I mention this to make a point. While Awesomenauts was certainly inspired by the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre, it is by no means merely derivative. It cobbles together a strong identity of its own, accomplished in part by translating a familiar experience into a new format, and in part by cribbing from the memories of the 1980s to create a Saturday morning cartoon that never existed.
The inspiration behind Awesomenauts will be immediately apparent to anyone in their late-twenties to mid-thirties. The introduction is pulled straight from 1980s cartoon nostalgia, telling the story of a stalemated intergalactic war that can only be brought to an end by one elite force: the Awesomenauts. Each member of the team might as well be an action figure already, from the iron-jawed robot, Clunk, to the Russian, jetpack-sporting monkey, Yuri.
As much as they represent the archetypes I remember from my childhood – slick assassin, (literally) brainy scientist, space sheriff – they also serve as perfect templates for character classes. Together, they team up to blast droids, slaughter opponents, disable turrets and, ultimately, destroy the opposing team's Solar drill, housed conveniently at the heart of the enemy base. It sounds exactly like a traditional MOBA, and it is, though it plays out in 2D and, unlike a lengthy round of League of Legends, the three-on-three matches of Awesomenauts rarely top out at more than half an hour.
Each character has a variety of abilities, all of which can be customized by purchasing items with Solar (gold) earned from killing opponents and accomplishing objectives. Said items allow for a great deal of flexibility in creating a specific build for your character. Even a single ability can vary greatly depending on the applied upgrades. Leon's stealth ability, for example, cloaks him and leaves behind a clone. Without upgrades, the clone serves only as a distraction to confuse enemies. With some investment, the clone can walk, attack and even explode upon death, effectively turning the harmless clone into a death-dealing, turret-diving nuisance.
Every character enjoys this level of on-the-fly customization – enough of it to keep the action going without getting confusing or requiring a study-guide just to keep track of your build. Unlocking new items is half the fun of Awesomenauts, opening up new possibilities (like the aforementioned exploding clone) as persistent experience is gained across every match. With locked upgrades clearly visible during character selection, it doesn't take long before you start pining for the perfect build – I need Lonestar's final dynamite upgrade – and playing matches to earn them is addictive.
Matches themselves are frantic, the screen often filled with A.I. controlled droids and a mass of characters. Learning when (and whom) to attack is key, as is taking advantage of your team's composition. It's a good idea to pair Voltar (the healer) with Clunk, for example. Voltar can make it nearly impossible to kill Clunk, while Clunk can keep Voltar protected, making them a force to be reckoned with as they march across the map. While there are only three maps available, each is unique and offers special features of its own, from additional droid spawners to gold-dropping mini-bosses. My personal favorite is a sandworm that can be triggered to instantly kill anyone foolish enough to cross its pit – the catch being that said pit is littered with free gold for those quick enough to get it.
As in other MOBAs, duels often break out on key points of the map, each character vying for the best position and using skills to their advantage, pushing foes toward turrets or freezing them in place for a few free hits. I never tire of whittling down an opponent and watching him run, only to be reeled back in by Leon's tongue and summarily executed. It's thrilling every single time. And, just to make the other team aware of that fact, there's a built-in taunt function (or a "help me" function, if you're on the wrong side of this equation).
Playing with friends is a seamless affair, online or off, allowing almost any mix of local and online players to join the fray. Bots take over unfilled slots, and they are automatically replaced once a human player is found. Human players are definitely preferable, as I found the bots to be predictable and rather easily defeated. I didn't come across any glaring balance issues, though it's worth noting that any such issues will assuredly be found quickly once the game is available to the public.
Awesomenauts does more than simply adapt a successful formula, it does so with humor and panache. It has taken a genre typically dripping with grim fantasy and turned it playfully on its ear. Even without the delightful presentation, the simple fact that developer Ronimo Games has effectively fused a MOBA with the trappings of a 2D action title is laudable on its own. Give it your money, and it will give you its love. You can probably hang on to your cheese though.
This review is based on review code of the Xbox 360 version of Awesomenauts, provided by Ronimo Games. The game will be available for $10 on PSN and XBLA on May 1 and May 2, respectively.
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