3v3 competitive futurecrime simulator Smash+Grab [official site] is currently holding a free trial weekend on Steam. Currently in early access, it's the latest from Sleeping Dogs studio United Front Games. Pip and Alice (and Graham but he's off swanning around on hols today, flashing his raided jewels) have played a bit together and now reconvene to discuss crimes.
Pip: Alice, I've played a MIGHTY two sessions of looting and punching in Smash+Grab. While the smashing and grabbing of inanimate shops seems to be going okay, the punching and kicking of other people is a disaster. Can you tell me what I'm doing wrong because you seem to have a decent handle on the cadences of the game – when looting can happen and when to hang back and all that stuff...
Alice: And you're sure you're not getting your wires crossed - punching and grabbing, smashing and kic- wait, that broadly still all works. That's the wonder of futuresports, Pip: they throw everything together. Gangs robbing shops just isn't complex enough, isn't violent enough.
I should take one step back to explain. So. Smash+Grab is a multiplayer brawler where each team is racing to loot $50,000. This is mostly done by smashing up shops (mashing an attack button) and grabbing things (holding a button). It's all sorts of class-based. Each player picks their own character,and you and your teamies also each lead your own little gang of AI criminals. You have your own abilities, your chosen AI lieutenant has their own ability, and even the three mooks making up numbers come in classes with minor stat differences and perks. Oh, and you duff up the other team to stop them getting cashbucks.
So! Who's in your dream futuregang? And what would be your cool futuregang name?
Pip: I did not realise any of that about the gangs and the passives and the other business because I decided to just go straight into the game and was slightly too proud to let you tell me how to play so this is a question to which I may not have dedicated the expected amount of consideration. I shall try to answer, though.
I tend to play as that melee kid who looks like some kind of emo budget batman cosplayer. I know he is a melee character because of how I spent a long time trying to pick up a crossbow from a window display and then got punched to death while concentrating on the impossible weapon. I think that's as far as I've got with my futuregang and I feel ASHAMED. Tell me of yours while I read up and draft mine...
Alice: It is difficult trying to pick which hilariously daft '90s futurepunk to play.
I'm mostly playing Scatter, a nailgun-toting chap who you say looks like Lenny from The Fun-Loving Criminals. That's because you don't see his potential: I'm slowly unlocking the clothes to make him look like a doofy futurepunk cowboy. He'd be a 'trapper' in some other games, with the ability to lay down a mighty proximity bomb and make his shots cripple. I suppose shooting someone in the legs with nails is probably quite crippling. I like him - he can nicely keep enemies at a comfortable distance, and if they're distracted by someone else he can dance closer to be a flipping nuisance.
Backing him up is Morbid, a doofy emo lad who throws damage-over-time 'rot' bombs.
Rounding the gang out are three raider-class mooks, who are good at smashing and grabbing. We're less good at that, Morbid and I.
My thinking is that me and Morbid can spew a load of DoTs, especially once I've upgraded my nailgun to do bleed damage, as we dance just out of melee range - over a proximity bomb, daring people to come near. That's the plan. That's the theory. I'm not sure how sound this build is and it can go quite wrong if we're run down by melee brawlers. But I've enjoyed this little plan, forming this little gang, customising this cowboy idiot.
Pip: That does sound like a theory, at any rate! Also, do you mean Huey from the Fun Lovin' Criminals? GET WITH THE POP CULTURE, ALICE.
Anyway. I've been reading and my character has been Upscribe who is a light protector and really not my style at all. I think I should either have been playing Etch – he's a ranged rader who can throw molotovs – or Dripoff. Dripoff is a tanky raider with a big lump of wood that has nails coming out of the end. I'm pretty happy either thumping things while armored up or throwing things from far away.
As for the underlings... I'm thinking maybe Doc because he's a ranged protector who can do a bit of healing or maybe Ooze because of his sticky bombs. I'd be either looking for sustain to cover up my own fat fingered-ness and keep me in the fight longer, or for something to whittle my foes down. I'd maybe go for the fighter class of footsoldiers just for the extra bit of menace. Damnit! I should have read this earlier. I'm surprised I did as well as I did in those games!
Alice: Hah! It's quite friendly to barging on through - you smash and grab and kick and punch, yeah? I've played eight hours, Steam tells me, and had a few good matches where composition and complementary roles really seemed to matter.
It's unfortunate that there are several layers of persistent progression to put off experimenting and learning everyone. Each playable character has their own perk trees, obviously. But characters are split into three... not factions, really, but aesthetics - three aesthetics, each of which have access to different lieutenants, each of whom have their own progression to unlock perks on skill trees. And then there are further lieutenants who are unlocked when others reach certain levels... point is, it's hard to experiment and try people out when you have those long load times and the AI bots aren't much competition and I don't want to let my team down by playing badly.
I suppose this is a common problem in class-based games but I'd prefer progression only unlocking doofy futurepunk outfits, because those are thoroughly delightful.
