All-Stars certainly wears its influences on its sleeve, but thanks to some clever ideas, it also earns its keep. This isn't just a carbon copy, but a well-designed game that could go toe-to-toe with Nintendo's fighters.
Sony's mascot mash-up makes for a diverse blend of characters, with a few third-party friends in tow for good measure. These juxtapositions don't always work – especially since Twisted Metal's Sweet Tooth looks out of place next to everyone else. But what's apparent is the impressive effort that went into making each of the characters a rough approximation of their "home" series. Nathan Drake tosses grenades and summons stone pillars that collapse on foes, Big Daddy charges toward his opponents, and Raiden moves with the same speed and ferocity that made us gawk at his cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4. Each character feels like a natural extension of the style and personality of their own series, like ambassadors from their various franchises.
Multiplayer is the heart of the game, and the Solo mode is more of a cute diversion. Each character's campaign tells a brief story and has its own amusing rivalry battle to play on some of the game's odder pairings. Even at its most difficult, though, finishing the Story mode won't exactly make you break a sweat. It's best used for learning and practice, not to mention earning levels to unlock new customization options for your character of choice.
Wins are determined by points, which are earned for making kills. Kills, in turn, can only be achieved with special moves. Landing a hit with a normal attack fills a special attack meter up to three levels. A level one special move can be interrupted or dodged with relative ease, the second is more aggressive, and the third nearly guarantees at least one kill. This brings a smart wrinkle of strategy to All-Stars, between carefully deciding when to trigger special moves, whether to gamble on saving for a better one, and even which character to use. Some characters like PaRappa have a level 3 special that is impossible to avoid, and assures a few kills with minimal effort. Nariko's requires more skill, but can be used to achieve a much higher kill count in the right hands. The game keeps scores a secret until the match is over, which means that every player fights tooth-and-nail to the last breath. Nothing is more satisfying than landing one last super move just before the timer runs out and then discovering you won by a single point.
These elements coalesce to make All-Stars more of a born-and-bred fighting game than mere fan-service. The line-up is distinct enough that players will naturally gravitate towards the characters that simply feel right to them. I found my play style naturally lent itself to Killzone's Radec, who keeps opponents at arm's length but is more vulnerable in close combat. Even then, though, I would often gravitate towards Ratchet for the sheer fun of playing with his odd assortment of gadgets. I toyed with each character, and while some fit my style better than others, I never felt hopelessly outmatched. The game is expertly balanced, and the layer of quirky charm that comes from watching Kratos run from Sackboy's super move, which puts his opponents in prize bubbles, or seeing the tiny Toro celebrate a victory over Dante, is icing on the cake.
The stages themselves add an element of surprise and referential cheek to Sony's long history. The levels are dynamic, so each stage references two games. PaRappa's dojo has its walls busted apart by the raging war of Killzone, and an airliner from Uncharted slowly gives way to elements from BioShock. Better yet, the levels themselves pay homage to their games in creative ways – I'm particularly fond of the LocoRoco stage, which constantly shifts and tilts, and the Buzz stage, which injures players standing on the wrong trivia answer. I would have liked to see more variety, though, because the stages and even the timing of the transitions started to feel redundant after only a few hours.
Items serve as an outlet for imprinting more of the franchise's identities in the game, as well as allowing for cameo appearances from games like WipEout that simply don't fit otherwise. A few are immediately recognizable, while others will require a much more intimate knowledge of Sony's canon (Baumusu's Axe from Mark of Kri, anyone?). The items also serve as beacons to draw players back towards each other, making for some frenetic fights as players scramble towards the center to grab a weapon that could lead to the win.
The Vita version of All-Stars is an excellent showpiece for Sony's "Cross Buy" initiative, but shouldn't be the platform of choice. It runs just as smoothly as its console counterpart and the character models look nearly as good as they do on the PlayStation 3. However, with the Vita only sporting two shoulder buttons, some functionality has to be mapped to the touch screen. Tapping an item to pick it up means taking fingers off the control pad or attack buttons. Doing so can be a crucial drawback in the middle of a fight, even if it's only for a brief moment. After some ill-fated attempts, I rarely picked up items at all. The Vita is great for taking All-Stars on the road, and it runs impressively well in its own right, but it's best as a bonus for the PS3 version, not a separate purchase.
PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale may be inspired by Smash Bros., but it has managed to become more than a simple imitator. It carries its own ideas that give it a distinct place in the market. The rock-solid fighting mechanics alone make it worth a look, but even non-fight fans can enjoy the frenzied fun of video game icons beating each other mercilessly. Where else can you see the brutally violent god of war bested by an anthropomorphic raccoon or a rapping puppy? Nintendo should be paying attention; it's not a genre of one anymore.
This review is based on a retail copy of PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale for PlayStation 3, provided by Sony. Additional testing was also done on a retail card of the PlayStation Vita version, provided by Sony.
Steve Watts is a freelancer living in the Baltimore-Washington area. He has written for 1UP, Shacknews, The Escapist, and GamePro. You can follow his Twitter @sporkyreeve to hear more about his impending All-Stars losses.
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