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December 1, 2012

Let’s discuss PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale.

Funny thing about this post -- it wasn’t supposed to exist.

That is, it wasn’t going to be a single-game discussion; it was part of a batch that I’d started working on beforehand.  But one thing led to another, and I noticed that the section for this game ended up being bigger than the other three combined.  So here we are, in a dedicated post on the game.  Kind of beneficial on my end, because it gives me plenty of space to focus and talk about my findings -- and ultimately find out where I sit with the so-called “Smash Bros. Clone”.  Which it is; it really is a clone, no matter how much you try to deny it.  That’s not a bad thing, but there should be no attempts to try and say otherwise.

With that in mind, I don’t know what to make of this game.  Really, I don’t.

I guess I should start by saying that, after playing the beta (and made my thoughts back then) I was hyped for the game.  I was ready to return to the frantic battlefield -- doubly so, because I’d get to play with the full roster.  I’d be able to play as Sackboy and wreak havoc on “jerk characters” like Kratos and Raiden and Dante.  I’d have a chance to learn how to use new characters, win some matches, and have some fun.

So let’s start with the good.  The game is more chaotic than I remember, even from the beta a little while ago.  This is a game that rewards combos, like any good fighting game, but I think it’s more important to have “battle savvy” more than technical skill.  Dante can string together some long and flashy combos, but because this game relies solely on Supers for scoring points, the effect of that flash is diminished.  More to the point, a day-long Dante combo can be a detriment; a sneaky Ratchet can slip in while he’s busy, power up a Level 1 Super, and score two kills at once as Dante’s combo brings him and an opponent down to the ground.  This game has more than enough potential to strike a good balance; combo-maniacs can get in deep with the mechanics and boosh-boosh-boosh their way to maximum meter gain, while strategists can control the crowd and monitor and affect the flow of the fight.


 It’s a “play it your way” mentality that I can’t help but get behind -- especially because a lot of the characters are surprisingly fun to play.  Admittedly this might be because I’ve been playing Smash Bros. for years and that stable’s gotten stale, but picking up any one of the twenty-ish characters (except Evil Cole -- seriously, why is he even in the game?) offers plenty of thrills.  Sackboy’s my favorite because he uses his toolset to great effect, and as expected Cole has served me well in close-range melees.  Imagine my surprise when characters I never would have touched are ones that I’d gladly add to my crew; Ratchet has useful moves and combos at any range, while Spike is a shockingly-competent melee ace. 

Now here’s the bad.  I trust by now you’re familiar with the Ken Flowchart that’s part and parcel of Street Fighter 4.


Now, I haven’t had enough time with the game to be certain of its depth; I’m willing to assume that there’s more than I assumed, even with the week or so I’ve had it.  But here’s the thing: even if this was the most complex and technical fighting game ever created, no one will ever know because everyone’s too busy hammering the square button with Kratos and Raiden.


I’m not going to call these characters broken, because it’s more than possible to beat them (thanks to the guys behind the wheel).  But that doesn’t make fighting them any less of a pain in the ass.  Kratos and Raiden players never calm the hell down -- and because the characters are designed to be whirling blades of death, you can hardly do anything to them without getting smacked across the stage.  Raiden has this sliding attack that lets him clear a huge amount of distance, and if it hits successfully you’re open for another combo…but even if he didn’t have that, Raiden will just keep slashing you and slashing you, whether you’re blocking or not.  Meanwhile, Kratos has a long-range grapple move -- a HOMING grapple move -- that immediately stops whatever you’re doing and sends you flying.  And his range is already pretty fantastic, so getting anywhere near him means that you’re bound to eat the Blades of Chaos.  What this means is that Kratos and Raiden’s flurries make them nigh-impossible to grab -- and since the only way to remove meter is by grabbing (or using the occasional item), that means you can’t reliably stop either of them from getting enough power for their Level 3s -- and it’s almost a guarantee that Kratos will get enough meter for a Level 1, a Level 2, AND a Level 3 in a single match.  And in spite of that, online players will STILL lose because they can’t calm down; I’ve won a number of matches because two Raiden players are busy mashing while I’m building meter for a Level 3.

