Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale – Review
I don’t feel the need to pull any punches on this one: I was not looking forward to Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale. When I played it at Gamescom I was spectacularly uninspired, and when I tried again at Eurogamer I was, again, unmoved. In my eyes this was simply an unashamed knock-off of Super Smash Bros., and as such completely unworthy of my time. Boy, was I wrong. The first few moments, where I skipped the intro video – too much dubstep – and navigated my way into the menu screen, did little to change my mind. It’s said that first impressions are vital, and All-Stars does not make the best one. The main menu looks like it was ripped right out of a Playstation One era game and inserted after they changed some of the words. It looks cheap and tacky and also makes trying to actually play a match needlessly complicated.
Thankfully, once you actually get into a match you forget the crappy menu system and just get to playing, which turns out to be a rather fulfilling experience. Or, it does once you’ve got through the tutorial. Playing it is a good idea, as without it you’ll be engulfed by the chaos that instantly begins at the start of the round and it gives you a vague idea of what you should be doing, and the basics of how the combat works.
The actual fighting is the heart and soul of All-Stars, and that’s where it begins to shine. Each character has a completely unique style of play, with very different focuses depending on who you pick. Jak, for example, has a moveset focused on lifting opponents into the air, where he can really dish out damage. Radec – of Killzone fame – on the other hand, prefers to keep opponents at a distance, where his powerful sniper rifle and assortment of other armaments can be made best use of.
Actually accessing these armaments is done through simple button presses. There are no complicated inputs to achieve moves, and certainly no Street Fighter-esque combinations. Almost everything can be done with just the face buttons and the analog sticks. Blocking and using Super Attacks are the only crucial elements assigned to the L and R buttons, and those are simple enough to figure out quickly. The actual fighting boils down to the fact that each of the face buttons do something different, and when they are pushed in combination with a direction they do something else; when you’re in the air they do something else again. After that, it’s simply a matter of making sure you’re facing the right way when you press the buttons.
Once you’ve got the hang of the character you’re playing – and that can take a while – winning games is pretty simple. In both of the two game modes – timed and stock battles – the aim is to build up your super meter to one of three levels and, once there, use an increasingly-powerful super move to destroy one or more of your opponents. Of course, it’s more complex than that, but thankfully only a little.
Your super meter is increased by beating the crap out of other people, or from picking up these little blue orbs. Of course, it would be pretty boring if those bars were always going upwards, so there are a couple of ways to force them down a little. There are weapons and items scattered liberally among the stages, many of which inspire explosions of little blue balls from those that it hits, inevitably accompanied by a decrease in their super bars. If you’re in a pinch and there are no weapons about, a quick flick of the right stick is all you need for a grab, which will also lower the afflicted player’s super bar.
The balance that All-Stars somehow manages to strike is between structured combos that can be very lengthy and combat that is rather chaotic at the best of times is perhaps its greatest triumph. The focus of All-Stars, for the most part, is kills, as they are rewarded more than dying is punished. This system creates a high speed, aggressive environment, where players are unafraid of pushing hard to gain an extra kill, even if it means losing their own life. Furthermore, matches can be very different propositions depending on both the number of players and mode of play, and that variety means that the game seldom feels stale.
Level design keeps this theme going, with the stages that you wage war on appearing pleasingly unique; each of them are taken from one of Sony’s marquee games and they actually feel like it. Graphics look authentic enough, and you’re drawn quite nicely into stages that feel both fresh and familiar. Familiar that is until they start getting invaded. As your battle progresses the stage you are fighting on evolves, often drawing characters or events from other, unrelated, games into the fray. It often feels odd, and sometimes even jarring, but at the same time it keeps things exciting and intense. You can hardly say that it is boring when one of Sly’s sidekicks is bombarding the hell out of an Infamous level, but you can call it weird. Levels are littered with these and other hazards, meaning that the ground you’re walking on can be your downfall just as easily as your opponent.
The end result of both this and the different game modes means that you’re always working at adjusting your game to the conditions that you are presented with. Seldom does any element feel samey and everything feels fresh, even on your 10th or 20th match on the stage, and the necessary mental switch between modes keeps you constantly on your toes. Unfortunately, this is where the problems begin. The disparity between modes is huge, and the cues that tell you what you are playing are nigh unnoticeable until you start the game. The few seconds that it invariably takes for you to figure out what you are playing can be hugely painful, especially if you’re playing a mode in which speed is of the essence.
The balancing of the roster is where All-Stars has a bit of an all-fall-down. There are plenty of characters to choose from, but unfortunately, there are few that are actually of any use. This means that the roster feels far smaller than it really is, and when you’re playing against actual, real human beings you’ll be seeing the same few characters over and over again. In reality, if you have any hopes of winning you’ll be playing as one of those very same characters. It’s a little flaw that suddenly turns the game on its head, transforming it from an almost dangerously addictive brawler into an all-too repetitive frustration. It’s a damn shame, because that rush of blood when you start playing online (in particular) is just as exhilarating as those more ‘serious’ fighters, but by the time you stumble into the third match in a row that all three opponents are playing Kratos that enthusiasm has long since finished swirling down the drain.
Online play is solid – with almost no lag for me – right up until the moment I was kicked from the match. Unfortunately, I got kicked a lot more than I normally do, with the rate being something like every four matches. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s still seriously annoying. It’s almost as annoying as the realisation that although you’re playing as some of Sony’s best known characters, there are some notable exclusions from the cast. Playing as characters like Jak and Ratchet makes for a real blast from the past, and this title does a great job on tugging on that nostalgia with familiar catchphrases and taunts. Ultimately though, this just highlights the absence of some other similarly nostalgic figures – Spyro and Crash Bandicoot in particular. I didn’t realise how much this would bother me, but in the end it’s just miserable to be playing a game that worships the best characters that Sony has to offer without even a mention for two of their finest.
It’s their absence that perhaps describes Sony All-Stars Battle Royale best. It’s a brawler that has taken inspiration from the mighty Smash Bros. and created something all its own. It’s both enjoyable and more than robust enough to satisfy those who are looking for a challenge, and all signs from developer SuperBot suggest that it will be supported heartily in the months to come. Yet, somehow it feels likes it’s not quite all there. There are notable faces missing and the lack of balancing between all the characters is such a large issue that two thirds of the ones that are there might as well not be. It’s commendable, but in the end it falls short.
It won a battle of sorts though: it made me admit that I was wrong.Pros
- Simple control scheme makes it easy to pick up and play
- Surprising depth in combat
- Scoring bias towards kills breeds a fast and hostile environment
- Seldom feels stale...
- ...unless you run into the same character a dozen times
- The imbalance in the roster renders two-thirds of it unplayable
- Missing some bastions of the Sony brand
- The online play can be iffy
Though it is very clear where All-Stars takes its inspiration from, it delivers a surprisingly absorbing blend of polished gameplay and pick-up and playability. It has a few problems, not least of which is the balancing of the characters, but the positives outweigh the negatives to make this a rather fun experience. It would be a lot better if something could be done about the lack of some old favourites, as well as how insanely strong some of the characters are, but in the end this a game that is just as much fun to play alone as it is with a bunch of friends, or even online. It may not challenge Smash Bros. for the crown as king of the party brawlers just yet, but it is a big stride in the right direction.
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