Review by James Archer
When the title screen introduces The Showdown Effect as 'An Arrowhead game with references', they're not kidding. Like its studio stablemate Magicka, it's packed with affectionate send-ups of pop culture tropes and personalities, focusing this time on the cheesy action movies of the '80s and '90s with only occasional forays into internet memes and bad CSI:NY dialogue.
Appropriately, it's a mix of shooter, 2D fighter and um, platformer (remember that film where Sylvester Stallone did all those walljumps?). It provides support for up to eight-player brawls between an ensemble cast of Hollywood archetype heroes and thinly-veiled actor pastiches. It's not uncommon to see a good cop on his last day before retirement going katana-to-katana with Liam Neeson, for example. For a gimmick, it's executed with enough conviction to become genuinely entertaining – at least before the constant barrage of barely-applicable one-liners starts to wear thin.
The lack of controller support, while making the jumping a little fiddly, starts to make sense once the shooting begins. Unlike most twin-stickers, the aiming reticule has to actually hover over an enemy to score a hit. Considering that animation consists largely of slides, rolls and backflips, this minor quirk makes combat wildly tricky even with the trusty mouse – and that's no bad thing. Even with the maelstrom of projectiles, flailing bodies and muzzle flashes that accompany a fight, the need to stay on target makes every duel feel tight, intense and brutally dependent on skill. The one exception involves throwing knives, which are both powerful and don't require precision aiming to hit. Expect a nerf.
Melee combat, however, doesn't get as much screen time as its comedy potential deserves. In fact, the ability to pick up and throw props is hardly used at all. When most players are packing, it's rarely viable to go rushing in with a lightsaber unless you're making use of two specific characters' unique Hero Powers.
Each character gets one of these as standard, though some are far more useful than others – the Arnie clone gets a lot more usage than the Neeson clone, largely because an invulnerability shield usually beats easily-avoidable frag grenades. Since Hero Powers are the only functional difference between each character, this imbalance does cause a bit of a homogeneity problem in terms of who plays as who.
Weaponry has a similar problem: since there are only a handful of staple armament types, most encounters are functionally similar and rarely demand a shift in tactics. Unlocks are almost exclusively clothes or reskins, so there's little impetus to keep levelling up either. (You buy stuff with XP or real money. Basic hats: $1 / 50p, tuxedos and bionic legs around $2 / £1, premium weapon skins up to $6 / £4.)
Thank Woo, then, for the One Man Army and Expendables. These asymmetrical hero vs henchmen game modes give The Showdown Effect a much needed structural shakeup, pitting one or a team of heroes against hordes of nameless, player-controlled rent-a-mooks. The latter are weak and can't use custom loadouts, so must rely on cunning and teamwork to overcome their Hollywood-mandated ineptitude. It's chaotic and funny in ways that the standard deathmatch can't always attain. The only downside is having to rely on unreliable peer-to-peer hosting. Here's hoping both modes make more appearances in official Ranked rotations.
With a bigger roster of stars and concessions to more varied playstyles, this could have been a great little PvP shooter-brawler. But, like the movies it lovingly mangles quotes from, The Showdown Effect doesn't aim much higher than simple, disposable fun. And to its credit, it largely succeeds.
Expect to pay: $12 / £8
Release: Out now
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Publisher: Paradox Interactive Multiplayer Up to 8 players