MOBA. An acronym which brings with it visions of spotty youths wearing trilbies (no, that’s not a fedora you imbecile), gathered around their keyboards and shouting at a screen covered in row upon row of nonsensical iconography. I’m making fun of course, but games like Defense of the Ancients and League of Legends are big business, with hundreds of thousands of pounds of prize money being given away in competitions every year. Despite that, the MOBA – or multiplayer online battle arena – remains something of a niche sub-genre under the real time strategy umbrella. Because of that, I’m going to take a moment to explain the principles so my Awesomenauts review makes a lot more sense.
The basic skeleton which makes up the body of a MOBA involves two teams, each protecting a home base, at opposite sides of a purpose built symmetrical arena. Each player controls just one character from a selection provided by the game, with each character having their own strengths and weaknesses. Traditionally there are two to three routes from base to base, and these routes are protected by sentries and turrets which belong to the teams. In addition, non player controlled bots spawn periodically from each base, and help to divert the attention of the opposing team. After fighting your way through the enemy’s defences, you win the match by destroying the enemy base. Traditionally, MOBAs are played from a top-down perspective like most other RTS games. There are exceptions, however: Battleborne takes the fight into an FPS environment, and Smite has you playing gladiators from a third person viewpoint.
Awesomenauts Assemble, the remake / re-release of the original Awesomenauts from the Xbox 360, is most definitely a MOBA. It ticks all the boxes outlined above, but it does something brilliant and unique with the formula. It takes the full, multiplayer experience, turns the whole thing into a scrolling platformer/shoot ’em up/brawler, and presents it as a pastiche of childhood cartoons of the eighties and nineties. Not only does this bizarre approach work, it’s a significantly more fun and accessible experience than the traditional genre leaders.
From the moment the game beings it’s fully animated introduction, Awesomenauts simply oozes quality. As the characters leap from the screen, accompanied by a soundtrack complete with 80s cartoon vocals, you’ll sit there wide eyed, not realising the huge grin which has spread across your face until your cheeks begin to hurt. The animation is stunning, and the details in the characters themselves – all playable within the game – show a true labour of love from the developers.
There are many ways to play Awesomenauts, from matchmaking and private matches to practice sessions, offline against bots and even support for three-way split screen, which makes sense considering the game pits two teams of three against each other. You can take your local buddies online too, so no one needs to be left behind. Online is where the meat of the challenge lies, but playing offline against AI opponents is surprisingly fun and rewarding. The developer even gives the AI funny names, which read like player’s gamertags. Full drop-in drop-out support is present too, so you can always get a game going even when no-one is online. There isn’t even a break in gameplay when this happens, it’s totally smooth and seamless. In a game without any real, bona fide single player content, this kind of approach is critical, as you can always play the game when you feel like it – no need to invite people or wait in lobbies between matches.
When starting any game, your first choice is which character to play as. There are heroes which are homages to everything from Battletoads to Bravestarr, and each one has it’s own style of attack, special moves and upgrades. After selecting your character from the many available and going through the initial lobby process, you’ll be quite literally dropped into the next match via a pod. The second it lands you’re off, and again the sheer quality of the artwork astounds. Each character is beautifully animated frame by frame, and regardless of whether they use ranged or melee weapons they all look and feel fantastic. The maps each bring something unique to a match, with some having environmental hazards and others hostile indigenous life.
Whether you’re fighting for Red or for Blue, you have four huge gun turrets which protect the top, middle and bottom paths to your base. Of course, the enemy has the same, and it’s a matter of careful tactics and picking your fights which will enable you to get past these. If you run up alone and attempt to take down the mighty health bar of a turret, you’re going to find yourself respawning in a new drop pod in a matter of seconds. So, working as a three man team is key, and holding back behind the safety of your own turrets whilst awaiting the arrival of your little AI bots which act as mobile shields is a necessity. Thanks to some clever and careful character design, although characters have their own strengths, skills and styles of attack, you don’t have to worry about who’s going to be the healer or who will take on the role of tank. Player co-operation and tactical play will trump any ‘perfect team’ ideas every time, so character choice comes down to which one matches your preferred play style.
As you kill enemy bots and Awesomenauts, you’ll collect ‘Solar’, the games currency. At any point during the match you can hold down the RB button to force a respawn back at your own base, wherein lies an upgrade terminal. Here you can spend Solar to improve your character’s unique weapons, or upgrade other stats, such as damage dealt and how much they regenerate health per second. All of these upgrades, and your collected Solar, are only available for the current match. This allows for some creative upgrading to counter an enemy team’s specific style of play, and you don’t have to worry about long term character builds or anything of the like. That’s not to say Awesomenauts isn’t without it’s long game, however: Behind the scenes, your profile is constantly gaining experience regardless of the characters used, and as you level up your profile, you unlock permanent rewards that apply to any and all of the characters you play as. The balance between this and the temporary upgrades is very fine, and achieved pretty flawlessly. I’ve been outplayed many times online in Awesomenauts, but I’ve never felt as though it was down to a player who’d got more stuff unlocked than I had; something which can’t be said of the biggest multiplayer games on Xbox.
When the game launched originally a couple of years ago on the 360, minus the ‘Assemble’ moniker, it felt brilliant but didn’t draw me into compulsive playing. With the fine balance adjustments, extra characters and super seamless drop in/out multiplayer, I can’t stop playing. When I’m not playing, I’m thinking about playing. Everything from the pace to rate of progression across your profile is just so finely tuned, it’s difficult to imagine how it could be a more perfect game. Except for one thing; small, but significant. Day one DLC.
The title isn’t free to play, yet there are literally dozens of characters and costumes available for real money on the Xbox Live Marketplace. As these were all ready for launch day, maybe providing them as in game unlocks would have been a better approach, because there’s a certain feeling of greed on behalf of the developers here. I was fortunate enough to be handed a code for the expansion pack listed in this reviews title, and the characters are all just as well thought out and unique as the core group, although the costumes add nothing to the experience for me. Aesthetic changes like that have never been my thing, however. Barring this minor blemish, Awesomenauts is perfect. There isn’t any need to pay for any of the DLC as the standard characters are plentiful and equally balanced, and the game provides countless hours of fantastic platforming brawling action. Even with the marginally sour taste left in my mouth after visiting the extensive marketplace, it’s still one of the best multiplayer games I’ve played on the Xbox. The developer has said they intend to continue to support the game post-launch with a trickle of free content, although haven’t marked out anything in particular. we’ll see how this pans out in the future, but even now it’s impossible for me not to recommend a purchase of Awesomenauts Assemble. It’s just brilliant.
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