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PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale review: Deep, strategic, but not very exciting

Sony's brawler is fundamentally solid but lacking pizzazz

PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is a Smash Bros clone. That's not a slight; the surprising lack of copycats is evidence that replicating Nintendo's star-studded brawler is a feat easier said than done. Very few companies boast a cache of characters as iconic as Nintendo's, and it takes a great deal of technical know-how to produce combat as approachable and satisfying as Smash's.

Sony is one of the few companies in a position to take a good punt. With SuperBot Entertainment, a newly founded studio made up of experienced fighting game designers and seasoned pro players, that's just what it did. The resulting game is mechanically sound and smartly designed, but unfortunately let down by barebones game modes and no-frills presentation.

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THE HEART OF BATTLE

The broad strokes of PSASBR's design are the same as Smash: two to four characters duke it out in multi-tiered arenas inspired by popular first- and third-party PlayStation franchises. When the timer reaches zero, or the kill limit is hit, the player most statistically deadly is crowned the victor.

Gameplay is centred on accruing All-Star Power (AP); little blue orbs that are essential to scoring kills. AP is released by smacking opponents around and, once hoovered up, will add to a Super meter with three levels of power. At the touch of a button, characters spend the built-up AP to unleash a devastating one-hit-kill attack that reduces any poor sap caught in the onslaught to a cloud of squares, triangles, circles and crosses; an appropriately PlayStation themed death animation.

Supers are the only means of notching up a kill, so the key to victory is in careful AP micro-management; both your own and your enemy's. The meta-game surrounding AP collection is this game's biggest departure from the Smash Bros formula, and in fact what makes combat most interesting.

Endlessly rushing enemies isn't always the best strategy, and in fact can be used against an overzealous player. Sometimes the best offence is an impenetrable defence. By using blocks, aerial doges, rolls and any character-specific evasive manoeuvres, others can be denied your AP.

Thrown characters leak AP orbs, but those few orbs can be the difference between a tough-to-land limited range Super that might kill one, and a dead-cert full screen Super that will wipe out three. Smarter players will use throws, along with any other tricks at their disposal, as a way of ensuring an opponent is rarely fully stocked.

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All-Stars is deep and strategic, but not very exciting. Less like Hungry Hungry Hippos and more like Chinese Checkers. The loose, arcadey mechanics of Smash Bros has been contained within a new framework that is well balanced for competitive play. However, in the process it loses the edge of unpredictability that is characteristic of Smash's brawls.

It also makes other elements rather pointless. Characters falling to their doom or rocketing out of the screen, for example, will result in them respawned back to safety unscathed.

STARS IN THEIR EYES

All-Stars' 20-strong line-up of fighters is a mixture of old and new plucked from throughout PlayStation's 17 year history. It's entertaining to watch characters that have long faded into obscurity, like MediEvil's Sir Daniel Fortesque, back in the fray and battling against current day ambassadors like inFamous' Cole McGrath.

Familiar faces from external franchises also step into the ring. Tekken's Heihachi Mishima can be pit against Metal Gear Solid's Raiden; Nariko from Heavenly Sword is ready to tussle with Devil May Cry's Dante; and BioShock's hulking Big Daddy against the paper thin PaRappa the Rapper is a match-up we never thought we'd see.

SuperBot has ensured each combatant feels distinct and is armed with an arsenal of unique moves that are true their character. Dante's sword and dual pistols can be devastating in the hands of a player dexterous enough to learn the combos. Fans of Kratos will be happy to see his white hot rage remains undiluted; thanks to the Blades of Chaos, Icarus Wings and Barbarian Hammer he's an all-round powerhouse.

Colonel Radec is armed with long range weaponry to keep others at bay, when forced into close quarters his shotgun and grenades are handy for establishing distance again. Globe-trotting treasure hunter Nathan Drake can lob grenades from behind cover, run-and-gun, toss explosive barrels and zipline kick. Thieving racoon Sly Cooper, meanwhile, is nimble enough to run rings around most of the cast, and makes up for a lack of a block with a handy cloaking ability.

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The roster is pleasantly varied; the various strengths and weakness of different characters accommodate different playing styles but at the same time the delicate rock-paper-scissors balance vital to competitive play is upheld.

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