The Showdown Effect comes to us from Arrowhead Studios, who you may remember as the developers of Magicka – a similarly chaotic game where you and your friends get together and beat the snot out of each other on the pretense of fighting other people. Snot-beating is not in short supply here either, with The Showdown Effect providing some of the most non-stop delightful cartoon violence I’ve had the pleasure of creating in a good while.
From the moment you fire up the game and are blasted with rocking 80’s action-movie guitar riffs, The Showdown Effect is keen to remind you that it just doesn’t care – everybody is making wisecracks, blood is spraying everywhere, and your character tells you a thick Austrian accent that he is “just a kindergarten teacher”. And yet, underneath the wisecracks and the chaos and the giggles that you get when you hurl your empty machine gun at the face of a charging enemy and he hesitates just long enough for you to hit him with an axe… The Showdown Effect is actually a complex, heavily tactical game.
Really, the Twitch.tv integration on the main menu should have given it away.
The interplay between melee and ranged weapons in The Showdown Effect is interestingly handled by Arrowhead. Melee weapons come in light, medium and heavy varieties, with fairly self-explanatory restraints — for example a knife pulled from a dartboard allows fast, quick strikes but not much damage, whereas a gigantic spanner yanked out of a toolbox will kill in one crushing hit but is monstrously slow to swing.
Melee weapons can also, very importantly, be used to block, creating a damage-mitigating (but not nullifying) shield even against ranged attacks like gunfire. Enough firepower or a big enough hit can overwhelm a shield and leave you stunned, so if somebody sees you blocking and hits you with a rocket launcher, you’re screwed.
Ranged attacks may seem like the way to go, then, but there’s two important catches. The first is that gunfire only actually does damage if your cursor is over the enemy at the time. It’s not enough to simply spray and hope you go the angle right — good gunplay involves being able to track the other player with the mouse as you yourself jump and roll around like a mad thing to avoid them doing the same to you.
The second catch is that reloading guns borrows slightly from the Gears of War reload-trick: hitting the ‘R’ button again at the right time during the reload animation gives a speed reload, but hitting it at the wrong time leaves you without a working gun for something like five or six seconds — more than enough time for a halfway competent foe to shred you. Ranged weapons also (generally) deal less damage than melee, making it a constant cat-and-mouse-and-explosion game.
So far there seem to be about three levels to play on, and they all follow a similar theme with tight corridors, lots of wall jumping, and the occasional huge open space for some balls-to-the-wall vertical play. As line of sight is so key in this game, closing doors behind you and hiding in ventilation shafts to heal up is absolutely a workable strategy, especially when chases through the long corridors can be so nail-biting. This does cause a bit of frustration during round ends, when respawning is disabled and only two players are left chasing each other through huge levels, endlessly looping around each other to the frustration of spectators.
Visually, at the end of each round, the level starts to catch fire and fall apart, or rain starts thundering down — it’d be neat if the level started to shrink in a similar way as debris blocked corridors or fire shut off rooftops perhaps, to force players to close with each other. Generally though, levels seem just the right size to combine equal parts chasing, skirmish, hunting and duelling.
Microtransactions aren’t present in the beta, but from their mention in the EULA and the way the unlockables are structured, it’s clear that Arrowhead will be integrating them soon — which means that balance is key. So far, balance clearly needs some work. Shotguns seem insanely good, and RPGs are likewise devastating, but Arrowhead are quick to point out that this is of course just a beta, and there’s a bunch more balance tweaks to come.
You begin the game with two available characters: Dutch McClone, a time-travelling undercover cop who just wants to get back to his day job as a kindergarten teacher, and Hailey Skye, a super-genius whiz-kid whose Nobel Prize-winning father was kidnapped. After about 90 minutes of playing, I’d collected enough points to unlock another character, but if I hadn’t been saving up I could have easily helped myself to various different weapons/clothing/customisation options. It’s not clear how much it will cost to buy points, but 90 minutes of play for a new character seems like a fairly reasonable ratio to me.
Characters have a unique ability each (and presumably, different stats) but everybody is able to wield the same weapons and carry the same items, so it mostly comes down to play style and reflexes — and of course, knowing when to use your unique ability. Dutch has a shield he can temporarily deploy, which makes him nearly invulnerable for a short time, where Hailey has a rocketboost she can use to get out of trouble.
If there’s one factor that might kill this for Australians, it’s lag. Games are peer-hosted, so if you end up connecting to a dude in Siberia — as I seemed to, based on his indecipherable character name — you’re going to be looking at a good second’s lag between swing and connect, and you can sometimes find your character’s body parts drifting through the air even though you were halfway across the screen before he even started to heft his axe and goddammit now that guy is winning.
Of course, since it’s peer-hosted, you can just host your own games — Funko was able to join mine with a minimum of effort, and our battles were lightning-fast and lag free (also I totally brained him with the spanner twice). At the moment however it seems like beta players are distributed across most of the globe and there doesn’t appear to be a way to pingblock, so people who join your game may lag across the room or just stand still (in which case you should kill them, naturally).
As the beta progresses, issues like this may be ironed out either by Arrowhead or simply by virtue of more players entering the beta. In any case, it shouldn’t be too much of a drama to simply organise a match with your friends — which is something I can’t wait to do.
I went into The Showdown Effect expecting a game that was basically Smash Bros. with all the characters replaced by action heroes. And, in some ways, The Showdown Effect is that. But in others — particularly the surprisingly tactical fighting, the clever use of line-of-sight, wall-sliding and wacky jetpacks — it’s so much more. Consider me impressed.