I’ve been playing a lot of Awesomenauts lately. Honestly, it’s getting out of hand. My copies of Stacking and Legend of Grimrock are collecting dust in the forgotten annals of my Steam library, their cries to be played falling on deaf ears. My life has instead become an endless cycle of collecting luminous cubes and fleeing holographic bovine.
One of the reasons I love Awesomenauts is the game’s willingness to try new things. Being an oddball indie title, Awesomenauts has the leeway to tear down many of the sacred cows of the MOBA genre without the fear of alienating an entrenched player base. This freedom has given rise to a handful of unexpected innovations. Many of these would make stellar additions to games such as DOTA 2 and League of Legends, and I think their virtues deserve to be underlined.
Near Death Experience
Dying is inevitable. No matter how great a game you’re having, you’re bound to make a mistake and vault prematurely off the mortal coil. Maybe you were outnumbered, maybe you were outgeared, or hell, maybe the batteries on your wireless mouse died. But sooner or later, you’re going to find yourself in MOBA purgatory: sitting at your keyboard, waiting a mandatory amount of time for your champion to respawn.
This is boring. Unlike the respawn times in first-person shooters, respawning in a MOBA title can take upwards of a minute-and-a-half. There’s absolutely nothing you can do during your time in the void either (except fall further behind your enemies).
Awesomenauts mitigates the doldrums of dying by turning it into a minigame. Respawning places you in a personal-sized spaceship aimed directly at the battlefield. When you’re plummeting through the stratosphere, you can direct your craft to pick up floating pieces of solar (the game’s currency). With careful aim, you can collect enough solar to recoup your losses for having died. The whole thing is admittedly a pretty superficial distraction, but the minigame is rewarding and challenging enough to prevent you from feeling like you’ve been benched.
Maps Maps Maps
In DOTA 2 there is only one map. Given, it’s an iconic map. Every inch of the battlefield has been polished to an inscrutable veneer through the game’s various iterations, resulting in one of the most recognizable pieces of geography in multiplayer gaming history. It’s up there with 2Fort from Team Fortress 2 and Big Game Hunters from Starcraft. Hell, it even serves as the game’s logo.
But it’s still only one map. Singular.
Awesomenauts spoils the player is this regard. The game boasts four maps right off the bat, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more were offered as DLC in the future. While they might not be the most diverse of locales (there’s really only so much you can do on a 2D plane), the variety helps keep the game feeling fresh.
Ditching the RPG
At its core, the MOBA genre is married to the grand roleplaying tradition. Hero advancement is based around two pillars: collecting experience to increase character level and collecting gold to buy powerful new equipment. Every popular MOBA game follows this model, substituting only the name of the currency peddled.
Awesomenauts strikes out on its own in this regard. Characters do not gain experience or levels, and there are no vendors to be found on the battlefields of 3587. Instead players select a load-out of skills and abilities prior to the start of a match. These abilities range from the mundane (such as a passive health boost) to signature moves (such as Lonestar’s iconic bovine battering ram). Each ability needs to be activated with solar before it can be used, and almost every one can be upgraded further to increase its effectiveness.
One of the main perks of this system is that it encourages active engagement. Unlike in DOTA 2, a character cannot simply hang back behind their troops and passively absorb experience. If a hero isn’t actively trying to collect solar, they can and will fall dramatically behind the rest of their team. This method also softens the divide between winning and losing teams. Facing an opponent with a few more upgrades than you in Awesomenauts is rough, but it’s not as impossible a feat as facing an opponent that has more levels and better equipment than you in DOTA 2.
I’m not saying the removal of experience, levels, and equipment is a definitively better option, but it’s definitely an interesting one worth further experimentation.