Pip: I think one of the things I'm not so keen on with early access to class-based games is that you tend to get the hardcore players who know what they're doing plus the matchmaking is drawing from a presumably far smaller pool than a full release game. There's not that cushion of curious gamers looking in or who arrived with an enthusiastic friend who give you a bit more of an even challenge. I'd say I've spent most of my time trying to beat people up slightly more than I got beaten up and not really doing that so well. Obviously I've not played much so this is a really limited sample size, but I haven't had opponents who seem to be the same as us, you know?
Mostly I feel proud when I get that rock/paper/scissors thing right, countering the right thing with a defend or a grab or a smash and I think the people I've encountered in both matches are a lot further along the tree in that respect! That's not a problem if you're fine with bashing into defeats for a while, but I think I'd be far happier once there's some intermediary ground – enthusiastic amateurs where I can learn as I play instead of taking a pounding.
Alice: Mm this early access launch probably should open things up, set the unlocks and things and let people just... play. Anything that puts players off a game that'll almost certainly have a small player base - as all multiplayer games but the few huge ones do - seems silly. I'll have to play a bit during this trial weekend, see what it's like with a load of clueless people wandering in to do crimes.
I've quite enjoyed getting the hang of the counter/block/grab game, especially during my few goes as hulking great melee characters. Two of you together get into a silly dance of tentatively tapping as your gangpals and theirs brawl in a circle around you. Then there's a character who gets a special advantage in the grappling...
Eight hours in, I'm still not sure quite what a well-played match looks like or a well-planned strategy is.
To go back to explainy stuff: Smash+Grab's rounds run along a timer, with new shops opening up at certain intervals. Each 'level' of shops has more valuable stuff,and each has new weapons you can raid too. So you're planning when to raid which shops, when to harass preoccupied enemies, when to brawl, when to rush a weapons shop and swipe 'em all before enemies can get anything... I'm not sure! But it feels like there may be scope for interesting plans and unexpected surprises?
Pip: I think it's the sort of game where you get a feel for when you do things based on a lot of factors – where you are on the map, what your enemy seems interested in doing, who you're playing as and so on. I feel like when I get better at it it'll be hard to explain to other people how you read the situations because it's a lot of micro-information coming together. Like how in a MOBA you know how far forward is too far forward when you're in a lane after a while and you can tell people when they're doing it wrong or right but they need to develop that internal sense of it. With this I feel like you'd get that sense of when to move out and when to hang back as well as there being tried and tested metagame stuff about how to read the action a bit more broadly.
There are also those other components. Sometimes a loot crate will drop, and there are health and armor and other boosts you can smack out of vending machines. There are those weapon upgraders too, which translate your basic weapon into a more effective/specialised murderpole. You need to factor all of that in and THEN at the end there are the big department stores with the jewellery sections. I'm sure you start just having this library of game knowledge where you know the risk of doing one thing versus the reward. Also, whether it's better to fight and hopefully swipe a portion of someone else's hard-looted cash by killing them or whether beavering away on your own half of the map is a bit better.
I wonder how accurate that summary is, though. It'll depend on how into the game the community gets and whether it takes off.
Alice: That's always such a problem with multiplayer-only games. Especially when a lot of the natural, inevitable bleeding of players to other games will happen before the game even leaves early access. I don't know how sensible this plan is. United Front's last online brawler shut down before even leaving beta, though it was free-to-play and that changes... agh, I don't know.
I think I'll keep playing for a bit, though. I'm still happy feeling out the shape of this and unlocking doofy futurepunk cowboy outfits. I'm one match away from unlocking Scatter's futurecowboy hat!
Oh! But it is a real shame that, as far as I can see, only one of the seven playable (and nine revealed) characters is a lady. That's no good. More than that: it's rubbish. And she's a bit of a conceptual landmine: an Asian-American lady who's a sexy surgeon and can, alternatively, dress as some sort of anime ninja princess. Though she does have some REALLY NICE business dresses unlockable.
I want really grubby, grungy, daft female futurepunks to dress up even dafter.
Pip: Imagine Zarya from Overwatch as a futurepunk gang member. Beefy and punchy and all kinds of cool. You'd hang out with her in a smoky pool hall drinking pints and having a laugh and then do your futurecrimes before heading back to the bar. Or someone like Chloe from Life Is Strange – all gawky and swaggering, with a paint can under one arm and a grin on her face.
Alice: Pip, would you like to join my futurepunk girl gang?
Pip: OBVIOUSLY. Would you like to join mine?
Alice: How do you feel about passive-aggressive power struggles with people who feel their height makes them the obvious natural leader?
Pip: Remember how I just kind of let you play out these imaginary conflicts on your own and enjoy a cup of tea?
Alice: I'm glad we're friends, Pip.
Smash+Grab is free to play on Steam this weekend. For keepsies, it's on sale down to £12.74/16,99€/$16.99.