Utter the words 'MOBA' in many gaming circles and a small shudder is likely to ripple across the (chat) room. Often cited for their high difficulty and uncompromising and sometimes aggressive players, multiplayer online battle arena games, like League of Legends, are regularly avoided by those who do not feel like gluttons for punishment. Dutch developer Ronimo Games, however, saw a gap in the market for a user-friendly MOBA, keeping the addictive and tactical nature of the gameplay but removing the intimidating atmosphere that puts many off the genre. What they have created is a deceptively deep but accessible MOBA experience with buckets of charm and a wry smile, but laden with several issues which can hamper what is for the most part an enjoyable multiplayer experience.
The premise, on the surface, is relatively simple; two teams of three, including an unlimited supply of small droids, attempt to break through a series of turrets to get to their enemy's core, thus ending the game. After being dropped in the level via a spaceship landing (a very cool touch), one then must select their load-out from the 'shop'/safe area (after selecting potential attributes pre-match) which can be brought with Solar, the game's collectable currency. At the moment there are six characters to choose from, with more to follow. Although Ronimo have tried to avoid straight-out character classes, many align roughly with traditional conceptions. For example, Clunk bears similarity to the 'tank' class, whilst Voltar is a medic, useless to attack with but an unstoppable force when teamed with Clunk.
Like the best MOBAs, a lone-wolf is quickly dispatched in an Awesomenauts dog-fight. Success instead relies on a mixture of tactical nouse, brute force and defensive togetherness, as well as an awareness of when to duck behind the safety of a turret; an unnecessary death, costly in Solar and time, can be the difference between victory or crushing defeat. Sometimes the best tactic is defence, letting the turret take the brunt of attacks whilst you and your comrades sweep up before launching a counter-offensive. At other times a stifling attack is the best tactic, not allowing them a shred of space. For the most part it is pretty well balanced; none of the characters (perhaps Clunk or bloody invisilized Leon Chameleon aside) feel over-powered, whilst you never come out of a game feeling that you have been cheated. There is, however, normally a dominating player (never me, unfortunately), whose continued success is funded by the power-up system (more solar = better abilities), which means that they get stronger and stronger as everyone else quakes at their intervention. This is perhaps the trade-off to such a system, but it means that more often than not whoever has the form player on their team will come out the winner. This is not a complaint as such, more a lamentable reality. Although many XBLA players, understandably, have removed themselves from vocal communication during games, teamwork really does bear fruit in Awesomenauts; the inclusion of a split-screen mode is a welcome one, with a team of three in the same room garnering a real sense of cooperation and camaraderie.
Visually, the game is a sugar-coated treat for the eyes. The graphics are all hand-drawn and take the appearance of a Saturday morning cartoon; the characters are well designed and full of character, whilst environments are unobtrusive and serve their purpose. To Ronimo's credit, what could have easily been a convoluted and cluttered style, like some MOBAs, is instead crystal clear, with every player and action easily discernible amongst the hectic happenings. This visual style suits the accessible nature of the game down to a tee; a more realistic, or less visually defined style would have definitely lessened the care-free, fun nature of the game. The sound, like the visuals, doesn't take itself very seriously. From the hilariously (deliberately) awful start-up song to the generic gameplay tunes, the music toes the fine line between bearable and repetitive; for the most part it stays in the background as a necessary lubrication to the glorious visual experience, as it should.
There are, however, a series of problems that can deeply mire the experience. As can be imagined for a purely online-based game (there is a single-player practice mode, and a story as such, but they are barely note-worthy), there are teething problems with the connection. This would not be an issue in itself, such things happen all the time, but there is a punishment system for those who leave a game to stop rage-quits. Whilst fine in theory, the game cannot distinguish between those who quit and those who are booted by the poor connections, thus punishing you for effectively not being able to play the game. More unfortunately, the game can swerve into repetitiveness; most of the levels play similarly, with the battles usually following similar patterns, especially when featuring the aforementioned infuriatingly better player. It is definitely a game to be played in half-hour spurts rather than 4-hour slogs, as one must when reviewing. As said, the balance isn't bad at all but needs a bit of fine tuning, something which Ronimo have promised to work on over the next few weeks.
As is often the case with online games (see Diablo III for some of the major problems), it takes a few months of chipping and changing for the developers and the fans to truly see the potential of the product reach fruition. This is definitely the case for Awesomenauts. A thoroughly charming, deep, accessible and immensely playable MOBA, Awesomenauts is not only fun but has enough about it tactically and through unlockables to sate its devotees (and there are many) long into the future. Unfortunately, the experience can be hampered by the connection issues, slight balance problems and at times an air of repetitiveness. However, I feel that these are only temporary concerns. As such, Awesomenauts is a sound investment for those looking for quick and charming thrills, much like a Saturday morning cartoon, and is simply, for the most part, great fun to play. Awesome.
This review is based on an Xbox Live Arcade copy of Awesomenauts, provided by the publisher. Awesomenauts is also available on the Playstation Network.