A DOTA inspired 2D tactical shooter
Dutch developers Ronimo Games are quickly becoming the masters of splicing disparate genres into uniquely addictive combinations. Their previous successful fusions, de Blob and Swords & Soldiers, managed to disguise a colourful puzzler underneath a monochromatic platformer, as well as bring the RTS genre into a 2 dimensional side-scrolling perspective. With their latest title, Awesomenauts, they have deconstructed the burgeoning MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre, combined it with a 2D platforming shooter and re-assembled it with a surprising amount of tactical nuance and RPG style levelling. It’s another complex equation, but one that Ronimo just about manages to pull off with a healthy mixture of accessibility and depth.
Awesomenauts has a single game type that can be played online or locally via split screen multiplayer. It pits two teams of 3 players against each other in a race to destroy the opposition’s planetary mining base. Blocking your way are a number of AI fortified turrets, a steady stream of tower defense style creeper bots and those 3 player controlled adversaries. Much like its fellow MOBA inspirations, Defense of the Ancients and League of Legends, you take charge of a single hero and attack the enemy’s structures whilst defending your own in a tug of war exchange of bullets and bombs.
These heroes consist of archetypal character classes moulded around some interesting cartoon designs – there’s the cigar chomping dynamite wielding explosives expert, Sheriff Lonestar, the floating cloaked brain in a jar healer, Voltar, and the stealthy chameleon who can blend into the background, Leon. It’s as if the cast of Team Fortress had wandered into a Saturday morning children’s show and been partially anthropomorphised. The whole visual design has something of the Castle Crashers and Alien Hominid about its styling too, with bright bold outlines and colours all making for a rather charming package.
Each character’s accessible tools and attributes are customizable in a pre-match load out screen and upgradable during battles through the micro-economy of a currency named ‘Solar’ (a precious liquid metal). Solar is automatically generated over time, collected from each stage and awarded for felling an opponent. It forms a major tactical component of skirmishes as your choice of upgrades can strongly affect the progression of events: you might want to invest in the range of your primary weapon, the ability to heal your teammates, or an attack that steals health off opponents, depending upon your current predicament. This all ensures that matches remain fresh and interesting throughout their length as some can easily extend into hour long skirmishes should evenly matched teams clash.
As a solely multiplayer, action based RTS, Awesomenauts’ quality depends heavily upon the balance of its mechanics. A single decimal point out of place within its math could easily have upset the flow of each match by unfairly advantaging one side. Wisely Ronimo have sidestepped this pitfall by ensuring equality throughout numerous aspects of its design – there is absolute symmetry in each of the stages, the skills of the different hero types are well balanced and there is a requirement for each team to be a mixture of classes, ensuring that no battle will be fought solely by a squad of unarmed healers. Major gameplay elements are all well balanced, leaving an individual’s skills and the strength of teamwork to be the deciding factors.
And like all good strategy games it is the fine balancing of these mechanics that allows clever tactical play to overcome brute force. Sticking with your healer and using the shield of a crawler bot to advance toward a turret will yield much better results than simply charging in blind. And clever utilization of the few environmental features – hiding behind bushes or summoning a large enemy eating worm - can be useful tactical tools. Awesomenauts definitely favours the application of brain power, encouraging conservatism in the brashness of your attack. You will undoubtedly find yourself retreating to both defend your base as well as to save your own skin. Ronimo have even included the ability to warp back to your base, which acts as a convenient healing hub as well as the store for purchases.
All of this means that nine times out of ten, the smarter and more coordinated group will come out on top. And it adds up to a mightily addictive and rewarding formula, one that encourages persistence through the steady trickle of unlockable’s as you gain experience and level up. There is even the option to ‘prestige’ and reset your profile to zero after having achieved the maximum level of 45 and unlocked all characters and upgrades, gaining you a gloating asterisk above profile.
But whilst the vast majority of its mechanics are fair and evenly designed, there are a few erroneous elements upsetting this harmonious formula. A small number of abilities gained at the higher levels of that experience based progression system are a little too powerful for beginner players to deal with, meaning a sharp learning curve for the late arrivals. And there is a blatant and easily exploited glitch whereby the jet-pack floating monkey Yuri can shoot at the hostile’s turrets in safety when positioned above it. Ronimo have done a lot to ensure Awesomenauts balance is maintained, but these few disruptions have unfortunately persisted into the release build.
Similarly, a lack of variety is a sticking point throughout; there are only a measly six heroes to choose from and a handful of interchangeable stages upon which to do battle, each of which is very similar in layout with only a couple of environmental features to really differentiate. Ronimo have clearly poured the majority of their efforts into refining its gameplay and in the process have skimped a little on the content. Still for 800MSP/$9.99/£7.99 the addictiveness of its central conceit and the depth of its ranking system makes Awesomenauts a highly recommendable proposition. A successfully accessible introduction to the MOBA genre for the consoles wrapped up in one charming, albeit slight package.