MultiVersus Closed Alpha Impressions

This past week I’ve had the opportunity to partake in a closed alpha test of MultiVersus so I’ll be sharing my thoughts and feedback based on my experience with it. I played the entirety of the test on a PC. If you’re unfamiliar, MultiVersus is an upcoming platform fighter with an emphasis on “doubles” or 2-vs-2 format. The character roster draws from the IPs of publisher Warner Bros, so Bugs Bunny and Taz can trade blows with Superman and Wonder Woman among others. The game is scheduled to enter open beta in June and will be entirely free-to-play and supports cross-play with all target platforms (PC via Steam, Xbox One, Xbox Series, and Playstation 4 & 5.)

Everything in the marketing of MultiVersus serves to highlight the increasingly convergent hegemony of corporations that represent western pop culture, so it’s a boon that developer Player First Games has poured so much work into bringing the characters in the wings of Warner Bros to a polished shine. I’ll be up front about it, I’m not an enthusiast of platform fighters nor do I have any emotional investment to play anyone on the mixed-bag roster. I will confess to being very fond of Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl for being extremely easy to play while offering fast paced gameplay, and I think the consistency of the roster lands a little better than it does in MultiVersus. I’m not going to compare any further however, because as easy as it is to compare the two they are reaching for very unique heights that set them apart.

Doubles is the main attraction

Firstly, the major departure that MVS takes from the rest of the genre is targeting doubles as the default competitive mode of play. This drastically changes how each character is designed and is ultimately the hook beyond the crossing-over of properties and appeals towards nostalgia woven into the presentation. Every character has elements of their kit that hinges on interacting with your partner, best represented in Wonder Woman’s ability to give her partner a super armor buff or pull their teammate out of harm’s way with her lasso. These are not simple mechanics either, as the abilities often have cool downs to work around or charge times required to set up and use their effects. This means playing around your partner’s pressure to set up buffs or positioning necessary to work better together, and this is what makes doubles shine as the main attraction in MultiVersus. I actually find the gameplay kits to be the most attractive part of the package by far.

I played most of the beta with Shaggy, who is a basic brawler character designed after shotos with an uppercut, tatsu-style flying kick and sandwich serving as a fireball. I initially didn’t invest much time into figuring out Shaggy’s approach to playing around his teammate, but I eventually found it very important to set up his “rage” charge neutral special while my partner covered me to avoid being punished and doing so allowed me to perform either a teleport towards my ally which triggers a reversal attack upon appearing, or I can throw the aforementioned sandwich for a buffed version which will heal my ally if they collide with it. Some characters are definitely far less reliant on being a team player than others, but you’re losing out on some seriously powerful effects if you don’t take your full kit into consideration. I would probably continue to play Shaggy into release if I decided to continue playing. I think he’s a very fun character mechanically even if I didn’t really find the visuals that interesting.

Beyond the unique character move sets we have a lot of mechanics and fundamentals you’d find in many other platform fighters. MVS puts a big focus on air mobility and dodging. All characters can perform two jumps and air dodges before being forced to land, and no limit on how many air attacks they can land in-between. Jump height and dodge distance is also very exaggerated, so moving around the stage quickly is effortless. As someone who exclusively invests time into airdashers these days I felt right at home. I won’t go over every detail but one of the more interesting decisions was to make jab combos require a direction and the attack button to perform, which means you will always correct your character into the direction you want to perform the combo. Weirdly intuitive!’

Perks are cool – but spell trouble

The other and perhaps less discussed spin that MultiVersus brings to the table is a perk system. This consists of 1 “Signature” perk and 3 generic perks that can be picked from Offense, Defense and Utility categories. You know all those meaningless stat upgrade slots that you find in pretty much every live service game that grants you 5% to your elemental damage or 10% cooldown reduction? That’s exactly what this system is, and it’s not at all surprising that a Warner Bros studio has managed to come up with a way to force this into a fighting game.

I will first say that I like the pitch of signature perks. These are usually pretty significant spins on the character’s kit. For example Shaggy has a perk that automatically grants him rage when passing 100%. The other perk he has is to significantly reduce the charge time on rage when he is holding his sandwich while also consuming the sandwich to do so. I think this is great! You legitimately give players more ways to play the same character to add diversity to gameplay.

