Hands-on with Multiversus: How WB’s new brawler stacks up against Super Smash Bros.

    
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Like most of the readers of this site, I spend the majority of my gaming time in MMORPGs, or I wouldn’t be here. But platform fighters are my second love. The Super Smash Bros. franchise was the pioneer of this genre and the one everyone has heard of, so much so that many gamers aren’t even aware that there is a whole genre that has grown up beyond Nintendo and HAL’s physics-based fighting game. I’ve been playing Smash Bros. since the very first release on the Nintendo 64, but I’ve also clocked a lot of hours in titles such as Rivals of Aether.

The platform fighter genre isn’t the biggest in the world. It has traditionally been the realm of Nintendo first and foremost, a handful of indies, and a few IP-based cash-grab party games with no attempt at competitive balance. So when I heard about Multiversus, Warner Bros.’ foray into the platform fighter genre, I was intrigued. It promises a Smash-like mashup of all of the properties Warner Bros. owns, from Looney Tunes to Game of Thrones. I’m a bit disappointed, by the way, that this game isn’t called Super Warner Bros. Melee, but I understand there could have been legal ramifications there. Multiversus has a great cartoony style, the physics look slick, and the e-sports push makes me think there might be a decent attempt at balance. So when we were offered a chance at early access, I jumped on it.

Upon launching the game for the first time, I was forced to make a WB account and link it to my Steam account before I could play. I’m sure this has to do with crossplay between PC, PlayStation, and Xbox. (Yes, this is supported at launch! I played one match with me on PC, my teammate on Xbox, and two opponents on PlayStation. What a time to be alive!) But it seems like a superfluous step. Couldn’t I play using just my Steam account until I decide I want to link another platform? Another minor frustration is that, despite the fact that it tells me what Steam account I’m linking, it doesn’t attempt to bring in my Steam name but rather assigns a randomly generated name like ShockingLilac followed by some arbitrary digits. It’s not a big deal, and I was immediately able to rename myself to whatever I wished, but it seems like the kind of thing that should be more seamless in a big budget title in 2022.

Under the hood, the game employs rollback netcode. If you don’t know what that means, I won’t bore you with the geeky details, but suffice it to say that it ensures a much more stable online experience – even under less-than-ideal network circumstances like high ping and wi-fi interference – and it’s essential for responsiveness in a game like this where a delay of one or two frames can make a world of difference. It’s something that Smash Bros. embarrassingly lacks but is the gold standard for fighting games. It’s exciting to see the online component being taken seriously and implemented well.

The game is free-to-play, with most characters being unlocked with either gold or gleamium. As you may have guessed from the names, the former can be earned through gameplay and is awarded for wins and for levelups and such, while the latter is a premium currency roughly equivalent to a penny each. There is also a battlepass, with both free and paid tracks, offering various cosmetics and currencies.

Characters cost about $7 (about a dollar more than SSBU sold its DLC characters for) and prices for cosmetic character skins seem to be somewhat arbitrary. Some of the cosmetic prices are a bit steep; players are particularly grumpy about a Batman skin currently selling for $20 that literally adds only a yellow circle around the bat symbol on his chest and tweaks the color of his cape. Lowering the prices of skins and other cosmetics would generate a lot of goodwill in the community and make me a lot more likely to consider grabbing them. As it stands, the whole game feels a bit greedy and over-monetized.

The history of platform fighters is somewhat similar to that of MMOs in that for a while they were both largely dominated by one title, and when that game gained traction, a lot of copycats popped up, many of which were sub-par, which ultimately hurt the reputation of the genre as a whole. It took a little longer for the industry to realize that platform fighters could be more than half-baked cash-ins on Super Smash Bros.’ success than it did for MMOs to stop parroting World of Warcraft, but I’m happy that that time is finally here; Multiversus adds a surprising number of twists to the platform fighter formula, and I think the genre will be better for the competition.

Still, just as it’s sometimes easier to explain a new MMO to a friend by comparing and contrasting it to WoW, it’s a good starting point when talking about platform fighters to talk about in what ways they are different from Super Smash Bros.

It has some interesting choices that sound small but make a surprising amount of difference, like the fact that there are no ledges to grab, but all characters can wall cling, and doing so resetting their jump. This makes recovery more about horizontal movement than vertical, and resolves the awkward edgehog situation Smash has always had.

Multiversus has opted to simplify character movesets by foregoing tilt attacks, the directional attacks that are stronger than a neutral attack but faster and weaker than a smash attack. There is also no distinction made between directional attacks and dash attacks. Most attacks can be charged, including neutrals and some aerials, things that Smash has never tried. Removing tilt and dash attacks seems like a bit of a simplification of the formula, but it certainly makes picking up new characters easier, and this kind of accessibility seems to be what Player First Games is going for.

That said, I found the addition of cooldowns to be a huge boon to the variety of how attacks can be designed; characters can have moves that are really powerful or recoveries that would be broken if they were spamable, but because they have a long cooldown, their high reward is balanced by a high risk if you whiff or need them later.

If you’ve played Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s World of Light story mode, you are probably familiar with Spirits, which give buffs to your fighter, from upping their jump height to increasing their knockback to reducing a certain type of damage. This kind of functionality is considered taboo in competitive multiplayer, but Multiversus has deemed its similar perks system ready for prime time. Players get to pick their perks after picking their character and seeing what their opponent has picked, so you get some chance to adjust your playstyle once you know your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Personally, as someone who prefers fighting in the air, I’m fond of the triple jump perk, which allows you to get an extra jump after hitting an opponent after double jumping.

It should be noted that, as of this writing, ranked mode is not available, and I expect this feature to be turned off in this more competitive setting, but that hasn’t been detailed yet.

