hardware, upscaled to 1080p through a Micomsoft Framemeister. All footage and screens captured through an ElGato HD60.