Mad Mack: Awesomenauts Review
A while back I was given a press pass to the Eurogamer Expo. Some of you might remember the article I wrote afterwards (though with my current readership sitting at around 3, I doubt it got much attention). Without recapping too much, the essentials are that I got my hands on a few games that really stood out as possible gems against the brown and grey Battle Warfare dominated landscape that we find ourselves in. One of those games was Xenonauts – an X-Com reboot that was in development long before the Firaxis X-COM RTS was announced (man those guys must be piiiiiiiisssssssed).
The other was Awesomenauts, the brain-child of Dutch outfit Ronimo Games.
Now, I thought that Awesomenauts was considered an Online Multiplayer Fighting Game, in the vein of Super Smash Bros Melee. But apparently I am full of shit, because Awesomenauts is actually considered to be an Action Real Time Strategy (ARTS) game, which I find a difficult concept to get my head around, especially because when I see ‘RTS’, I think of zerglings, Mammoth Tanks and my virginity. What I don’t think of is a flying monkey with a laser on his head, a frog thing that shoots a squid gun, or a chameleon that can turn invisible and has a giant sword. But apparently what I think doesn’t matter.
Regardless of what it is called (oh, it is sometimes also called a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game for obvious reasons), at its core Awesomenauts is a game where you play as one of six colourful characters in a team of three against an opposing team selected from the same character pool, with your objective being to destroy the enemy base while protecting your own. The game is 2D, though the maps are fairly large both vertically and horizontally. Protecting each base are two layers of powerful turrets and an endless stream of weak creeps, that march across the multiple levels of each map and batter whatever gets in their way: be it opposing creeps, enemy turrets or other player-controlled enemies. So the objectives and set up are simple. The gameplay however, is not.
Each of the six characters (with more to follow by the way) have different roles to play within the team. There are support characters who can provide significant benefits to their allies but might struggle against the more powerful opponents; there is a tank character who is basically a damage sponge but can certainly dish it out; there are characters who are well-suited to turret assault, and others that are best kept as player killers. Each character has two abilities beyond the standard attack and jump, but the special attacks themselves have a considerable degree of customisation available, with special upgrades unlocked by leveling up and then purchased for use in-game by spending credits earned in each round by killing enemies, creeps and turrets. Basically, envisage a large and overly complex game of rock-paper-scissors and you have an idea of what it all boils down to. You have certain characters and abilities that excel at killing other players but are useless against static defences, and you have some that are vulnerable to the more nimble characters but can deal out unparalleled damage. In order to win, your team will not only need a bit of everything, but also has to be working in concert.
One of the main pros of Awesomenauts is the depth of strategy you have to employ in order to win. You really need to be on the ball, using the various character abilities to their full effect. If you have selected the player-killing chameleon character to play (a favourite of mine because he is quite clearly a bit of a dick), then you are utterly fucking useless at the base assault (ok there are a few tactics you can use to crack into the base, but they are inefficient and slow), so there is no point going off and doing your own thing. You need to stick closely to your team tanks and assault characters in order to support them by checking some fools. In this game, deaths really mean something. If you kill someone it will net you enough credits to purchase one or two upgrades – and with upgrades improving your abilities beyond recognition, they are pretty crucial. Similarly, if you die all you are doing is letting the other team get better and more powerful. Discretion, as they say, is the better part of valour, and in this game it is better to run back to your base crying like a little girl than it is to give the enemy the credits (not to mention the satisfaction) earned by cutting them from your cold, dead corpse.
I have mentioned only in passing the upgrading system in Awesomenauts. It is similar to most other multiplayer upgrading systems – you earn experience and level up and unlock characters and abilities as you go. You see, you only start off being able to select three of the six characters, and only have three upgrades per character ability available to purchase in game. As you level up you unlock new characters plus new upgrades for the abilities of the characters you already have. In any given battle, each of your two abilities (plus your basic attack and base stats) can have three upgrades available for purchase. As you unlock more upgrades you have to select the specific three items that will be available for purchase for each special and basic attack in the battle. It might sound a bit confusing, but that could be because after the four-day Diamond Jubilee weekend we’ve just had in the UK (cheers Maj) I am more alcohol than man and so have not explained it very clearly.
