United Front Games is a developer that has thrown people for a loop for the past four years. After the amazing critical success that was 2012’s Sleeping Dogs, the developer set aside the series to developer a pseudo MMO set in the Sleeping Dogs universe, Triad Wars. After the timid response to the game, a few years saw Triad War’s demise, and the future of United Front felt uncertain. Enter SMASH+GRAB, another strange bending of genres, this time in the MOBA space.
SMASH+GRAB sounds just as simple as it really is. Two teams of street gangs, classified by the “West” and “East” sides, take to the abandoned streets to smash in the windows of stores, grab as much loot as possible, and beat each other to a pulp in the process. The framework feels like an attempt to establish a roster of “heroes,” as it were, though that name doesn’t exactly apply here. Every playable character has a name, bio, and a set of unique abilities.
Beyond just the player character, every hero enters the streets with their own gang of five or six soldiers as well as a lieutenant to back them up. Your posse can also be customized and fixed to your play style. Some gangs specialize in quickly looting stores while others excel in combat. The game map is essentially divided into three lanes with alleyways between them that allow for quick flanking of enemy gangs.
Aside from the general setup of the map, the “hero” character system, and the timed buffs that populate the world, SMASH+GRAB doesn’t really feel like a MOBA–rather, it’s a 3D brawler with the multiplayer framework of MOBAs. Once your gang spots a rival group and a brawl breaks out, the game boils down to a dead simple fighting system of rock-paper-scissors, or the world of gang wars, smash-grab-block. A melee hit can be countered with a block, a block is countered with a grab, and a grab is countered by a well-timed hit.
The combat feels pretty good when beating AI fodder enemies to a pulp, but things get a little wonky against other players. It’s tough to know whether it was the spotty quality of servers, my internet, or a lack of precision in the game’s combat (or mix of all three), but PvP combat just never clicked. Everything is moving so fast in a battle that it’s often difficult to keep track of who you’re hitting.
The real players are often hard to spot among the fodder, so it was tough to tell when I transitioned from mindlessly slapping the AI around to taking on a real opponent. But even with all that in mind, the combat just isn’t particularly fun. Some of the characters’ unique abilities are fun to mess with, but SMASH+GRAB’s action feels like it was made to take a backseat to much larger systems at play, even though that isn’t the case. If you’re not smashing in the window of a store to collect a new melee weapon or cash for your team, you’re participating in big team fights that devolve to a bunch of mindless slaughter. It’s not a particularly deep game with a wealth of meta to discover, so it’s a wonder that the mechanic that makes up the majority of the experience is so lackluster, especially from the team that delivered a game with nothing but good gameplay systems in Sleeping Dogs.
SMASH+GRAB isn’t bad by any means, there’s just not much fun to be had in it currently. United Front Games has a solid front-end with its hero designs and cosmetic unlocks, and there’s a clear path of growth as the game moves forward: more maps, characters, abilities, etc. But for right now, SMASH+GRAB is a game that is missing its primary hook that all games need. Matches are simple, combat feels lame, and a lot of the map is pretty empty. It’s clear that the developers can see the fun in their game, but with a game as unconventional as this, we hope they can make a better case in the future.