I wanted to roll my eyes at Sony's apparent clone/rip-off/however-else-you-want-to-insult-it/take on Nintendo's Super Smash Bros..
OK, it's not hard to admit that I did roll my eyes at the thing when we finally got official details about the long-rumored game a couple of weeks ago. But yesterday, I got to play PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, and I just don't have hard enough of a heart to roll my eyes at it any longer.
The truth is, it's fun to be able to beat up God of War's Kratos with the one and only Fat Princess Fat Princess. When she, under my control, throws cake at him, how can I then say this game doesn't deserve to exist? I was having too much fun tangling with Sly Cooper and Twisted Metal's Sweet Tooth while the level we were playing on transformed from a self-creating LittleBigPlanet stage into a Buzz quiz stage. When it was a Buzz stage, the LBP platforms became labeled with answers to PlayStation trivia questions. If you're standing on the wrong one when the timer is up, you're zapped out.
How could I hate this?
I told the game's director from development studio SuperBot Entertainment, Omar Kendall, that I'd been cynical when I first heard about the game. Him, too.
"I probably initially had some of that cynicism," he said. "When I first started working on the game one of my initial hangups was: 'How can I make this as different as possible?' And that's kind of a dangerous mentality to fall into, because that might not lead to the best decisions for the game… You become obsessed with, 'Oh, we did this [in a way] unlike that other game you love?' What sense does that make? It would be silly for us to purposely hurt the game just for the sake of differentiation. We try not to do that as much as we can."
As a result, Kendall and his team won't deny that Smash Bros. is an influence. They can't. This is 2D arena combat for four players, starring the all-stars of an entire gaming platform (plus unannouced third-party guest stars. Kendall says on that: "I don't think you could make a retrospective of the PlayStation universe and not have third-party characters.")
You want differentiation in your Sony Smash Bros.? You actually get some.
"The core gameplay mechanic is totally different," Kendall said. "There's no knocking dudes off of levels to score points. It's all about engaging, building your meter, using your super, scoring points." To explain more, the control scheme is similar to Smash Bros., with attacks mostly triggered by face-button presses combined with d-pad taps (oh, but jump's on a face button). But you dont' defeat enemies until you hit them with supers. You can't get a super without charging your super meter, which fills as you beati up the other characters and/or collect energy orbs. The supers let you do the kills. Level 1 supers are basic, like Fat Princess suddenly riding a fat chicken through the level or a guy from Killzone pulling out his sniper rifle. Level 3 supers, which require a lot more meter-filling, involve stuff like Sly Cooper grabbing a binocucom and essentially targeting and shooting all the other characters from a first-person perspective while the other players just have to run around and try to survive for a few seconds. Sweet Tooth's level 3 puts him in a mech (his level 1 straps dynamite to you back).
The characters feel refreshingly distinct. Sly Cooper, for example, can't block, but he's crafty. "Sly is an agile, sneaky thief," Kendall said. "If you think about the essence of what that character is, we wanted to retain his agility, his sneakiness, and that stealth aspect we felt would be really well-represented with a mechanic like invisibility. We didn't imagine him as a character who would get in the middle of things and mix it up, blocking and sort of covering." He can fight with his staff, electricity shocks and gadgets. Parappa the Rapper, will get you with his boom box, his skate board and his mic. Kratos has his chain blades and the barbarian hammer from God of War II. Each character has about two dozen moves, Kendall said.
A better name? We've grumbled about the quality of this game's name. "It's a mouthful," Kendall admitted. "I really hope the community settles on a colloquialism quickly." One of his favorites sounds like "Sassber." It's the acronym for the game's real name, with a silent P. I'm not sure. Sounds too much like "Smash Bros" to me. What's wrong with its old code name Title Fight?
There is a surface level of button-mashing ease to All-Stars. On my first session, I was able to pull off Level 3 supers in a five-minute match. I'm bad at fighting games! "I know people who can't do fireballs and uppercuts," Kendall said while maybe talking to one. "That's a very sort of fundamental thing that shouldn't be a barrier for people fighting things. We wanted to make sure we didn't have that kind of barrier." Combos, therefore, won't be what Kendall calls "physical challenges." He added: "It's more about understanding what the game can do and then doing it with your hands."
On the surface it's an easy game to play, but Kendall promises there will be depth. He is a fighting game person. He started his career in games working on the fighting game X-Men: Next Dimension and most recently helped craft the grappling in THQ's UFC games. SuperBot has a Super Street Fighter II Turbo machine in the office. That's what they play for fun. "I don't think we could work on this game without trying to add something that has the depth and longevity that we come to expect from fighting games," he said. "We hope we did well."
The game will have a singleplayer campaign. Think more Street Fighter than the most recent Mortal Kombat: character-specific story scenes connecting a series of fights, rather than one long lore-heavy narrative. The story mode, Kendall said, will explain why these characters are fighting (he wouldn't tell me).
In the weeks and months to come, Sony will reveal more of the first and third-party characters in the PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. We'll find out if developer artwork showing the girl from Ico is in the game. (No comment on that from Kendall). We'll find out which other icons of the PlayStation are in the game and, we'll find out how long any skeptics can resist the allure of the biggest heroes or villains from the PlayStations' biggest games punching each other in the face.