Every once in a while, a concept appears that is so novel, yet so simple, that it prompts the question: “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?” Even more impressive is when such a simple, novel concept also turns out to be brilliant. With Awesomenauts, developer Ronimo takes the action RTS/multiplayer online battle arena (or “MOBA”) formula popularized by Defense of the Ancients and League of Legends and adapts it for use in a 2D sidescroller. As I played, the question of “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?” was quickly appended with the statement: “Because this is great!”
Awesomenauts deftly incorporates standard MOBA dynamics with features commonly seen in platformers. Players compete against each other in 3 vs. 3 matches, destroying defensive outposts until one team ultimately obliterates the other’s base. The action see-saws back and forth, depending on how well teams can plan and execute their attacks. The most carefully laid plans still force you to hit your jumps, as poor platforming skills and absentminded wandering can undo an entire attack strategy. Knowing when to retreat, when to wait for reinforcements, and when to head back to base to buy character upgrades is as crucial as navigating your way through the 2D bullet hell that forms during a skirmish.
Awesomenauts is a unique hybrid of games that don’t usually overlap but that turn out mixing well. It’s a MOBA, but you can play it sitting on the couch split-screen-style or with online teammates. MOBA fans will enjoy dissecting the level’s chokepoints and optimizing upgrade trees, while sidescrolling devotees can put implement their Mario and Sonic-honed skills within the context of a long, tactical campaign. Each character has a normal attack and two special abilities, all of which must be both unlocked and then mastered if you want to succeed. Managing your cash and its relationship to your team’s economy helps you prioritize which abilities to activate, but so does your actual competence with said abilities.
One of the game’s few weaknesses is tied to how these abilities are unlocked. Before a match starts, you choose a hero and customize a loadout that includes upgrades to both your standard and special attacks as well as passive status effects. These abilities must then be bought with the cash that you earn during a match. Because nothing is unlocked by simply leveling up, it’s very common to explore only a small fraction of your ability tree. If you don’t have enough cash, if you spend a lot of time away from your base (the only place where you can unlock abilities), or if the match is short, you won’t actually be able to use many of the abilities that you chose.
Match length depends largely on how effective teams work together. Once we got the hang of it, Jorge and I were able to quickly dispatch our enemies, occasionally in under five minutes. Sometimes, having the right comination of character classes can overcome poor strategic play, but even the “holy trinity” of Healer/Tank/DPS will fail in the face of sloppy planning.
The characters themselves are mechanically similar to many other class based games: healers, ranged fighters, rogues, and defensive artillery all make their requisite appearances. Thankfully, this traditional approach is spiced up with zany aesthetics. Awesomenauts features a host of amusing characters resembling the cast of a Saturday morning cartoon. Whether you play as a g G-funk loving frog, a Russian cosmonaut monkey, or a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy, you’ll be treated to wacky songs and silly catchphrases that engage in some good-natured stereotyping. Ultimately, if laughing at a pencil-mustachioed, francophone lizard yelling Garçon! as he opens the upgrade shop is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
Awesomenauts goes out of its way to make sure nothing interrupts the good times. Matches are drop-in/drop-out; humans are replaced by bots (and vice versa) seamlessly during a match if people drop out or connect. Post-game experience is collected and added to a persistent levelling system that rewards you with new abilities as you play. Staying partied up is easy and the wait times between matches are minimal. If you are killed during a match, you first sit through a short respawn timer before your character is rocketed back into the arena in a spaceship. This sequence is actually a cleverly disguised way of increasing the respawn time, but it feels like less of a punishment because you are able to control the rocket and pick up money on the way down.
Such a feature encapsulates the game’s overall approach: it has solid MOBA fundamentals that necessitate strategy, but it also emphasizes its 2D action components. Its respawn clock is also a minigame with significant in-game ramifications. Its cartoonish characters embrace goofy stereotypes but avoid the well-worn “sword and sworcery” tropes that dominate the MOBA landscape. Awesomenauts is full of great ideas, but its real achievement is being able to successfully implement them, thereby living up to its self-proclaimed awesomeness.