A note from the author:
Hi. Thank you for reading my review, which will start just as soon as this brief introduction is over. This game—as anyone who knows anything about it is doubtless already aware—is no longer being worked on. Any players who bought it are able to refund it regardless of time played; it’s been quite big news. Why have I written this review, then? Part aloofness, part real-world distraction, but mainly the fact that this damn review has been in the works for far, far too long. When I started, it was relevant. Now, alas, it is not. Such is life? I dunno, just read the damn thing and consider what might have been. And try not to laugh too hard at the bit where I say how good the game will be if they carry on at this rate.
It is the near future, and civic unrest is all over the television but not in the manner that you might imagine. In the rather brusquely titled SMASH+GRAB, rioting in the streets has been refined, canned, and presented as a game show.
Two teams, each made up of smaller gangs, must contend not only one another but also with the structural integrity of storefront windows in a desperate race to pile up the most lucre. Bonuses can be gained by taking out opponents, but you’re mainly going to want to focus on fleecing the various banks and shops for all they’ve got (or smashing and grabbing, if you like).
It’s a solid premise that not only allows for exciting quick fire round-based gameplay but also asks some questions about the world that would allow such a show. Is this a Purge situation? Have the powers-that-be sanctioned this blood sport in the pursuit of some ulterior motive?The answers—insofar as there are any answers—are provided exclusively by character bios, but before getting into that, let’s talk about the character variety present within the game.
SMASH+GRAB contains three central ‘factions’: the formerly high-riding elites of the Dappers, the musicians-turned-combatants of the Doomriders, and the anti-corporate artists of the Rooks. Each faction boasts three playable leaders (two are coming soon for the Dappers), six accompanying lieutenants (similarly, five are coming soon for the Dappers) and a whole host of reinforcing crews that are unlocked as you progress through the level system.
Each leader has their own unique play-style, and each lieutenant and crew have their own unique benefits. Difficulty ratings are able to offer some advice as to how complex a character is or how vulnerable they are to attacks. The game does a fine job of telling you how characters play; it does an even better job of telling you why they’re there. You’d never expert a game called SMASH+GRAB to be this eloquent and to boast such rich story-telling. There’s been a lot made of its slick technicolour punk aesthetic but not so much about its writing, which is a shame.
Each leader, lieutenant and crew have their own bio that not only inform how each is played but also provide snippets of an overarching narrative. These bios tell us about the central bloodythirsty contest, they obliquely reference a calamitous event referred to only as ‘the crash’ which fostered the bleak conditions on which the contest thrives, and they provide a frankly unnecessary—but wholly welcome—level of detail into the motivations of not only every faction but every combatant. This is by no means the main draw of SMASH+GRAB, but you’d be missing out if you didn’t take the time to appreciate how far United Front Games have gone to weave this anarchic, dystopian narrative into their game, moreover, into their Early Access game.Put simply, I really like the idea behind SMASH+GRAB, and I really like the lengths it goes to in order to justify its premise. The only question is: does it live up to that premise? The answer is yes, with some caveats.
SMASH+GRAB’s gameplay is extremely combat-centric. Smashing up storefronts and collecting money is how you win, but that part isn’t extraordinarily complex, involving simply clicking the left mouse button at a window and then holding down the right mouse button to scoop up your ill-begotten fortune. In order to grab more dough, however, you’ll have to dominate your opponents and force them to respawn.
Winning this battle for positioning and high street dominance involves combat – and lots of it. To be most effective, teams will need to unite all three of their user-controlled groups to either out-manoeuvre or simply out-number the opposition, with streets that diverge and converge providing ample opportunity for flanking or other sneaky Sun Tzu-style shenanigans. There are options presented with regards to your troops—perhaps you’d like them to stay back and provide support, or perhaps you want to fling them forwards and use them as a punk meat shield—but the focus of user-driven combat is centred largely around each leader. Each have a number of skills that can be used to swing the momentum their way, but the bare essentials of combat comes down to Smash, Grab and Defend.It’s a simple rock-paper-scissors system, where Defend beats Smash, Grab beats Defend and Smash beats Grab. There are added complexities—tapping defend at precisely the right time means you are able to counter the attack; sprinting before a smash gives it greater range and higher damage; holding left click creates a more powerful smash—but at the core is this cycle of attack and response.
Having this form of combat makes things a little more responsive as you work out how the opponent plays and react accordingly. It also means that there’s an element of luck, which some may find leads to less satisfying bouts.
The flow of combat is reminiscent of the Arkham games, as strikes can be comboed together to wreak devastating flourishes against enemies. The problem with that, though, is that unless your combat is every bit as fluid and intuitive as that lofty benchmark, there’s always the danger of being unfavourably compared. Such is the case here. Combat is just a little bit janky in certain areas, with certain instances of unresponsiveness and weird targeting that simply isn’t present in, for instance, Arkham Asylum. It’s not bad—certainly not by Early Access standards—but it could do with tweaking.
There are two separate systems of ‘progression’, in and out of the game, one of which I like far more than the other.
In-game, there are specialised stores you can loot to acquire better weapons and scattered terminals that can upgrade said weapons, alongside other temporary speed and health boosts. There are options to tailor you weapons to inflict ongoing damage, make them more powerful or create a more effective shop-smashing implement. This part is great, with the upgrade system feeding in smoothly to gameplay. There’s also a nice element of Dead Rising-style improvisation that feels appropriate to the hectic contest.What I don’t enjoy as much is the actual leveling system. Additional skills for the leader and lieutenant can be gained as you progress through levels, alongside completely new back-up squads. The problem I always seem to find with this kind of system is that it can discourage ‘playing the field’ and trying out each character alternatively—though the leveling seems to be fairly swift, so that may not be the case here. It’s not a glaring flaw by any means, but I just think that having a system of upgrades in-game is a far more elegant solution to the question of progression.
This being a game in Early Access, it seems prudent to discuss optimisation, where the United Front have improved leaps and bounds upon their original incarnation. Even over the time of reviewing the thing, SMASH+GRAB’s performance, loading times and matchmaking have all palpably improved. If I’d got the review out a couple of weeks earlier, all of those points would be against the game. The development team have clearly worked feverishly to improve how the game works, and it really shows. Things aren’t yet perfect, but going by this rate of progress, it won’t be long until they’re pretty close.
All said, though, SMASH+GRAB is an effectively visceral Early Access release that sets its stall with a brilliant premise and, by and large, follows through on it. There are a number of tweaks before it can be considered as great—particularly with regards to its variable combat—but what we have already is reason enough to be excited. One can only hope it finds the audience it so richly deserves.