While I am all for giving the game a bit of a lifespan by including these progressive improvement elements, there is a fairly glaring disadvantage to the whole set up. The early characters are some of the weakest compared to the later ones, and some of the later unlocks absolutely shit all over the early ones. Some of the powerful upgrades make a real difference to even the early characters, but take forever to get to. This means that the more experienced players are going to kill you. A lot. You will get bitch slapped from one end of the map to the other. For the first while you will not get any kills, then you might get one or two and then maybe you will get to the point where you at least break even in terms of K/D on each match. Combine this with the aforementioned complex strategy that is not obviously apparent to the new player, and it can lead to a very frustrating first few game rounds that could actually put a casual or younger gamer off. If you are reading this having put the controller through your flat screen in frustration, I would implore you not to give up when you get a new TV (FMV Tip of the Day: Burn the whole house down and then claim it on the contents insurance – most insurance policies will not protect against deliberate damage, but they will protect against fire and I dare them to prove amongst the ashes that the TV was already broken – The More You Know). Keep trying and it will be worth it. I also know for a fact that Ronimo are planning DLC and additional content, so they are obviously committed to supporting the game –maybe they will introduce a beginners league similar to what you get in your first 20 online matches in Starcraft. Eh Ronimo? Think that might float? Yeah? Good idea? Eh?……ah who am I kidding? No one is going to read this. (sigh) No one ever reads this…
There is one other disadvantage that might serve as a possible game breaker. I have no idea how many copies the game has sold, nor how many players are currently online, let alone how many will be online in a month or two or three. This creates a very real risk that the servers will be barren deserts in a month. Currently I have had no trouble joining a game, something that is probably helped by the fact that games are full with only six players, but in some cases I have joined a game where one slot is occupied by an AI which really is a massive disadvantage to whatever team has it. The AI is not too retarded (it actually beat me on a couple of offline games I played on my own) but it cannot compare to some devious fucker who has figured out how to use the chameleon to insta-kill the tank and then T-Bag its corpse. There is one way this can be avoided – get all your mates to download the game. Only needing three people to fill a team is perfect: you can easily get a couple of mates either over or online to set up a team and you should have no trouble finding games. Because an abundance of friends is something that distinctly characterises gamers…
There are a few other slight annoyances to the game. Sometimes it feels like the characters are a bit plodding and slow to get to the fight. You can purchase speed upgrades for them, but while on the one hand this is fairly essential to just getting into the brawl (and escaping – remember what I said about valour and all that) it also takes away cash from some vital offensive upgrades, like better dynamite or a better fish gun. The only other drawback is the fairly limited map selection. However, I am confident that additional maps will be available in DLC. Whether or not Ronimo charge for them will depend on how much they like finding burning bags of dogshit outside their office door.
Overall the gameplay is frantic and exciting, but has a real depth that belies the simple set up and cartoonish visuals (which look like something from the most freaking awesome Saturday morning cartoon ever conceived –seriously, Captain Planet and Martian S&M Mice can fuck right off compared to these guys), making it a real treat to play and excellent value for money. Although there are a few little annoyances, they really do pale in comparison to all the things that Awesomenauts does right, which is pretty much everything that it set out to do.
I am therefore awarding Awesomenauts a very solid 7.5 out of 10. It is a brilliant game, but the frustrating early issues and small number of maps rob it of that additional half point that it otherwise really deserved.
Oh, and I have one final comment. I really think they missed a trick with the marketing of Awesomenauts. Every time I see the intro and the name flies up in your face, I really think they should have added in a sub-title. But, being the great internet citizen that I am, I have gone to the liberty of editing the title to show you what I think is the best tag line that really encapsulates what the game is all about:
Please note that as of the time of writing there are rumoured to be two more characters being prepped for DLC, though there is no word on additional maps.