Monday, December 3, 2012

Video Game Review: Playstation All Stars Battle Royale (PS3)

PlayStation’s answer to Smash Brothers has arrived. Do Sackboy, Kratos and the gang stand-up to the likes of Mario and Pikachu? The answer may surprise you.

 Playstation All Stars: Battle Royale is a mouthful to say, and probably one of the worst marketing choices in the history of video game names; luckily we aren’t here to review names. In the classic brawler style of Power Stone and, more often compared, the Super Smash Brothers franchise; All-Stars seeks to carve out its place in the character driven fighter genre. Bringing together some of the biggest names in gaming, it sticks to the formula whilst also taking risks in design that ultimately pay off. Other than a few missteps in presentation and a surprising lack of fanfare type extras, unique gameplay coupled with a great roster (infinitely expandable by DLC) makes this an easy to recommend title.

It’s impossible to really talk about All-Stars without comparing it to Smash Brothers, so let’s start off with what is probably the most controversial thing about the game: the roster. Some people think it’s a terrible mish-mash of combatants while others mourn the missing characters that should have been in the game all the while complaining that these combatants don’t hold a candle to Smash Brothers roster. Honestly, I’m here to tell you it’s entirely on how you view the PlayStation brand in general and what you enjoy in your games particularly. While I love me some Mario I don’t find him a particularly interesting character and if we are being honest here some of the combatants in the wonderful Smash Brothers are difficult to make a case for being great gaming icons as well. Within the roster of All Stars there is exactly one carbon copy character and that’s Evil Cole, whereas Nintendo’s brawler is rampant with sometimes 3 or 4 direct copies of a character. It’s difficult for me to constantly hear attacks against the All Stars lineup when I feel it’s equally as great as Smash.
How does a bad roster include all these awesome characters? (Except for you Evil Cole. You are pure cop out.)
Personally I’ll take characters like Kratos, Sackboy and Sly Cooper over Mario, Donkey Kong and Pikachu. Of course this is an entirely personal choice, but I have a difficult time believing that Ice Climbers are any more of a viable candidate for a crossover fighting game than the equally unknown (to the general gamer of course) Parappa the Rapper. Both are far reaching grabs into the brands histories that are nods to a cult favorite. Don’t get me wrong, I love Smash Brothers, but saying that the All-Stars line up is second rate cries fanboy more than it does an honest assessment.

One of the greatest things the fighters have going for them is every single one is utterly and totally immersed in whatever game they come from. When you play Nathan Drake it feels like the hero you know from Uncharted and likewise when you play Sackboy. All the moves are carefully thought out and planned, and as far as I’ve played pretty much all of the characters are ultimately balanced. Of course Kratos is out of the gate powerful and a fan favorite of newer players, but in the right hands a character like Sly Cooper can be devastating. Overall I feel the roster is a nice and varied selection of ranged, melee, heavy and agile characters that all perform admirably within battle.

All Stars tries something a little different than the build damage and knock characters off the platform style that many of us have grown used to. Instead of building damage your attacks will garner AP that builds a meter up. In order to gain points in the game you’ll have to kill players using one of your supers. I have to admit I didn’t like the sound of this system at all when I first heard of it. Playing it is a completely different beast however, one that has a much more intense and strategic slant than I originally anticipated. The reason that the system is so satisfying is the constant judging of yourself, your opponent’s tactics and the characters on the board. Level One supers are typically short ranged affairs that have a great tendency to miss, but you can build them up much faster. In addition a well placed Level 1 can wipe out numerous opponents at a cheap cost. At level two supers are more powerful usually giving you the ability to have a good chance to take out most others on the screen in a short range of time. Once you’ve saved up enough for the level three super you are looking at what is usually a screen clearing attack or a power up that makes your character extra deadly.
Only on All Stars does a rapping canine fight a giant transforming mechanized ice cream truck.
The catch here is that you need to constantly judge the match, your opponents and what levels of supers everyone is storing. Spamming level one and missing or being dodged constantly can be frustrating and lead to a lack of points at the end, but on the other hand always saving for level three supers and then missing can be devastating. Knowing your character and having a good idea of what the other fighters are capable of is one of the keys to staying alive, as is a healthy dose of knowledge on how to dodge and a close eye on the AP bar of your fellow players.

