What if parodies of the world’s greatest action heroes collided on the silver screen’s most recognizable stages? That’s the question The Showdown Effect seeks to answer, with a decidedly ‘90s presentation, cartoon exaggerations of gore, and characters that leap about 2D environments while decapitating and detonating each other at regular intervals. Arrowhead Game Studios may have traded their arcane robes for battles of satire supremacy, but the developers have not exhausted their magic.
Nowhere does that statement seem more apparent than the title screen. An explosion consumes the player’s monitor, the game’s logo emerging from beyond the flames as a maddening guitar solo lets loose a fusion of rock and metal. The screen even emulates the look of old CRT televisions, complete with film grain effect, a bulging, rounded display, and the static hum of electrical components. It’s service to pre-HD generations, and a cheeky reminder of my childhood.
The nostalgia raised my expectations, but I did not buy The Showdown Effect to stare at menus. The gameplay rewards constant twitch reactions while you platform across gaps and between walls, hunting the opposition. Imagine Shadow Complex multiplayer, with a little humor for good measure. As Hailey Skye and Dutch McClone slap each other with soda bottles in a Japanese fish market, Sir Edmund Gauntlet and Master Shur Foo fire off rocket launchers during a medieval castle siege.
Now that's going out with a bang.
The differences between the eight characters are chiefly cosmetic, except for their special abilities. Hailey's rocket jump propels her skywards, Master Foo performs a devastating lightning kick, and Dutch surrounds himself in a shield of light. Although these skills have obvious combat advantages, they also make traversing the 2D stages more exciting. Hailey’s rocket jump helps her reach new heights and escape would-be pursuers, Master Foo’s dragon kick propels him over long gaps, and McClone’s shield absorbs fall damage.
The maps could do with more variety, with just two variations of Tokyo and medieval castles (for a total of four) at the moment, yet this marks the odd occasion where quality outshines quantity. Instead, the small number of spawn points remains the one real detriment. Players often spawn next to each other, only for one person to be killed immediately without a chance for retaliation.
Character choice (or rather, ability choice) does matter in these instances. Dutch and Hailey are unlocked from the start, but players have the option of buying more combatants with action credits earned from completed matches, and it’s here that the writers let their wit shine. Every character has a reason for entering The Showdown. Dutch, an Austrian native working as a kindergarten teacher, wants to retrieve his stolen identity after being transported through time; Hank Stream’s family was kidnapped, and he only has 24 hours left to find them using his very particular set of skills; and Sgt. Lance Koboldski embodies the grizzled NYPD cop set to retire right when his partner is murdered.
Contrary to their laughably fake accents and cliché one-liners, these caricatures show a reverence for icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liam Neeson, and Danny Glover. Of course, that does not mean Arrowhead Studios has any problems paying homage to other famous films with their virtual apparel. Players can outfit their characters with Neo’s coat and glasses from The Matrix Reloaded, equip the Black Knight’s helmet and tunic from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or adorn their heads with Robin Hood’s feathery trademark cap.
I would usually groan at the tagline, "Fight to the death, or die trying," but for The Showdown Effect's demented tone, it works.
Weapons and their associated skins may also be purchased using accumulated points, but the developers sidestep the stumbling blocks of many competitive shooters. The M16 remains the most well-rounded firearm, given its moderate damage and large magazine. Better yet, every player starts with this weapon unlocked. The pistol, rocket launcher, shotgun, and throwing knives, however, are geared towards more talented competitors, people that have acclimated to The Showdown Effect’s unique style of aiming.
To actually hit your opponents, you must place the crosshair on the enemy – not in front of them, not behind – or you will do no damage, though that excludes melee weapons like the katana, lead pipes, tombstones, and weapons taken from the environment. Unfortunately, the targeting erects a higher barrier to entry than most games, discouraging newcomers from engaging opponents directly, and the ability to disorient enemies using rolls and tackles builds upon that unease. Adjusting for lag also aggravates troubles when players with greater pings glitch about the stages.
Players have the freedom to create the matches they want to play, at least. Custom settings let you toggle infinite ammo, one-hit kills, hero abilities, loadout weapons, and bandages for healing. You may even host these modified matches for the public. And after you have tasted the rush of sliding beneath opponents' insta-kill sword swings to gib them with quadruple shotgun damage, you will never want to join ordinary Showdowns again.
Speaking of, the game types contain a hint of Arrowhead magic, too. Showdown represents your typical deathmatch, but the final seconds throw every player into a last-man-standing battle for the top of leaderboards. Team Elimination and Expendables, on the contrary, require the aid of others. In Team Elimination, the respawn times increase for every player’s death. While you may perish once or twice during a match, the end outcome can be disastrous when your allies have died somewhere in the double digits, leaving you with a respawn time of several minutes.
Only in the movies could someone with an axe pose a challenge to someone with a minigun.
Expendables is similar, though only for the hero team. The other players wear the suits of henchmen, respawn immediately with random weapons, and must eliminate all the enemy heroes before they revive. The final mode remains my least favorite. While One Man Army grants each player a turn to destroy as many henchmen possible in one life, seven people vying for the same target with friendly fire (which cannot be turned off) leads to numerous instances of team killing.
The Showdown Effect also supports built-in streaming through Twitch.tv once you link your account. Although my download and upload speeds do not meet the acceptable requirements for a less-than-choppy stream, that’s no fault of The Showdown Effect. Rather, I have not been able to join a ranked match (due to the broken matchmaking) since the final days of the beta, an unfortunate circumstance that has carried over to the retail product.
Online-only titles tread a thin line on the PC; they are literally a dime a dozen. Most rarely succeed until they go free-to play, but I hope The Showdown Effect is the exception. Minus some latency and matchmaking issues, Arrowhead’s charm pokes through every gameplay and visual crack. Tackling an opponent down an elevator shaft, dodging his dragon kick, and countering with a decapitating swing of your sword captures the unadulterated nonsense of ‘90s action movies. Whether you claw your way to top of match leaderboards with panache, or fight at the bottom of the ladder with blood and tears, The Showdown Effect breeds a multiplayer experience as entertaining as it is competitive.
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Release Date: March 5, 2013
Number of Players: 2-8 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)