The rumours have been circulating for months. What would happen if Sony took a healthy slathering of its iconic PlayStation characters and played them off against each other in a virtual battle to the death? Turns out it's no longer a pipe dream, with the publisher revealing PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, the awkwardly long title that will allow you to finally settle that bet you have with your buddies about whether or not Parappa the Rappa could take down Kratos in a few rounds of bare-knuckled action.
This Traveling Wilburys of fighting games is every PlayStation fan's wet dream, and while the limited roster of six characters--Kratos, Fat Princess, Sly Cooper, Radec, Sweet Tooth, and Parappa the Rappa--on show at the event we attended served only to whet our appetite, it's by no means a bad start. Signing over its most beloved personalities isn't something Sony is entering into lightly, with the project being helmed by new studio SuperBot Entertainment, a veritable A-team of fighting game development veterans.
So what are they working on? Sony describes it as a "mash-up brawler," a multiplayer title with more than a passing resemblance to Nintendo's own Super Smash Bros. series. Once you've selected your character and found one to three friends (the remaining free character spaces become AI controlled), your task is to bust their pretty digital faces, earning points for scoring killing blows and being penalised points each time you're slain.
The SSB similarities don't end there, with taps on the square, triangle, and circle buttons and holding one of four directions on the D-pad or analog stick used to activate a range of differing attack types. Some are short-range melee swings, some are flung items, while others are for planting or tossing out defensive weapons like mines or arrows. Deceptively simple at first glance, its fighting game roots mean there's a much deeper experience lurking below the surface waiting to be mastered. There are no combo input systems to memorise or health bars to monitor, and while super attacks are as simple to perform as tapping the R2 button when you've built enough energy to make your character begin to glow, timing its use is essential. At level one (of three), characters will lunge forward, place explosives, fire a deadly gun shot, or mount a giant riding chicken to get bloodthirsty. Taking the chance on dealing prolonged damage over the course of the several-minute-long match and unleashing a level-three super fills the screen with a much larger area-of-effect attack and has a good chance of taking the lives of several victims at once. The risk-reward payoff can easily turn the tide of any match with a single, well-timed release.
Of course, you need a place to fight, and each of the four environments in our demo included a range of static and interactive elements, and like the character roster, pairs up some unusual bedfellows. For example, the Hades arena had the god of the underworld swiping at all four players periodically, dealing hurt to anyone unlucky enough to fall underneath his huge glowing blades. Ground shakes from the tantrum added additional platforms to an otherwise flat surface and allowed for death-from-above attacks. The Patapon army also invaded the scene, taking aim and firing volleys of arrows to snare anyone caught around the highlighted zones.
Ratchet & Clank's Metropolis cityscape came complete with background crates asking for smashing, but quickly became a classic warzone when a whirring shredder opened in the middle of the map and Kratos' old friend, the multi-headed Hydra, popped in to say hi.
Jak and Daxter's Sandover Village came under fire from hole-in-one-hungry golfers, who rained down dimpled, white headaches as we scrambled to kill each other, and a huge turbine sucked parts of the environment offscreen in a vicious vortex. Environmental events are entirely independent of your actions and provide an extra threat. While you won't need to turn them on to see them in action, they're an easy attention thief, quickly distracting you from the other million things happening on the screen at any given time.
Occasionally power-up items such as glowing double-edged swords, Hedgehog grenades from Resistance, and Wipeout's Gravity Shields enter the fray, requiring you to stay still momentarily while holding the R1 button to scoop them up. Each item provides its own kind of bonus and acts as a good way to build the energy required to perform super attacks, but they must be dropped before you can activate any of your character's special moves. While never specifically orchestrated, many times during our demo we witnessed the remaining three other players in the game gang up to take down the threat before returning to every-man-for-himself survival tactics.
A game like PlayStation All-Stars lives and dies by its roster, and while we were able to try out only six of the as-yet-unknown number of characters that will ship with the game, we did learn a few things about the unique attributes, strengths, and weaknesses of those already included.
At present, Sly Cooper is the only character in the game to forgo the inclusion of a block. Instead, he relies on the power of invisibility to disappear and reappear on the screen at will. This is particularly handy for sneaking up behind an unsuspecting victim and activating the super attack, which uses longtime friend Murray the Hippo as a fleshy battering ram and knocks anyone in its path to their death. Before you cry hacks, observant players can often predict--based on your travel speed and jump range--where you're likely to be. It's certainly not foolproof, and with no real defensive abilities up our sleeve, we often bought a one-way ticket on the pain train. As a master thief, he's also able to steal energy from rival players.
Parappa the Rappa's kung fu tutelage under Chop Chop Master Onion has made him quite the formidable melee specialist. When other players spill their attack power orbs, he can drop his boom box and use it to automatically collect energy without having to risk getting beaten up in person.
Colonel Radec from the Killzone series packs a sniper rifle, and if given enough time and space, he can fire a nasty shot that propels players back and into the air. He's great for playing keep-away, but his susceptibility at short range means he can be punished if you can get in his face.
Sweet Tooth makes his appearance in PlayStation All-Stars sans ice cream truck. Just because he's not behind the wheel doesn't mean he has given up his usual ways, brandishing his machete and more than a little familiar with the painful end of a shotgun. His rush-down attacks can set up more advanced strings of moves, while dropping mines and running for the hills makes it tough for others to follow too closely behind.
Fat Princess was one of our surprise favourite characters. She has the ability to summon a villager at will, without spending any energy to do so. Tapping the circle button shot out a little red helper that was useful for softening up a would-be attacker or providing a chance to put some distance between you and the target. Saving and spending all her power on a level-three skill takes control of the screen briefly as she throws a group of minions out, doing their best to mess up the place.
While members of the SuperBot development team at the event admitted that Kratos was one of the more popular character choices with testers, thanks partly to his recognisability and diverse move set of dashes, spear charges, and melee strikes with his Blades of Chaos, they're working closely to make sure that powerful characters come with their own penalties for selection. One solution they're looking at is for them to require more energy to perform their basic, level-one super attack.
Though only six characters were present in the early version of the game we saw, clear nods were given to a handful of Sony's other titles, such as Everybody's Golf, Ratchet & Clank, Resistance, Jak and Daxter, and Little Big Planet. The team also confirmed that they are already in discussions with major third-party studios around licensing deals. At this early stage, everyone could be a contender.
While PlayStation All-Stars certainly wears its influences on its sleeve, it also appears to be bringing a few new features to the multiplayer brawler table. Most importantly, we had a blast slugging it out with other players. Plenty of questions still remain, such as Sony's plans for support of online competitive play, the number and quality of the remaining faces on the character roster, and whether the game will also receive a Vita port. Who are you hoping to see make the cut? Look for more on it ahead of its 2012 release date.