I can’t help but wonder if the game is actually a lot more imbalanced than it lets on.  Like I said, Kratos and Raiden are beatable -- though Sackboy and Ratchet may have it easier thanks to their arsenals -- but the rest of the cast leaves me worried and confused.  I always thought it was redundant to have Ratchet and Clank AND Jak and Daxter in the same space (or on the PlayStation overall), but I have a hunch that the former pair is significantly more useful.  It’s to the point where I have to ask, “Why play Jak when you can play the much more useful Ratchet?”  Sir Daniel is supposed to be a heavy-hitter a la Smash Bros.’ Ike, but his usefulness is kneecapped by a lack of traditional health meters, a lack of speedy attacks, and a Level 1 that you can combo into, but is damn near impossible to hit with even at point-blank range…and again, he has to deal with the significantly-faster Slashing Bros.  My brother found out the hard way that Dante isn’t nearly as amazing as he thought the character would be; he’s got long and stylish combos, but he has yet to build enough meter for a Level 3...and sometimes struggles just to get a Level 2.  Combined with recovery on his attacks that lasts for weeks, and it’s enough to make me call him “Donte” once again. 




Reviews for this game have been all over the place, and I can see why: it treads a fine line between being incredibly fun and impossibly frustrating.  How much you approve of the game depends on how much you approve of the “kill with Supers” mechanic --and while it is a bold idea, it’s also a baffling one.  Given my brother’s struggles with Dante, I have to wonder if it’s even worth it to do extended, super-stylish combos.  Why bother when you’re not doing anything but building tiny amounts of meter and leaving yourself open for someone to shoot you in the back?  Why bother when Sackboy can reliably build meter by throwing jam or shooting cakes?  What’s the incentive to even learn combos if the basic three-hit string mapped to Square does its job well enough?  Beyond that, why would anyone want to throw themselves at Kratos and Raiden if they’re blenders that can’t be bothered to chill out and pay attention to the fight -- especially when there’s a Radec on the other side of the screen that can and will snipe his way to a Level 3?

But the biggest issue I have with the game isn’t one that has to do with gameplay.  It’s the sound -- or rather, the lack thereof.  See, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about the difference between eastern games and western games, it’s that eastern games have nailed the “impact factor.”  Basically, a western game will show you an explosion, while an eastern game will make you feel it.

For example, here’s how a western game will handle a finishing move.


And here’s how an eastern game will handle a finishing move.


One of those games was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing about the fighting game renaissance of the past half-decade.  The other game sucks.  

PlayStation All-Stars has sound, but the problem is that it’s all so distant and weak-sounding; I know I’m hitting people, but very rarely do I feel like I’m hitting them hard.  It’s more like I’m knocking on a door instead of sending someone flying.  The only exception is when you kill with a Super, but that only exacerbates how much busywork the basic combat can be (and in some cases is).  Worse yet, the music is nothing spectacular at best; sure, Drake’s theme pops up at opportune moments -- and is much-appreciated, as always -- but I have a hard time remembering any song that pops up, or feeling like I need to go to YouTube to listen to it.  And considering that I’m listening to a song from a fighting game as I write this, you can bet I’m chalking this up as a major misstep.  Even the victory jingles are weak; it’s like an approximation of the songs you know and love, with none of the bombast you’d expect for a celebration.  Also, why the hell do I have to unlock and equip victory jingles?  Why would the developers assume that I’m all right with listening to the even blander normal jingle, which is literally called “Generic”?

So yeah, this game has some serious flaws.  Flaws that I can’t overlook, even if they’re the result of good intentions.  It’s a frustrating game that, in spite of the hype from its crew, isn’t quite as game-changing as it made itself out to be.

But if that’s the case, why can’t I stop playing it?


