After playing a good deal of Awesomenauts, I’ve come to a startling conclusion; I like moba games. The push and pull, objective-focused gameplay between unique characters of a multiplayer online battle arena game is such magnetism to me. I got my first taste in Monday Night Combat but it only used elements of moba set against a fast-paced third-person shooter. Awesomenauts is pretty close to the moba formula if it was set in 2D.
If you don’t know what moba is or what Awesomenauts is, I’ll break down Awesomenauts in a way that summarizes the spirit of moba. Like class-based action games like RPGs or shooters, you choose one of five different characters with unique skills and abilities that you can upgrade and cooperate in a team. Your objective is to destroy the enemy base but it is heavily fortified with powerful turrets and a similar enemy team. You must lead an army of respawning NPC bots in order to gradually break down enemy turrets and make your way to the enemy base with your bots soaking up damage from turrets. All this must be done while the enemy team not only does the same thing, but also engages in combat against you.
One of the great things about moba is that the general template can be applied in a variety of genres. League of Legends, one of the biggest moba games out there now, is largely an action/role-playing game which involves using skills off a hot key and clicking with your mouse. Monday Night Combat and its sequel, Super Monday Night Combat, are moba games based around third-person shooter mechanics. And Awesomenauts is an action-platformer that moves on a two-dimensional playing field. Barring LoL and SMNC, I’ve discovered there is a running theme among many moba games that I find so attractive.
First, the unique playstyles and abilities of the hero characters offer players a different way to approach the same game and go a long way in keeping gameplay fresh. People fresh off of Call of Duty onto MNC might jump onto the Assault class, who’s gameplay and skills are very much rooted in tradtional shooter-deathmatch mentality. The Assassin however offers a more subtle, saboteur approach to gameplay, letting players assassinate lone enemies, push lanes quickly, and become a general nuisance to the enemy in general. Don’t feel like playing an aggressive game? Want to kick back and relax? Play as the Support and just heal power players and turrets while hacking them to become more lethal. He can even drop his own mini-turret and deny small chunks of territory. Awesomenauts is the same way, with different abilities and stats across each individual Awesomenauts giving them a different approach and role in combat.
One of the biggest reasons why I love moba is the lessened importance of twitch reactions and more on conservative strategies and common sense. I’ve described my distaste of Call of Duty‘s increased focus on twitch gameplay and sudden but unexplained deaths before. Being aware of your surroundings is one thing but running into a sudden, head-on, one-on-one gun fight can often times leave a bad taste in my mouth. Even if I win a surprise confrontation, I feel like I only won because I had a better connection to the host than the loser. If it’s not a clear who-pulls-the-trigger-first contest, the outcome has already been decided based on ping!
But a lot of moba games have just the right amount of lethality built into the combat’s statistics that smart players have a chance to save their lives at the cost of giving the opponent ground to push their lanes. Still, it beats the feeling of dying with a sense of failure as you respawn. Except in special circumstances such as games with instant kill mechanics with a requirement of skill built into it (headshots, backside assassinations, environmental kills), a match between two even players usually doesn’t create an unsatisfactory resolution. There’s always a reason that will leave the loser feeling like they made a mistake and deserve the loss.
Because kills are so much harder to come by in moba games, it makes every kill you do earn incredibly satisfying. In Awesomenauts, not only are you rewarded with precious solar, experience points you can use to upgrade your skills, but it gives you a visceral rush of dominance. Instead of randomly spraying bullets at the mercy of internet latency and getting some seemingly random kills or throwing a throwing knife into the air and getting a lucky frag, you demonstrated a superior set of skills that sent someone back to spawn thinking they were bested in the arena of combat. After all, most moba games have lethality set at just the right level that smart players should know which of the two options of the fight or flight instinct they should pay attention to. Somewhere out there, you’ve reach out to someone, touched their life, and told them they sucked at the game and that the game agreed.
It all culminates in long, battles of attrition that become more likely to end the longer it goes on. In the beginning, players are relatively weak compared to how decked out in upgrades they become later on. Not only are the different characters inherently different from each other, your version of the tank character might be different from another as you’re chosen a different upgrade order and strategy than another. Maybe instead of maximizing your large health pool, you decide to upgrade his speed first and surprise unprepared enemies in the early game. Maybe you prioritize survivability over damage in order to more effectively push lanes. This strategy is pretty subtle in MNC and SMNC but in Awesomenauts, where currency to upgrade is difficult to come by, deciding your upgrade order can mean the difference between a good game and a bad game. My assassin character actually prioritizes his long-range grapple skill over the archetypal invisibility skill because it allows Leon Chameleon to punish enemies who try to skirt my turrets too close early game.
After all, even in objective gametypes of shooters like CoD‘s domination or Battlefield‘s conquest, all it really means is who killed who the most, as those deaths allowed your team to more effectively capture objectives. In most moba games, there is a character role that is effective at pushing lanes towards victory but not much else. He can be dependent on a squishier character’s ability to deal damage to enemies aggressively but without the slow, lumbering powerhouse to back him up at the perimeter, the damage dealer will have to fall back for health too often against freshly respawning enemies.
It’s just a shame moba isn’t particularly the biggest thing on consoles. Multiplayer on consoles these days are dominated by standard FPS-fare where there are only a few examples of moba games on console. The genre of moba seems content with staying as point and click style PC action games but hopefully in the future, console gaming folk can enjoy the more cerebral competitiveness of moba games I love so much.
Though to be fair, I love indulging myself as a troll and it probably explains my penchant for playing as the character who can backstab players the best.