Awesomenauts almost never saw the light of day. After its publisher declared bankruptcy, the console release found itself in a state of limbo not one week from launch, but Ronimo Games made the call to sell their product on XBLA and PSN (and eventually Steam) anyway. The studio cleverly executes on the idea of a 2D battle arena platformer, distilling the soul of the genre into an accessible MOBA that even newcomers like me can comprehend. Kids of the '80s will appreciate the vivid art style and upbeat soundtrack so familiar to their favorite childhood cartoons, yet the multiplayer brings out the competitive side of an audience no stranger to Awesomenauts’ overhead kin.
The writers anchor Awesomenauts’ premise with some light exposition, no matter how unnecessary it may be. Mining companies vie for control of Solar, the economic resource in the year 3587. While space battles rage above a planet’s surface, these organizations hire unique bands of mercenaries known as Awesomenauts to halt the drilling of their rivals and destroy the machine’s core. The opening cutscene transitions seamlessly into gameplay as Sheriff Lonestar jettisons down to Ribbit IV in a drop pod while collecting floating bits of Solar currency. Once the following altercations conclude, players are guided back to the main menu to take the fight online or warm up in local practice matches.
The developers also show great creativity in a character space already clouded by an amalgam of humanoid creatures. Lonestar originated as a stereotypical cowboy (abbreviated vocabulary and accent included) re-engineered by a race of semi-intelligent bovines. The ludicrous roster just gets weirder. Clunk, a massive robot with anger issues, once sought a career in housekeeping. The jetpacking primate named Yuri began his journey as a test monkey for Soviet Russia’s rockets, but after being sucked through an anomaly, he landed thousands of years in the future with a significant boost to his IQ. The hip hop amphibian by the alias of Froggy G performed his first swim-by shooting as a young tadpole in the ghetto marshes of Ribbit IV, and Leon, an invisible chameleon with a dainty French moustache, lost his arm in a game of lawn bowls. With several more crazy guns-for-hire, Awesomenauts’ inventive backstories fit the description of a Saturday morning cartoon I would proudly endorse.
No one knows who, or what, Voltar actually is, but he makes one fine healer.
Awesomenauts teaches MOBA greenhorns the basics of the intricate genre without the need for confounding jargon. Participants clash for the red or blue Awesomenauts in three-on-three battles as one of eight selectable heroes, two having been added since the game’s days on consoles, with at least one more pending Ronimo’s approval. Maps divide themselves into two lanes – occasionally diverging or converging – that players funnel down in attempts to destroy menacing turrets and the enemy’s drill core. Neutral, middle zones allow gamers to farm for health on critters, but these critters do not donate Solar to your cause, so jungling is not the most flawless of tactics. Ganking, however, is, as adversaries waiting behind foreground shrubbery pose a serious threat to unaware friendlies.
Meanwhile, contestants pad their virtual bank accounts by salvaging individual Solar fragments spread around the map or dispatching encroaching droids (creeps) that advance towards allied turrets. Slaying enemy heroes rewards the entire team with Solar: 50 for whomever dealt the killing blow and 25 to the others. But amassing large amounts of currency does the group no good. Players drop an influential amount of Solar upon death, so actually deserting the front lines can be just as profitable. The innovative teleport mechanic makes those retreats all the easier. At any time, players may fall back to their base to stock up on health and purchase new upgrades.
On Microsoft and Sony’s platforms, Awesomenauts showcased a cost-effective, one-of-a-kind experience as the first console MOBA, and yet the PC realm does not afford Ronimo’s work the same free-to-play leisure of League of Legends. The low, low price of free agrees with my early 20-something-year-old budget quite well. What really discourages me from most online battle arenas is the intimidating learning curve, and Awesomenauts just so happens to excel in its approachable gameplay.
League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth require an obsessive playtime before competitors can be considered “good.” It takes hours to learn the fundamentals of one hero, let alone the dozens of others up for rotation each week. Awesomenauts’ low barrier to entry left me with less anxiety after the helpful tutorial and a few practice rounds against increasingly intelligent bots. An hour later, I secured second place on the matches' overall leaderboards.
Turrets obliterate opposing Awesomenauts and cannot be bypassed until they lie in smoking heaps.