It’s barely been a week, and already the game isn’t as rosy as it was on day one of the beta.  And I know for a fact that the luster from early on is going to be replaced by a business-as-usual mentality; playing as Ratchet for the hundredth time won’t be nearly as exciting as playing him for the first time.  Depending on the support SuperBot lends the game via patches and DLC -- and buffs/nerfs, considering that Sackboy’s about to take a hit -- this game will either flourish or wither; the online battles will become a slog instead of a pleasant surprise. And yet in spite of my complaints, in spite of my distaste, and in spite of being able to point out obvious faults, I still really like this game

Like I said before, this game is chaotic.  That’s a bad thing in the sense that, if you want things to go your way smoothly, you’re in for a shock.  But it’s a good thing in the sense that there are moment-to-moment skirmishes and happenings that you may never see again -- that is, there’s a level of excitement inherent in each match because the game is so unpredictable.  Seeing two Kratos players and a Raiden on the loading screen may make you feel a bit of dread, but there hasn’t been a single moment where I thought to myself, “Well, that’s it.  I lost.”  If you play intelligently, you ALWAYS have a chance at winning.  The skill gate is set significantly lower than the average fighting game, so there’s no need to master complex inputs or rely on unspoken conventions -- it all comes down to how effectively you use the moves at your disposal.  And really, isn’t that what any given fighting game should do?  Shouldn’t it reward ingenuity and battle savvy?  Shouldn’t it give you plenty of chances to outwit your opponents?  Shouldn’t it offer opportunities to steal back your win with a well-placed attack?  Yes to all of those things and more -- and that’s where All-Stars shines.


Actually, scratch that; it shines frequently, and fantastically.  It shines when you’re in a 2v2 match, which is not only satisfying and strategic, but arguably should become THE standard for tournament play (if it comes down to that).  It shines when you take advantage of an opponent’s weaknesses and frustrate them so they’ll miss their attacks and walk right into yours.  It shines when you blast multiple opponents across the stage with a single rocket-boosted charge, and the hope for victory that comes as your meter gains dozens of points in one swoop.  It shines when you try to describe the sheer, gleeful insanity at any point, like smacking an undersea monstrosity into a hail of golf balls with an oversized mackerel.  It shines when you realize that this game lets you pit Heihachi Mishima against PaRappa the Rapper, or even have them team up against Nathan Drake and Toro the Cat.  Not even the wildest fever dreams could conjure this stuff up.

So, bottom line.  Is it a good game?  Pretty much, yeah -- it’s worth a buy if you haven’t already.  Is it better than Smash Bros.?  That’s a tricky one.  All-Stars has a more overt combo system and layers of complexity to it, and the random factor isn’t quite as high as Smash Bros. (no tripping!)…but on the other hand, Smash Bros. has a better feel to it thanks to better visuals -- relative to the systems’ processing power; All-Stars’ graphics aren’t exactly the most awe-inspiring -- better sound design, and  generally a more exciting and glee-inducing cast.  Clones aside, Smash has some of the most notable characters in gaming history, while I suspect that the developers struggled to even come up with a list of twenty.  (Big Daddy?  Seriously?  That’s an iconic Sony character?)  But while there are fewer characters, there are deeper characters; having three attack buttons instead of two makes a world of difference.  So who knows?  Maybe a few sequels down the line Smash will be eclipsed by All-Stars.


Long post short: if this game isn’t on your radar, maybe it should be.  Christmas is coming up; maybe you can get in on that hotness…assuming that Santa’s not in one of his moods and gives you a coal-laden cocktail.  Or in other words, tries to kill you.

Santa's kind of a jerk sometimes.

8 comments:

  1. Hmm, this game looks pretty weak, IMO.

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  2. I don't blame you for thinking that; up until the beta I wasn't convinced that this game was even worth my time. Now here I am defending it, in spite of being a Smash Bros. loyalist.


    If nothing else, I wouldn't mind seeing what dedicated members of the fighting game community do with All-Stars. Like I said, I feel like this game has fantastic potential for 2v2 matches. If it's really EVO-ready as claimed (balance issues aside), then maybe it can wow even more people.

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  3. I'll be honest - I have no interest in the game. You've practically covered why.


    I'm both baffled by the "only Supers can score KOs" mechanic and the lack of any Sony characters I'd buy the game for aside from Parappa, plus having both good Cole and evil Cole made me facepalm. It'd be a whole different story if they had Crash, of course.


    It's much like how I never bought Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3, since the only reason I have to even glance at it is the existence of Phoenix Wright as a fighter.

