Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Impressions of Playstation All-Stars

With the introduction of Playstation All-Stars: Battle Royale into the gaming scene, the "mascot brawler" can now be considered something of an actual genre, as opposed to just being that one game series by that one company. In case you didn't already know, Playstation All-Stars is basically Sony's answer to Nintendo's Super Smash Brothers franchise; it's a side-view multiplayer fighting game starring characters from iconic Playstation exclusive games. I've been playing the game on-and-off for a few weeks now, so here are my initial impressions on it.

As previously stated, PSA is conceptually identical to SSB. Up to four players select from a roster of characters taken from various gaming IPs and fight each other on thematic stages derived from the characters' respective games. The crucial difference lies in how you get kills and build points. In SSB, the goal is to knock opponents off the level; hitting an opponent accumulates damage on them, which makes them easier to knock off the level. In PSA, the goal is to kill opponents with "super attacks"; hitting an opponent accumulates points in your own "AP meter" which, when filled, allows you execute three different "supers" depending on your AP level. 

The supers can loosely be considered "final smashes" from SSB: Brawl with three different tiers. Level 1 supers are the weakest, but are the easiest and quickest to build; they tend to be close-range, limited-direction attacks that are somewhat easy to dodge, miss, or be interrupted, and they're usually only good for killing one or two people. Level 2 supers take a little longer to build but last longer or attack a greater area, making them harder to dodge and making it easier to kill all three opponents with one attack. Level 3 supers are the ultimate "final smash" that trigger a brief cutscene before instantly killing all opponents or activating some kind of super buff for the player, sometimes lasting long enough to get multiple kills after respawn. 

The AP meter is fun because it promotes offensive play -- the only way to get kills is to build your AP meter, and the only way to build your meter is to be in the heat of the action. Unlike in SSB, you can't sit idly on the fringe and then swoop in for easy kills once players have weakened each other, because you'll build AP at a slower rate than everyone else and thus get fewer kills. It also means that, unlike in SSB, players have to earn their final smashes with good offense and avoiding hits that can cause you to lose AP, rather than through pure luck of being the one to break the smash ball, or being the only one close enough to get to it, or by sucking so much that you get a free "pity smash."

One of the consistent problems I have in SSB: Brawl is that I rack up a lot of damage on other players, but then someone else comes in and gets the credit for the kill. It's frustrating because you can spend 30 seconds having essentially a one-on-one duel, with the damage you deal to another player being an investment towards getting the kill, and then someone else gets to capitalize on your effort. In PSA, you don't have to worry about kill-stealing because all the "damage" you deal to another player is an investment in yourself, and as far as I can tell you don't even lose AP when you die. 

Having three different tiers of supers also adds a fun bit of strategy to the gameplay, because the level 1 and 2 supers can be useful in different situations. For example, the level 1 super might be weaker and get you fewer kills than if you saved up for a level 2 or a level 3, but it can be charged quickly enough that it might be just as advantageous to spam level 1 supers if you're confident in your skills. If you have a level 1 super ready with an opportunity to kill someone, it might be better for you to wait for a level 2 super and try to position yourself to get everyone at once. Level 3 supers can be devastating, but if you spend the entire match saving up for one you might ultimately get fewer kills in the longrun.

All super attacks from PSA

Since the objective is not to knock players off the level, you don't even have to worry about "edge-guarding," the practice in SSB where you try to prevent another player from getting back onto the stage. Edge-guarding is sometimes frowned upon as a cheap, easily-abused tactic, but that never stopped me from perpetrating it because it's basically a core mechanic of the gameplay. Even still, I was always a little annoyed at situations where you were stuck in a fruitless cycle trying to get back onto the stage and being knocked off again. In PSA, most levels don't even have edges to fall off of, and in the few that do features edges it doesn't count against your score if you fall off. Consequently, matches focus more on the raw combat instead of periphery tactics. 

One of the main things I dislike about SSB: Brawl is how chaotic typical matches are with all the items, level hazards, and smash balls. All this stuff just keeps popping up to interrupt the combat, forcibly injecting random luck into the match. It's very easy to die from random bullshit, and it can be really stupid how another player will get credit for a kill because they touched you 30 seconds ago. In PSA, the matches feel much more controlled, with fewer items (which have less of a tide-turning impact on a match) and more sensible level hazards. You can even turn the stage hazards off if you like, a feature completely missing in SSB. Every kill in PSA is earned, and there isn't an excess of crazy distractions influencing the match: again, it focuses more on the raw combat.

