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Ronimo’s games – which include student project De Blob (later acquired by THQ), WiiWare highlight Swords & Soldiers and now Awesomenauts on XBLA and PSN – are masters of disguise. De Blob’s colourful child-friendly aesthetic masks a tricky platforming treat, while Swords & Soldiers’ slapstick thrills overlay a finely honed RTS. Awesomenauts has the outward appearance of an action-platformer, with strong riffs on Saturday morning cartoons and games such as Alien Hominid, and offers up an eccentric cast and plenty of vivid weaponry. Peel back this vibrant veneer, however, and there’s a three-on-three multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game to get stuck into, with mechanics that are reminiscent of Defense Of The Ancients and League Of Legends. It’s also pinned to a deceptively deep unlock and ranking system that rewards tacticians but may deter those only looking for one-off dalliances.
Matches are a lengthy tug of war, seeing you attempt to wear down the turrets defending, and blocking your path to, the enemy base’s central drill. Strategy is essential, which makes play with and against bots an unpredictable and trying labour, especially when compared to the coordination that’s possible with human comrades – it’s the success of a team effort that provides Awesomenauts’ real satisfaction. While this sense of achievement would be encouragement enough to keep playing, you’re more explicitly rewarded with experience, and ranking up your profile unlocks Awesomenauts’ treasures, from new loadout items to extra characters, serving as a further reminder that this is a game in which to invest, not merely dip.
The to and fro of battle, painted in bubbly block colours, evokes Titan Studios’ Fat Princess. It also suffers from that title’s lack of feedback during combat, but this game is about grinding down enemy outposts, not instant-action adrenaline rushes. It might look like it wants to be played fast and loose, but Awesomenauts is about taking your time, and inching towards victory, not sprinting to your death.
The character roster is well balanced, if a little light, spanning the hulking mass of Clunk to floating healer Voltar, and it’s drawn to life with the gorgeous artistic streak that typifies Ronimo’s output. There are numerous ways to employ your army of three’s core abilities, too. You may choose to use Clunk as a bullet sponge with Voltar keeping his health topped up, for example, or take melee maestro Leon into the fray, swatting away enemies as gunslinger Lonestar pumps shots at turret weak spots. Retreat is as essential as attack in this war, though, and Ronimo has designed its maps and mechanics to accommodate the coward as much as the crusader. There are nooks and crannies in each of the three multi-tiered maps in which neutral creatures can be killed off for health, you can take the time to teleport back to base, or simply wait till the enemy’s moved on and opened themselves up to attack.
That the action is always clear and coherent is a testament to Ronimo’s established visual signature. Matches in Awesomenauts are frequently hyperactive affairs, but never devolve into pure spectacle: you always feel like an integral part of the action, your character always clearly defined amid the cartoon chaos. It’s eccentric and full of flair without being over the top and overwhelming. It’s a game with many influences, but one that manages to stand out with its own personality, one of broad strokes and sharp wit.
The upgradable abilities of the cast and their loadouts are as crucial to the flow of a match as their basic attributes. It may look like a kids’ title, but Awesomenauts has the MOBA genre’s capitalist system at its core – in this bright, bold world of colour and creativity, the hard truth is that money is power. Solar cubes are scattered throughout maps and allow you to make purchases from the in-game shop located at each base. A shrewd approach to your finances is the key to victory – Solar is handed over to the opposition if you die and is accumulated whenever you make a kill – since currency opens up vital upgrades such as health, speed, and even a giant bull for you to unleash. As with the cast itself, there’s a fine balance to Awesomenauts’ upgrades, and there’s a wealth of the latter to discover. Cooldown on special attacks needs to be considered carefully, as does the range of your weapons and the lightness of your feet. Ranking your profile up to level 45 opens up all of the game’s items and characters, but for players in need of more unlocking there’s then the option to reset your rank back to zero and plough on through from square one, albeit with a profile asterisked to show us all how hardcore you are.
If there’s a technical hiccup, it’s in splitscreen play, where the frame rate chugs as the going gets tough and the screen fills with droids, laser blasts and characters. Another issue is the lack of in-depth matchmaking options: a concession to the casual audience that may dissuade veteran MOBA players.
A harsh learning curve lies ahead for anyone who’s used to Awesomenauts’ action game influences (which include Super Mario World and Metal Slug), and it’ll be a difficult first few hours for the MOBA uninitiated. As such, there’s a danger that Awesomenauts’ luscious platforming looks will cause the the wrong crowd to flock to its deliciously drawn world. To its credit, however, Ronimo has made an ingenious Trojan horse by delivering the structure and systems of a cult PC genre on consoles, wrapped in the glamour of classic console gaming. Rather than alienate the wrong audience, Awesomenauts could – and should – make plenty of converts to its cause.