The Action Real-Time Strategy (ARTS) genre, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA), has been gaining traction in the past few years. From Defense of the Ancients to League of Legends to Heroes of Newerth, it's appealing to combine strategy and versus multiplayer. Even though the genre's name is new, it doesn't mean that console gamers haven't already tried it. Though the execution was less than desired, Guilty Gear 2: Overture laid out the genre basics while Monday Night Combat made it fit within a team-based shooter. Ronimo Games decided to try its hand at the genre with Awesomenauts, which is essentially ARTS/MOBA on a 2-D plane, and with surprising results.
Despite the serious nature of most MOBA titles, Awesomenauts embraces a sense of humor, as evidenced by an opening cut scene that's reminiscent of a classic Saturday morning cartoon. In the year 3587, corporations have amassed large armies of robot drones to fight for the right to occupy territory in the mining of solar, the latest precious material in the world. With skirmishes turning into stalemates, companies have turned to mercenaries to get the job done. You take control of one such band, known as the Awesomenauts, as they fight to ensure that their company gets the solar while preventing rival companies from doing the same.
For those who haven't played a game like this before, you pick one of six characters — each with strengths, weaknesses and special moves — before getting sent to the battlefield with an endless supply of slow-moving drones. Your main objective is to reach the enemy's drill core and destroy it before they do the same to you. Aside from the enemy's supply of endless drones and hired mercenaries, turrets act as a gateway to each base's drill core; destroying them gives you a clear shot at the enemy drill core. While your basic weapons can do the job, albeit slowly, you can upgrade your abilities by spending the solar you collect through battlefield pick-ups, regeneration, defeating enemies and destroying enemy structures. You can also pick up solar and health refills by defeating neutral creatures on the map.
The completion of battles gives you experience points, but they're based on arbitrary things like how much solar you picked up during a match and whether you used the random character option. Gaining experience levels doesn't mean much at the beginning of a match since everyone starts out at base levels, but it unlocks things such as new characters, new levels, new powers and the ability to customize powers. The list is rather lengthy, and should you feel like unlocking things again after reaching level 45, you can reset your stats and get an asterisk next to your name, the equivalent of a Prestige medal from the Call of Duty series.
On paper, the formula is simple enough that it seems like a good idea to ignore enemies while rush through turrets and the drill core. However, the truth is that the turrets and the drill cores have ridiculously long life spans, and going in with your small health bar and weak starting weapon means death early and often. For one thing, your respawn times increase with the more deaths you encounter. What starts off as an instant respawn the first time you die ends up taking 20 seconds longer on your 25th death. Additionally, getting killed gives the enemy a solar bonus, which is much larger if you're killed by a player instead of a turret or drone. Thus, you should think strategically about using your drones as bullet sponges, giving you time to attack before retreating to regain health and use your solar stash to purchase character upgrades.
With the genre's focus being on multiplayer, it's no surprise that there's no real story mode or dedicated single-player mode. What is surprising is that you can play both online ranked and private matches as well as offline practice matches with two other players on the same console, making team play much more effective since communication is easier. Interestingly, offline play still yields experience for your profile, and it feeds into the same pool as online experience, giving you the opportunity to unlock lots of stuff before you hop into an online match. It's a nice gesture that doesn't hurt the game since bot behavior is just as tough as human competition.
As for online performance, the game performs well. The six-player limit may be a cause, but the performance is very lag free without a hint of skipped frames or actions. Players who quit are immediately replaced with bots, and those same bots are replaced when new players jump in. Players who join games late receive some bonus solar so they can buy lots of upgrades to even the playing field.
The game isn't flawless, though, as there are a few things that drag down the experience. Characters can't be switched out during a match. Most of the characters in the game already work well together, but if you accidentally pick a character who isn't part of a team combo, you'll be out of luck until the next match. All of the battles are decisive ones, as there is no time limit and matches can't end in a draw. Matches only end after the drill core has been destroyed, and unless you have a well-organized team that can dish out maximum damage without getting themselves killed often, you'll spend at least 30 minutes in each match. Split-screen play, while fun, has a tendency to suffer from slowdown when the action heats up. Finally, the game only has three maps. Considering the price of the game, the size of the maps and their overall design, this isn't too bad, but those expecting a plethora of battlegrounds will have to wait for DLC.
One of Ronimo's signature traits is the use of a vibrant, animated graphics style. The colors are very bright on the characters and turrets while the backgrounds carry the same vibrancy with a more expanded color palette. That color scheme also plays a big part in the game's minimap, where turret and core damage can easily be seen, helping you spot troubled areas or plan where you need to go next to advance faster. The animation is fluid but expressive, while the designs of the models carry the same pronounced features as their models from Swords & Soldiers and some '80s Saturday morning cartoons. The particle effects are also well done, and it's relatively easy to find your character and allies amid the chaos. The look is clean and shows off the virtues of 2-D in HD.
The sound meshes rather well with the graphics, almost perfectly matching the light-hearted cartoon style. Though the music is sparse, the pieces are pretty memorable. The battlefield doesn't have any music playing in the background, save for pieces reserved for victory or defeat, but the theme song and individual songs for each character are a blast to hear. The sound effects take on the same style, albeit more serious, while the voices are entertaining to a lesser degree. The only problem with the voices is that the announcer has a tendency to overpower everyone on the field, so taunts spewed forth by any of the characters become very hard to hear, let alone understand.
Awesomenauts manages to live up to its name by providing a fun and awesome experience to those who enjoy team-based play. The presentation, from the graphics to the sound, may be lighthearted, but the action is intense as the constant back-and-forth between teams keeps players on their toes. While the map and character counts may be low, there is a lot of depth in the characters' move sets, and the maps are designed so well that people won't mind playing through them again. Though it can seem like a grind to level up, it never feels that way in practice because the desire to play just one more match always prevails. If you enjoy multiplayer games and want to try something a little different, you can't go wrong with Awesomenauts, which is available for download for 800 Microsoft points ($10).
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