Of all the myriad custom maps that came out of the Warcraft III community, it would be difficult to claim that the most important wasn’t a little mod called Defense of the Ancients. Distilling the essence of a strategy game down to a single controllable unit, creating a team-focused experience, and sprinkling on a little dash of RPG elements, the game created its own sub-genre of games: the MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena).
But why should PC gamers get all the fun? That’s the question being asked by Ronimo Games, developers of the XBLA and PSN title, Awesomenauts. Trading in the real-time strategy controls of previous MOBA games for the trappings of a 2D platformer, Awesomenauts takes a number of bold steps in an effort to cater the experience of games like DOTA for the console crowd.
Is the mission of Awesomenauts successful, or does it get caught overextending? Hit the break to find out.
Awesomenauts puts you in control of one of a handful of playable mercenaries hired on by drilling magnates locked in perpetual conflict as they attempt to mine the precious material “solar.” Launching wave after wave of robotic drones at the enemy encampment, it falls to the Awesomenauts to swing the momentum into their employers’ favor, break through the enemy defenses, and destroy their drilling operation.
A game of Awesomenauts is played in teams of 3. The basic elements of the MOBA genre are all present: computer-controlled canon fodder continually spawns and moves towards the enemy base, divided up typically into two different “lanes,” each of which is guarded by one or more turrets that have to be destroyed to push further. At the far end of each map is a team’s base, the destruction of which loses them the game.
Unlike PC MOBA games, which are typically played from a top-down strategy perspective, Awesomenauts plays like a game of Contra. All characters have a form of attack bound to one button, which typically takes the form of a ranged shot (though for some characters, this is a melee attack or even a healing ability). Another button handles jumping, which varies from character to character: some can double jump, hover, or outright fly through the air.
Much like a MOBA game, you’ll learn abilities that are bound to the other two face buttons. Each character has two such abilities, but in a stray from convention, these skills aren’t learned by gaining experience levels. Rather, everything in the game is handled by the accruing of currency called solar. Solar is your one-stop shop for character upgrades – you can use it to purchase abilities, upgrade abilities, and buy passive boosts. Your character still has a “level,” but this number is simply a reflection of how much solar you have accrued and does not directly affect your stats as it would in a traditional MOBA.
Abilities can be upgraded in a number of ways – damage and range increases, adding additional properties to them, and in some cases changing the way the ability functions entirely. However, a character won’t have access to every one of these potential upgrades in a given game. Before the match starts, a player is prompted to select 12 of these items that will be available in their own personal shop. Six of these are related to your abilities (three for each), three affect your basic attack, and another three are generic upgrades that all characters have access to, such as increased movement speed. As you accrue points from completed matches, your account will increase in level, each of which awards you with a new upgrade to select on the loadout screen. This gives a nice sense of persistence to the proceedings.
It’s definitely a streamlined process from the genre’s traditional approach. A certain degree of depth is lost in the transition, since you don’t have nearly the sort of character customization you have in a game like DOTA. Even still, the selection of an upgrade loadout for your Awesomenaut prior to battle does involve some important decisions, and you’ll probably find yourself doing a lot of experimenting with your “build” in order to get it just right. Overall, it’s a pretty successful conversion of a complicated mechanic to the console space.
Where Awesomenauts really succeeds is the number of steps taken to keep the flow of the game quick. Death forces you out of the game for a brief period, but this is lessened somewhat by the presence of a respawning “minigame” in which you can rack up a small bit of solar upon returning to the battlefield. Players can freely join up in a game as teammates via splitscreen play, and outside of a noticeable framerate loss, this mode functions quite well. In addition, players leaving a game is not the death-sentence that it is in a traditional MOBA. Instead, surprisingly competent AI bots will take over for the absent player as the game searches for a replacement. In fact, you can start a game by completely bypassing the lobby screen, jumping into an all-AI game and letting players slowly populate the arena. It’s an intelligent system that is a perfect match for the console mindset.
The game isn’t without a few hang ups that are a result of the platform, however. Unless you’re playing directly with a friend, it can be virtually impossible to have any sort of team coordination. Headset voice chat is available, but if your teammates aren’t properly equipped, your only choice is to communicate through very generic commands bound to the d-pad, which basically amount to “attack” or “defend”. This can be incredibly frustrating for those used to the team-based play of a PC MOBA, especially when matched with players who aren’t familiar with the concepts of the genre. The game features a brief tutorial, but an expansion of this to explain a few of the more advanced concepts might have helped to create a more educated playerbase.
These problems are compounded when a period of intense action breaks out, specifically during team fights. These are typically chaotic periods even in traditional MOBAs, but in Awesomenauts, it can be particularly difficult to tell what’s going on. Player health bars are not color coded by team, making it harder to tell friend from foe when the screen is cluttered. In addition, there is a lack of any sort of meaningful feedback when connecting with an attack, making it even more difficult to tell if you’re being successful or not.
Still, despite these shortcomings, Awesomenauts works well for the most part. Much of this is due to some clever map design that offers a nice bit of variety. The game features three distinct maps, and each has their own elements that make it stand apart. One map boasts a single lane to start that runs through a low-gravity room, leading to huge leaps and jumps mid-combat. Another features an enormous sandworm that leaps through the ground and kills players, which can be triggered by hitting a nearby button. These little touches add a ton of variety to the proceedings, and certainly are a huge step up from the standard MOBA “forest with a river down the middle.” A typical map will last about 12 to 18 minutes – the game does a good job of not dragging on for too long.
Awesomenauts really nails it with its presentation. The game features a visual style that is a deliberate throwback to the glory days of 80’s cartoons, where a breakdancing frog and a monkey with a jetpack battling each other in deep space wouldn’t cause one to bat an eyelash. The game further ups the ante with a great soundtrack full of guitar wails and personalized character themes – which, as a nice touch, will start playing during a match when a character goes on a killing spree.
At $10, Awesomenauts comes strongly recommended for those looking for a solid online game or a fun alternative to the traditional MOBA. It may not be quite as deep or team-friendly as its PC counterparts, but Awesomenauts represents a successful transplant of the genre to the console world. Its fast-paced nature and incredibly charming visual style combine to make a title that is simply just a ton of fun to play. And, well, that’s pretty awesome.
Awesomenauts was released on May 1st, 2012 for PS3, and May 2nd, 2012 for Xbox 360. Review is based on the Xbox 360 version.