Perhaps the most striking departure from the Smash Bros. formula that this game has to offer is its focus on 2v2 fights. Competitive doubles play exists in other platform fighters, but it’s generally more of a sideshow to singles. Singles just allows for so much more technical gameplay, and it’s hard to watch everything that’s going on in a doubles match, both for the players and for the audience. At first I was skeptical that Multiversus could pull this off, but then I saw a character archetype I had never seen in a fighting game before: support. In MMOs, I love playing classes that buff, debuff, and/or heal, but I had never even thought about doing this in a platform fighter.

Obviously, these support characters are a little different from my Guild Wars 2 Alac Heal Mech. The three support characters in the game so far have a few different tricks they can use to help their allies out. For instance, Reindog (the game’s original character, do not steal) can grapple onto an ally and pull them to himself and away from danger (or right into it, as I accidentally did a few times). Steven can put down fields of healing saliva (it’s a thing from the show… don’t ask me) and place midair shields that can still be walked through but block enemy projectiles. And Velma can make her friends move faster and enemies take more damage and knockback.

I’m still skeptical how wide the adoption of 2v2s will be in whatever competitive scene develops around this game, but it’s definitely one of the more interesting twists I’ve seen on this kind of game, and I hope it works out for them.

Let me back up and talk a bit about the other character archetypes in this game. Characters are classified as assassin, bruiser, mage/ranged, support, or tank. Smash Bros. veterans can tell you that Pikachu is a rushdown and Mega Man is a zoner, but most players’ eyes will glaze over at that kind of technical discussion, and that game makes no attempt to communicate playstles to you. You just have to try them and find out.

Multiversus puts archetype icons on each character on the select screen, so you have some idea even before you test out a character for the first time what it’s going to feel like. I’ve seen it compared a lot to the way Overwatch categorizes its characters, and while I think Multiversus characters have more mechanical variety than Overwatch characters, the comparison is valid.

I’m a little concerned about the balance of this game. On day one, Taz was so brokenly overpowered that it has become a meme already, and Iron Giant is so bad he might as well not exist. MMO players will be familiar with the struggle of devs trying to balance for two very different modes, and 2v2 and 1v1 seems to be this game’s version of that; support characters tend to be mostly worthless in 1v1s but have some utility in 2v2, though after playing quite a few matches as support, I’m not entirely convinced you aren’t better off with two damage-focused characters even in 2v2.

The first patch, only a week in, has already attempted to address some of these issues, so the speed at which changes came encouraging, though some players are saying that some of the changes are overcorrective, which is almost worse. But the game is in beta, and no doubt the devs are still getting their feet under them. Only time will tell how things really shake out.

The obvious question is what characters are coming next. The launch roster of 16 characters provides plenty of gameplay diversity to keep players occupied for some time, but you have to admit it looks a little weak next to Smash Ultimate, which sports over 80 unique fighters. The game has already announced plans to add Rick and Morty and… LeBron James? Am I reading this right? As an Ohioan who witnessed the rollercoaster of LeBron going from the city of Cleveland’s savior, to nemesis, to savior again, to whatever he is now, I have to say it’s pretty bizarre to see the NBA star added to a fighting game, but then again Shaquille O’Neal got his own fighting game, so why not bring the talents of the Space Jam 2 star to Multiversus?

Tell me, where is Gandalf? For I much desire to play as him.
Where could things go from here? Taking a look at what film and television properties are under the Warner Bros. banner, I think there’s a lot of potential here. Tell me, where is Gandalf? For I much desire to play as him. And who wouldn’t want to see a wizard duel between Voldemort and Saruman? It’s a Warner Bros. game, so where are Yakko, Wakko, and Dot? Could LEGO Movie characters be on the table? I would totally main Unikitty. Power Puff Girls are coming at some point, right? They just beg to be in this kind of game. And of course, there are more than enough DC Comics characters to populate a fighting game unto themselves (it’s called Injustice). The point is, I don’t think this game will be running out of material for fun, unique characters and stage locations any time soon.

Of course, when you talk about consistently adding new characters to a game like this, balance and power creep always become a concern, especially when players are paying for characters piecemeal. At some point, as the roster gets bigger, certain characters are inevitably going to be worse than others (see also: our recent discussion of MMO class balance), but I hope Players First Games can avoid falling into the trap of intentional power creep to drive sales. I could see it being very tempting to give, for example, LEGO Batman more or less the same moveset as regular Batman, but faster and a little weaker, like Link and Young Link in Smash Bros., then willfully balance LEGO Batman just a little bit better (also like Young Link in Smash Bros.) so it’s more appealing for people to shell out for the shiny new character. This kind of balance problem is bad for the integrity of a game like Multiversus and could ultimately hurt its longevity. Hopefully Players First Games lives up to its name and handles this gracefully.

Multiversus does some lovely, unique things with the platform fighter formula. Its balance isn’t perfect, and only time will tell how that will shake out. That, combined with monetization, will spell its long term success or failure.

That said, it has me, a long time Super Smash Bros. fan, excited to keep playing and eager to see what comes next. If I were to make a tier list of platform fighters, I wouldn’t put it above established titles like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate or Rivals of Aether, but I would take it over some of its competition like Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl or Brawlhala. It is free-to-play and soft launched in beta on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox, so why not give it a try it for yourself?

Massively Overpowered skips scored reviews; they’re outdated in a genre whose games evolve daily. Instead, our veteran reporters immerse themselves in MMOs to present their experiences as hands-on articles, impressions pieces, and previews of games yet to come. First impressions matter, but MMOs change, so why shouldn’t our opinions?
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