The PC version features native support for an Xbox 360 controller for players not comfortable blending platforming with keyboard precision, but after several games dabbling with both, I prefer the mouse for aiming. Each Awesomenaut specializes in one primary attack and two support abilities. Sheriff Lonestar takes aim with a blaster, but a few hundred Solar later, he can throw dynamite for an explosive surprise or summon a hologram bull to shove enemies back. Players also construct character-specific loadouts, which determines what passive upgrades will be available for each skill in the ensuing game’s store.
Faster movement speeds guarantee that players arrive to the front lines sooner, and a shorter time between shots helps cut an enemy Awesomenauts’ health down in seconds. The support abilities expand your character’s versatility in the red-versus-blue team brawls. Players could increase Lonestar’s dynamite stick per throw from two to three, or add a life drain effect to the explosions. Clunk surrounds himself in a shimmering aura before detonating the blast zone, dealing excessive damage to surrounding foes and himself. After stacking several upgrades, Clunk reduces the self-mutilation to negligible numbers. Match experience contributes to one's rank and additional champion and enhancement unlocks, yet the mercenaries themselves only level within the confines of the arena.
Awesomenauts requires players to think before wasting valuable Solar. Maximizing your health early sounds like a decent plan until you find yourself fleeing from the game’s first skirmish without the aid of secondary powers. Lone wolves merely die alone. Clunk absorbs the brunt of frontal assaults while refilling lost health with a bite of his metal mandibles, but his broad backside is an ideal target for the invisible assassin Leon. With the support of Lonestar’s Hyper Bull, the stealthy lizard will have to contend with Clunk’s steel jaws once the bull bucks Leon into the killing zone.
Even with Awesomenauts' lower player count, lane confrontations are a good source of pandemonium.
All MOBAs foster teamwork. Players either fight together or survive long enough to become the victims of verbal harassment. The genre is infamous for its critical, profane communities, so why should Awesomenauts be any different? As I ventured forth to injure the opponents’ unprotected drill core, my two teammates fending off the other seasoned players took the chance to curse my decision, so gamers susceptible to negative criticism or dissenting opinions should keep a level head.
While I chalk up most of my losses to an extensive skill gap between myself and my rivals, getting repeatedly slaughtered by more skilled assailants is always a poor way to acquaint newcomers with unavailable heroes, or teach them counters to the enemies’ array of upgrades. People that refuse to retreat or teleport back to base will find themselves waiting 10 to 15 seconds to respawn. This issue could be easily rectified by unlocking all characters and abilities for practice/private play.
I am a stern advocate of quality over quantity too, yet the meager three maps (two of which must be unlocked through lengthy level progression) had me begging for more diversity. The multiplayer opens up all three symmetrical playgrounds for combatants, but amateurs that only feel comfortable learning the lanes before braving online engagements will need to sink five or six hours into practice mode at least.
Both local and online multiplayer support up to three people in split-screen.
On that note, the drop-in/drop-out function works flawlessly. Two seconds passed before I connected to an open game, replacing a bot that had been previously assisting my teammates. To ensure late-to-the-party contestants do not start at a disadvantage, those players receive a bonus to level their Awesomenauts quickly. And friends nearby can plug in two extra controllers to wage MOBA war on the same computer screen. For an industry that often cuts split-screen because of the development costs, I thank Ronimo Games for still giving my buddies and I reason to laugh when our death tallies continue to climb.
The praise does not stop there. Awesomenauts coats the visuals in a charming can of ‘80s cartoon paint. The disproportionate characters pop against the picturesque backgrounds, ensuring the game is as easy on the eyes as it is to play, and victory rewards the winners’ ears with a resounding musical cheer. The game even opens with an animated intro befitting the title sequence of Dragon Ball Z or Generation 1 Transformers (the animated series, not the Michael Bay abominations). The tongue-in-cheek absurdity has a place in the achievements too, with a suitably titled “Awesomenauts, roll out!” that unlocks once you gain a third hero.
The more I dig into Awesomenauts, the more I understand why fellow gamers get so engrossed in the free-to-play conflicts, though Awesomenauts' accessibility assures MOBA rookies can still contribute to the war effort when eliminating relentless creeps. On consoles, Ronimo produced a great party title easy to recommend at a normal downloadable fee. PC owners put off by the fixed price are entitled to continue chastising one another in League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth, but they would be cheating themselves out of some merry graphic nostalgia with a competitive heart that beats as loud as its 3D brothers.
Publisher: Ronimo Games
Developer: Ronimo Games
Release Date: August 1, 2012 (PC); May 2, 2012 (XBLA, PSN)
Number of Players: 1-6 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), XBLA, PSN