 What that usually ends up meaning is that, while sure you can jump in and start rolling face on your controller, outside of a few starter characters like Kratos it won’t do you much good. There is a definite learning curve here and picking a character and play style you like and sticking with them will be the key to your success long term. It’s surprising that this is the case, because the system on its face seems deceptively simple, but there is a depth under the surface that tends to elevate above beat the other guy till he falls off a cliff.

Stages are smash ups of various franchises where usually it starts with one game series and is invaded in a way by another. For example you’ll start off on the LittleBigPlanet stage and the stage is actually being created around you as you battle. Towards the end Buzz from the popular trivia games pops up and tasks you with standing in the right location with the correct answer to avoid losing AP. Not only is it fun to test your knowledge, but the correct answer platforms usually become a blood bath. There are 14 total stages, and while more would certainly be welcome, what’s here is high quality and fun to play on with plenty of bigger stages for more epic brawls, smaller spaces for utter melee madness, and even scrolling stages. Every stage is packed full of fan pleasing content also, with fun, hidden things in the background. There was more than once I found myself taking more of a licking than I should because I was too busy admiring the scenery.
Jak and Daxter level before being invaded by Hot Shots Golf.
Really the only down side I’ve found with Playstation All Stars comes with an overall lackluster presentation. One of my favorite parts of Smash Brothers was the staggering list of trophies to unlock, character bios, stickers, sound tracks and so on. With All Stars all you’ll get is a brief bio of each character, the same that appear on the official site, and are in the options menu kind of smashed together 4 at a time. Outside of that you’ll unlock different backgrounds and character icons for your profile tab, which is a small box that appears below your character and is slightly customizable. You’ll also earn new intros, outros, taunts, and a couple of costumes for characters as they level up, but outside of that its pretty barren. If you play fighting games to unlock things you’ll be sadly disappointed here, even the characters are all unlocked from the get go and there are no secret surprise fighters popping up mid game. On one hand this is vastly appreciated as the entire roster is available to rock n roll with from the start in multiplayer, but there is a certain something that can be said about that thrill of unlocking new content. The menus and user interface in general is also aesthetically spartan with a decidedly old school basic slant. While not horrible by any means it's just jarring when sitting beside the outstanding looking stages and characters.

Single player story mode is also considerably light, with still pictures and voice over bookending each characters story with a small animated sequence as each character faces off against their rival in the middle of the campaign. Usually this rivalry is born from something as silly as knocking over an ice cream cone or stealing pages from a book and they don’t get much more in depth. There were more than a few of the rivalries that actually had me laughing out loud and I felt that SuperBot missed a chance to really make the single player stories something special.

It really isn't a deal breaker here though. Honestly, I didn’t expect much from the story mode as that has always been a weak spot with fighting games. The mode though doesn’t add much excitement, so if you don’t plan on mixing it up with other players and only play solo, the game becomes a little harder to recommend. I intend on playing through every campaign to learn the characters, but it certainly isn’t for the riveting story line.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that if you buy this game on PS3 you automatically get the game on the Vita for free. Saves, characters and data is transferable between both copies so you can continue playing on the go. If you own a Vita you can even use it as an additional controller and PS3 and Vita owners can mix it up online together. What I've played of the Vita is a very similar experience to the console version with the addition of touch controls for a couple commands due to the lack of a L2 or R2. You'll want to play on the console at the house when you have an option, but it's a great and free way to take a console based experience with you which is a fantastic added value. I have had a discussion with the admin of the site and he had a really hard time setting up the Vita for use as a controller; there were no clear cut instructions anywhere to be found and no obvious menus or help online. For a game that touts connectivity this is something to keep in mind.
Kick, Punch: It's all in the mind!
A lot of people expected PlayStation All Stars to ultimately fail in its goal to present a character driven, fan based brawler that could compete with the inevitably compared Smash Brothers. Aside from a few missteps that I believe SuperBot could have ample room to fix with a sequel, the game hits all the right strides and nails each character from its respected series. For PlayStation fans seeing Sackboy face off against Ratchet and Clank this is a no-brainer and for everyone else this is a rock-solid brawler with room for improvement in the single-player campaign and a need for more unlockables. If you love having a game to mix it up with buddies on the PlayStation 3 you can’t do much better than PlayStation All Stars: Battle Royale.

Score: 9 out of 10

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