Monday Night Combat isn't what you'd initially expect. Although the game plays on the "extreme sports" trope of American television, the over-the-top, "American Gladiators" style presentation is merely there for setting and comic effect. The core experience is more a mash-up of Team Fortress and tower defense than any sports game you may have played recently.
Starting with a tutorial before you even get to a menu screen, Monday Night Combat is designed to get players up and running immediately. Game basics are explained, the upgrade system is introduced, and enemy robots are given a quick test run. After that, it's straight to the main menu, where you can choose your mode and get to playing.
Monday Night Combat offers up two basic modes: Blitz and Crossfire. Blitz is a defensive battle against an AI army of bots. As soon as the match starts, wave after wave stream out onto the playfield, each with the singular goal of destroying your base. You can face them solo, across varying levels of difficulty, or head online and buddy up with three other people to survive the onslaught. Local, split-screen co-op is also an option.
Playing through Blitz is much like a colorful incarnation of Gears of War 2's horde mode. On the lower difficultly levels, there are a set number of waves, but once you max out the challenge, the waves are unlimited.
Where the tower defense bits come into play is the simple fact that enemy bots always attack along the same paths. Every time you kill a bot, you get money. You can use that money to set up automated defense towers or upgrade your character's abilities. There are four different tower types to choose from, and each can be upgraded multiple times. Upgraded towers offer better attack damaged and more resilient shields, but they are a much larger resource loss when destroyed. On the other hand, you don't lose your purchased upgrades on death, so investing in yourself is more of a sure thing.
It's an interesting twist because how you approach base defense depends entirely on your style of play. Do you completely ignore tower creation and rely entirely on your reflexes? Do you choose an aggressive class and take the fight to the bot spawn point? Do you opt for defense and focus on building and repairing towers? Do you play stealth and work on taking out the opponent silently? All are valid tactics, and the sheer number indicates the gameplay depth on offer here. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Blitz mode map design, as you always seem to be playing on the same arena. A little variety here would have been nice, especially since Monday Night Combat costs 1,200 Microsoft points ($15).
Crossfire mode is where the game really shines, but this is only available via multiplayer and Xbox Live. No flying solo here. In Crossfire, two teams of six go head-to-head in an attempt to destroy each other's base. Both teams are supported by a never-ending stream of bots that attack the opponent on predetermined paths. Much like in Blitz mode, you can build defense turrets as well as take the fight directly to the opponent, but here you have the added twist of human opponents.
Human players are likely the biggest X factor, since a well-balanced team can easily decimate an opponent that only sports one or two classes. For example, both the tank and gunner can do decent damage, but either can be easily taken out unless assisted by someone playing the support class. The assassin is great at stealth kills but horribly underpowered unless she can get up close. The sniper is great from a distance, and the assault class is the default all-around player. Learning to mix it up on a team and play off each other's strengths is the best way to master the game.
In addition to the six default classes, Monday Night Combat also allows you to unlock up to six custom classes. Custom classes still slot into one of the default player types, but you can select the secondary buffs that each one carries. Custom classes can be played in any game mode.
Unlike Blitz mode, Crossfire sports a variety of maps to play on. Each is designed with multiple paths, yet still maintains something of a claustrophobic feel. It is possible to get from one end of a map to the other rather quickly, ensuring that firefights are always raging. One plus is the use of vertical space on the maps. If you find there is too much opposition going forward, just try going up and over.
With a good selection of character classes and pick-up-and-play controls, Monday Night Combat is an enjoyable take on competitive multiplayer. The base defense and tower building add a bit more strategy than you might expect in a third-person shooter, and it's a welcome surprise. On the other hand, the focus on multiplayer means that the game is wholly dependent on the community. When the community dries up, so will the game. The single-player Blitz mode is little more than a training ground and not nearly enough to justify a purchase on its own merits.
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