As with any fighting game, PSA has balancing issues making certain characters far more viable options than others. Kratos, for instance, is absurdly over-powered; nearly all of his attacks have long reach and high priority, he builds AP super fast, and his supers are all really efficient and easy to use. Meanwhile, a character like Nariko, who hails from a similar type of hack-n-slash game and has a vaguely similar playstyle, doesn't build AP as efficiently, and her level 1 and 2 supers are awkward to use and easy to dodge. Of course, personal skill will always trump character ability, but it can be really frustrating using a character with crappy supers.

The single-player mode has a variety of options for practice, training, and challenges, but the Arcade Mode is the main feature where you "play through each character's story." It's basically just tournament matches back-to-back, much like the original SSB, with still-shot narrations by the character at the beginning and end. Those narrations are pretty unimpressive and don't constitute a real story (it's just a contrived pretense to get the character into this mash-up), but it's nice they at least did something with it. What's most interesting about the single-player "story" is that near the end, your character has a brief animated cutscene with another of the playable characters before they fight, the sort of sub-boss rival before facing the final boss, which is kind of neat. 

Multiplayer modes are limited to basic free-for-all and team battle with stock-based or time-based matches, with a few options for turning items and level hazards off, or for accelerating the rate of AP gain. Local multiplayer supports up to four players, but it's kind of dumb that players 2, 3, and 4 don't get to enter a player profile -- they all get logged in as guests of player 1, and only player 1 unlocks customization options for characters, and only player 1 gets to pick the stages or set up any bots. Playing online lets you unlock cosmetic belts and ranks for your accomplishments to signify your rank as a player. 

The game comes with a wide assortment of cosmetic customization options. As you play with characters (in either single-player or multiplayer), you level-up and reach new ranks (up to 999 levels worth, though most things are unlocked in the first 50 levels). You can unlock new taunts for characters, alternate skins, different intro and outro animations for characters, theme music that plays when that character wins, as well as different profile icons and backgrounds that get displayed in online multiplayer matches. There aren't any characters or stages to unlock, though, which I actually consider a good thing, because it enabled me to get the full multiplayer experience straight out of the box, instead of forcing me to trudge through single-player to get all the crucial stuff. 

The unfortunate thing when it comes to PSA is that none of its characters are anywhere near as iconic as the characters in SSB. Some of the characters come from more obscure games (Fat Princess, Together Everywhere!), others are from game series that haven't been relevant in the better half of the last decade or more (Medieval, Ape Escape, Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, Twisted Metal, Sly Cooper, PaRappa the Rapper), while the rest hail from relatively recent games that were introduced in this same console generation (Heavenly Sword, Uncharted, InFamous, LittleBigPlanet). There are hardly any characters who actually originated in the original Playstation era, and only a few who started on the PS2 and actually continued onto the PS3. Having both Cole and Evil Cole seems a little odd to me, and Big Daddy is just a weird inclusion in general, considering BioShock isn't a Playstation exclusive. 

It really makes you wonder why certain iconic, classic Playstation characters didn't make it into the final game. Where, for instance, is Lara Croft, Crash Bandicoot, and Spyro? When I think PSOne-era characters, those are some of the ones who immediately come to mind. Is Solid Snake not in the game because they already jumped the gun by putting him in SSB: Brawl? What about Cloud Strife or Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII, the killer app that practically sold the PSOne all by itself? The good news is they're planning to release more characters as DLC, so it's possible some of these may eventually show up if you're desperate.

Then you've got weird stuff with characters like Dante (from Devil May Cry) and Raiden (from Metal Gear Solid), both considered classic Playstation exclusive series, but both characters are actually from as-of-yet unreleased games in the series. You have "new Dante" from the upcoming reboot DmC: Devil May Cry, and the cyborg Raiden from the upcoming Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. So even if you like those characters and those series, it might be hard for you to appreciate playing as them when it's not really the same person. It kind of feels like a weird marketing gimmick to me. 

With all of that said, I like Playstation All-Stars. The physics and combo system remind me more of Super Smash Bros: Melee (my favorite of the SSB series), and I find combat far more enjoyable than the combat in Brawl. The AP system is a fun new twist that promotes offensive play and has a certain degree of strategy in its execution. For a first entry in a potential series, it's a pretty solid game. 

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