Playstation All-Stars at the front line of the clone wars

, | Game reviews

Super Smash Bros. Melee and specifically Brawl are such generous, enthusiastic, and ongoing donnybrooking arenas that you’d think imitating them would be a great way to make a game. Who wouldn’t want more of that?

So Playstation All-Stars: Battle Royale starts the comparison early. As soon as you boot it up, an announcer enthusiastically bellows the name of the game in the exact same voice that introduces a Super Smash Bros. The only difference is that he’s saying different words. That sense of familiarity, the forced imitation, the shamelessness of the homage, never lets up. Neither does the sense that you aren’t playing a Super Smash Bros.

After the jump, the sincerest form of imitation

The constant parallels to Super Smash Bros. eventually undermine Playstation All-Stars, which has nowhere near the generosity, enthusiasm, or longevity of a Super Smash Bros.

Let’s start with the cast of characters. As much as I either don’t know or couldn’t care less about most of Nintendo’s catalog, there’s enough wacky gameplay diversity in a Super Smash Bros. to win over the most jaded Mario hater. I might disdain that weird little plumber and his entourage of monkeys and mushrooms, but I’m a sucker for the irony of Princess Peach plucking turnip shields from the ground and fatally whacking Solid Snake with her parasol.

But All-Stars has so few notable characters, with limited appeal and even more limited gameplay creativity. Just look at the image of the cast up there. It’s busy, sure. But does anyone draw your eye? Kratos, Infamous guy, and Nathan Drake all look like the same dude in different costumes. Jak, Ratchet, and Sly are pretty much variations on the formula of indeterminate feisty cartoon mammals. Sackboy is designed as a nonentity awaiting a costume. And Fat Princess? Princess Peach with an eating problem. Remember the character from Heavenly Sword? Me either. A playable Big Daddy is pretty awesome, although it’s wishful thinking on Sony’s part to consider Bioshock a Playstation star.

Of course, the gameplay is what matters — let’s pretend we all believe that for the sake of the rest of this review — and here again, you’re pretty much playing a Super Smash Bros. clone minus Nintendo’s unhinged Japanese creativity and minus the fundamentals of the Super Smash gameplay. This isn’t obvious at first. Each all-star has a manageable handful of moves, some of which are admittedly cute, most of which presumably fit into a sense of meaningful fighting game balance, and almost all of which wear out their welcomes after a couple of matches.

Why isn’t this the case with Super Smash Bros., a game that also has a small handful of moves for each character (and a colorful manual that documents most of the characters)? What’s going on in Nintendo’s game that’s missing in Sony’s game, and why does it matter so much?

This is going to get a bit into the weeds, so bear with me. It’s important. To win a point in Super Smash Bros., you “ring out” your opponent. Doing this usually involves banging on him long enough to build up his knockout vulnerability, expressed as a percentage. Once this is sufficiently high, you can deliver knock-out punches to send him flying far enough that he can’t get back. Every point is earned from a combination of your attacks, his defenses, and the particulars of where and how the world ends on a given stage. In other words, it’s a careful combination of character powers and level design.

For whatever reason, Playstation All-Stars decided the one thing it wouldn’t copy from Super Smash Bros. is this “ring out” mechanic. Instead, you earn points by using supermoves to score instant kills. To pull off a supermove, you have to build up supermove juice, which is comparable to the combo charges in a Capcom game. Supermove juice can stack up to level three, and each level allows a different kind of attack, easily triggered with a single button press. When you use your supermove, you drain all your juice. Even if you whiff.

This fundamental gameplay change introduces several twists unique to All-Stars. First, it puts the focus on you instead of your opponent. It’s not about whether you’ve weakened your opponent. You’re not watching him. Instead, you’re farming him to build up your own characters. You’re mostly watching your own supermove juice reservoir. It’s the difference between a game where you pay attention to yourself and a game where pay attention to your target.

Second, it minimizes the importance of the level design and therefore where you’re fighting. Since scoring in Super Smash Bros. is always a ring-out, the ring itself is always a critical part of a match. The edge of the ring is arguably as important a hazard as your opponent. But in All-Stars, the ring is little more than a set of platforms with fancy effects in the background.

Third, it results in constant frustration when you whiff an attack and lose all your attack juice. Because you will whiff. A lot. It’s part of how fighting games work. On one hand, this provides a deep-seated risk/reward dynamic. But on the other hand, this frequent reset-to-zero doesn’t lend itself to fast-and-furious fighting game gameplay. Imagine a fighting game where every time you miss a combo, your opponent completely regenerates his health. What a horrible way to pace the action. Yet that’s how All-Stars plays.

Fourth, it draws out the matches when you’re trying to reach a certain score. There’s no sense of fighters accruing vulnerability, weakening as they fight, edging constantly closer to a kill. Matches can stall completely. Timed matches will often end in draws.

And finally, unlike the friendly forgiving accessible play of Super Smash Bros., All-Stars caters to the players who know best how to land their supermoves. Jump online and you’ll find a game every bit as punishing as Capcom’s technical fighters. Which is fine for players, but entirely missing the point of what makes Super Smash Bros. so good.

This is the part of the review where the average writer would rightly conclude that Playstation All-Star is a fun multiplayer game with friends. Which it is. I can think of very few fighting games that aren’t fun when I’m sitting around with my friends. Super Smash Bros. Brawl, for instance.

But as a single-player toybox of characters, Sony and otherwise, All-Stars is pleasant enough as you explore the moves and the levels. The production values are competent and even occasionally spectacular (you might not have playable Patapons or Loco Rocos, but rest assured they’ll make an appearance). But without the breadth of content of the latest Super Smash Bros., you’re left with unlockables to drive the single-player game. All-Stars offers outfits, victory animations, and online player tags, all in the context of a pointless leveling system. My Ratchet just dinged level 10. I’ve never been less excited about dinging a level 10. One character down, a whole bunch more to go, and a lot of uninspired gameplay along the way.

1 star
Playstation 3