Awesomenauts review — Saturday morning combat

This article was originally posted on Grouvee.com, which recently changed format to a gaming backlog library. I’ve decided to repost some of my stories from their archive for posterity.

Awesomenauts Screenshot

Within ten minutes of starting Awesomenauts, the game informed me that I had been humiliated.

That’s a pretty accurate description of how the game, and maybe the MOBA genre in general, treats its players. For those unfamiliar with the genre, it goes by many names: ARTS (action real-time strategy), MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena), or simply a DOTA clone (based on Defense of the Ancients, itself originally a mod for Warcraft). The games are hyper-competitive, online strategy games; the most popular of which is currently League of Legends. The barrier for entry into MOBA games tends to be high, as a new player will get totally dominated by more skilled opponents, and there is no real single-player mode.

When I first heard about Awesomenauts, it seemed to be a more approachable take on the take-no-prisoners attitude of the genre. It features a unique, 2D side-scrolling perspective as opposed to the usual top-down view, and the stable of characters is relatively small and manageable. The game’s Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic, inspired by 80s shows like G.I. Joe and He-Man, was a definite draw. Could this be my “in” with the world of the MOBA?

Awesomenauts Screenshot

However, once the actual action begins, the kiddie-friendly veneer is blasted away and thrown into a fire. As a relative neophyte to the MOBA scene, I hoped the tutorial mode could provide some insight into strategy and appropriate character builds. But the instruction begins with, “This is you,” and ends with “This is what you want to blow up.” There’s no real campaign mode to cut your teeth on, just a practice mode with some rather dense AI, and the main attraction, online multiplayer.

It’s too bad, because some character-specific missions that hint at possible strategies would have been great. The playable characters have a lot of personality, and fill out the roles you would come to expect from an action cartoon. Sheriff Lonestar is the cowboy gunslinger, giant robot Clunk is the heavy hitter, brain-in-a-jar Voltar the Omniscient is the hi-tech support character, Yuri is the jetpack wearing monkey, Leon is the womanizing chameleon, and Froggy G is the purposefully misappropriated “urban” character. Each could support a short story mode to let players get a handle on their movesets, but Awesomenauts instead takes the approach of dropping you off in the deep end.

It’s not just the characters that have great personalities; the developers also really nailed the art design in all aspects. Of particular note is the music. The game’s main theme, with guitar riffs and high vocals, evocative of the 80s cartoons being emulated, works incredibly well. I found myself listening to the main theme on YouTube long after finishing playing (you can download it for free from the developer’s website here).

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/LE_I9iz7pVI&#8221; frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

The goal of each match is to blow up the opposing team’s drill core by first punching through their defensive turrets. You can use auto-spawning droids as a buffer to protect yourself as you approach a turret, and eventually whittle down the enemy defenses. Conservative play is rewarded, because even though you can always respawn if you die, there’s an increasingly longer wait time to re-enter the arena after each death, and the other team will be rewarded with some Solar, the game’s currency. That’s maybe part of the reason I had difficulty at first: my instinct is to keep fighting until I die, not to retreat and regroup.

It’s worth noting that Awesomenauts is kind of sparse on content. Cool as they may be, the game has only six playable characters, and half of those are locked from the start. Many of the moves must also be unlocked by leveling up. And of the game’s three maps, only one is available from the get-go! More stuff is unlocked by leveling up, but again, this punishes newbies, as experience is earned primarily by actually winning matches. DLC promises to bring more characters soon, but it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed at the selection, especially when the free MOBA League of Legends offers more content for nothing.

I had hoped Awesomenauts would be a more user-friendly approach to the MOBA genre. However, I stuck with it, found some solid strategies that work for me (Clunk’s self-destruct is a favorite), and once I eventually teamed up with some players that knew what they were doing better than I did, the experience began to come together for me. The split screen co-op makes this a good one to play with a few friends, sharing a sofa.

However, if you were hoping Awesomenauts was going to be your “baby’s first MOBA,” keep on waiting.

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