Smash+Grab is a wild brawler with teeth

Welcome to the jungle.

Today at PAX West, I started my day with a little murder, mayhem and grand larceny in United Front Game's upcoming Smash+Grab.

"Smash+Grab is a melee-focussed online combat game. Assemble your crew, and try to out loot and out-grab your opponents," Designer Josh Rubenstein told me as I settled down to some team-based chaos. "Oh! And get 'dystopian' in there too!" he added, helpfully.

The game is indeed dystopian -- the team cites everything from The Warriors to A Clockwork Orange to Escape From New York as its influences. I was let loose in a grim, neon-lit city -- really, an arena -- after I picked my team leader and my AI "Lieutenant" and crew. I controlled a brawny, spike-padded dude, with my second in command running after me and giving me combat buffs. Each character has his or her own abilities -- some Lt's offer extra damage, or healing, or chain-able attacks if I got the timing right.

And in those arenas? It was my job to beat the hell out of opposing teams, loot storefronts after caving in their windows (the titular smashing and grabbing), and using that loot to craft ever-better weapons. It's a satisfying core loop -- escalating the violence and the stakes at a nice clip in every battle.

There's a chaos to the proceedings, but it's all been carefully designed and felt well-balanced. All of the matches I played and watched today felt like close fights -- and both Rubenstein and Design Director Mike Lee emphasized their work balancing the factions and eliminating the possibility of dominant strategies.

United Front's last game was the criminally underrated open world crime brawler Sleeping Dogs, and a tiny bit of that DNA shines through. "We wanted to go for something unique, something that would set us apart," Rubenstein offered, while still "playing to our strengths as a studio."

He cited "'one versus many' combat, cool, stylish characters," and an approach that just brushes up on the bounds of reality as those strong points. It's not an easy characteristic to define, but it is definitely here -- a slightly exaggerated style, with animation carefully crafted from the studio's martial artist/animation director.

In order to foster that sense of reality (and slightly stylized violence), many folks in the animation department even started a boxing club. It's subtle, but it translates nicely to the combat. Mike Lee said the game was definitely a labor of love for the team, and its in details like that that go to show it. These folks are willing to get punched in the face in order to get the feeling right.

Smash+Grab will launch on Steam Early Access later this month.