The generic perks is where the whole thing both falls apart in gameplay design and also smells like monetization of competitive mechanics. These perks can be things like 4% less damage, or 10% if your teammate has stacked the same perk. Or it can be completely no-brainer choices like 15% DI influence (up to 25% when stacked!). Some of them are a little more complex, such as gaining projectile armor for a few seconds after dodging a projectile but most of them are pretty easy to understand.

While I’m not objectively against these choices, the fact that you have to unlock all perks by grinding a character-specific battle pass track feels very contradictory to the spirit of competitive fighting games. It feels a lot like the rune page system from League of Legends, which was a system that was so boring and such a sinkhole for forced shop spending that Riot eventually threw the system out to give all players the same choices out the gate. It’s also not that far off from the infamous Gems of Street Fighter X Tekken. It’s certainly possible that new perks will be added and power creep will set in, so if you have to grind the meta perk choices to compete by default I will be entirely turned off from this game come launch.

Easy to read, easy to play!

Where I must give MultiVersus top marks is legibility. I was initially concerned about the decision to have character damage and status effects track each character as they moved around the screen but in practice I find that Player First Games has made the right default decision. MVS does not shy away from using icons and text to indicate status effects, showing “Dodged!” or “Invulnerable!” during interactions or using an icon next to the character’s damage counter to show the cooldown on a special move. Since these things appear with relative frequency and become pretty important to watch out for I think having it all track the players made more sense than having to look to the top or bottom for everything.

I suspect people who become very familiar with these mechanics over time may not want the action disturbed by floating UI effects though – and the game offers a slew of interface customization options to go full Smash or meet you in the middle. Colorblind options included! I never found the game particularly difficult to follow, and if I needed to know a character can do I can always hop into the move list or training mode itself for detailed explanations.

Beyond it being easy to read I found the game easy to control, I played primarily on an arcade stick and while I did have to bind the cardinal directions at first and the menu did not feel entirely designed for digital inputs (I just picked up my mouse to click on the thing I wanted to interact with more often than I had liked) I didn’t have any trouble playing the game.

So how’s the netcode?

MultiVersus is betting hard on online play to bring in players and foster competition, to that end the game has rollback netcode supporting all game modes and cross play between all platforms. It works great! I wish I had much more to say about it, but aside from having the usual symptoms of a bad connection showing visual stutters on a character whose player is clearly not close enough to the router I didn’t really complain. I think the assumption they have with their server-based netcode model is that if a player has a bad connection it shouldn’t affect the others, but I think that’s not really the case in practice when one character is just jumping around and becoming hard to track. So I think that a connection filter would definitely be welcome, but it’ll pass the test for most people. I also had no trouble at all with the cross play implementation.

Extra: So how’s the…offline?

One of the more grim details of the MultiVersus marketing hype was a “Pro Showcase” video where 2 developers and 2 high level Smash players sat down to have a match. The match footage has a connection bar on it. These 4 people are playing a match in an offline setting, online. As baffling as that is, the alpha test doesn’t really give any answers as to how you’re supposed to play the game locally. You must sign in to a WB account to play, the game is nonfunctional in any other way. Now you might say “well it’s an alpha test so of course there will be an online requirement to test the netcode” and I agree! But since there is zero acknowledgement of how offline play works for this game, I am seriously concerned about the long time preservation of the game and the logistics of playing it at an offline tournament. Call me paranoid, but we’re going to need to have the conversation at some point.

Closing thoughts

MultiVersus is almost a parody of its own genre, a mash up of properties that had no business crossing over until capitalism itself converged their fates into a fighting system that kids around the world can’t get enough of. It would’ve been extremely easy to fumble the landing and come off as a greedy attempt to push something out there in the increasingly diverse platform fighter space but Player First Games is making something really special. An often repeated point about the appeal of Smash Bros is the way which the fighters are animated, voiced and styled to bring them to life in a new context. The polish on display here is truly an outlier in all of fighting games, but core design elements have worrying implications for the long term monetization of MultiVersus. I walk away from the test with many questions left to answer, some of which critical to my support of the game, but I will happily return to go a few more rounds to find those answers when the open beta launches in June.

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