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  4. I've heard rumblings that they're trying to get Crash in the game, but there are a lot of legal issues that need to be sorted first. Same goes for Spyro, I think -- and supposedly because Activision's using him for Skylanders, they'd have to pay some pretty hefty fees.


    In the game's defense, even if there aren't any characters that'd make it an automatic buy, it's still more than possible to have a blast with characters that you otherwise wouldn't have touched. I'm about a match away from declaring Ratchet as my go-to character, and I've got more than a passing interest in Fat Princess. Plus there's going to be DLC, so maybe the roster will have something that strikes your fancy eventually...although you could argue that the roster should have been much stronger from the get-go.


    That aside, I was about to suggest that Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is worth buying EVEN IF Phoenix Wright is the only character you're interested in. But then I remembered that he's one of the worst characters in the game, and it's a supreme pain in the ass it is to get anything accomplished with him.


    If nothing else, there's an Irish player named Lythero who tears it up with Wright on a semi-regular basis. You should watch his videos and let that be the full extent of your Marvel 3 experience.

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  5. ... I'm still on the fence. The concept of All-Stars (and its roster) caught my attention a few months ago, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't interested. Maybe I'll be more sure when the price drops a bit. :/

    it's a shame about the [lack of] sound. loud, epic finishes and victory themes can be empowering. Music and sound effects, when appropriate, tend to help me enjoy a game more.



    And yeah, it's too soon to really say All-Stars can hold a candle to any installment of SSB. There'd be fire and pitchforks across the gaming community...

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  6. I would have figured that there already are fire and pitchforks, given the hot debate about the whole "Sony Smash Bros." status. Like I said, it's a clone of a winning formula -- and while I'm happy the developers copied a successful formula, the fact that they HAD to clone it has probably turned off a lot of people.


    And I hear you (hurr hurr) on the sound factor. It's not just a matter of making an experience more enjoyable; good music/sound effects can make a game more memorable, period. The Ace Attorney series wouldn't be what it is if not for sound bytes of people screaming "Objection!" Sonic games from this generation wouldn't be using effects from roughly twenty years ago with reckless glee. I have my laptop set up to play sound effects from The Legend of Zelda every time I plug in or pull out my mp3 player.


    Bottom line -- some devs get it, others don't. And those that do are ones that I hold in higher esteem...and rightfully so.

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  7. That Random Game BloggerDecember 5, 2012 at 3:01 AM

    This is a game that just didn't appeal to me at all. I felt they jumped the gun on some characters a bit too quickly. The first game should have focused on old Playstation celebrities such as Spyro, Crash (yes I know these two are on other systems now), Parappa the Rapper, god of war, etc.


    I don't think third party characters and more recent and lesser known characters such as Radec should have been in the first title.


    As for the gameplay, I never expected it to be balanced, I mean... I wouldn't really call Smash Bros balanced either, but at its core it's a party/fighting game so that's fine.



    Maybe All-Stars' real problem is an identity crisis, does it want to be a fighting game first and a party game second or the other way around?

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  8. That's actually a really good question. Common sense and the general gameplay style suggests that it's a party game, but the developers have been touting it as not only a deep fighting game, but one that's ready for the biggest fighting game tournament in the world. And there has been some effort put in; there ARE combos, and there are tutorials and a trial mode from straight-up fighting games like Street Fighter or BlazBlue. So if nothing else, there has been effort put in.


    The problem is, as I said, that there's virtually no incentive for anyone but dedicated fighting game fans to try and figure out how deep the game is. Take Raiden for example. The way people play him online, it's as if he has exactly three moves: a sliding attack, a sword combo, and a flurry of kicks (which in retrospect may be mirroring Chun-Li's famous Lightning Legs). What else can he do? By design he should have at least 12 attacks, but I don't think I've seen a single one beyond the core three.


    So even if this game has aims to be a fighting game, I'm still convinced that -- good intentions aside -- this is still a party game. It has the potential to be something deeper, but the game can be too chaotic to allow any sort of nuanced approach to a fight. And again, there's "the Dante problem" where long combos are not only unrewarding, but downright dangerous to use when someone can shoot you in the back. The metagame has started to take shape, and it's not about to change anytime soon.

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