Awesomenauts’ old familiar grind

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Awesomenauts is a mostly unimaginative re-tread of the all-too-familiar Defense of the Ancients gameplay. Pick a lane. Push with your creeps towards turrets. Maybe jungle a little. Kill the other team’s dudes for a leg up. Endure, endure, upgrade, endure, endure, upgrade. Once you get a few levels on the other team, push a little harder. Endure some more. Endure. Push. Upgrade? Nope, not just yet. Endure. Kill. Endure. Now upgrade. Win. Or lose. Like Ronimo’s actually awesome Swords and Soldiers, Awesomenauts is a compressed experience, so a game will typically take 20 minutes instead of 40 minutes. But beyond the fact that it’s a gleefully cartoony 2D sidescrolling game, Awesomenauts does little to distinguish itself from, say, Demigod or League of Legends.

After the jump, six men enter, three men leave

A match is always and only three vs. three. Since there are only five characters, they’ll quickly become familiar. Note the conspicuously empty slots for DLC characters. The publisher filed for bankruptcy the week before Awesomenauts was released, so those slots are likely to remain empty for a while. But you get some variety in the five characters by choosing from a slate of skills before you play. You don’t get these skills from the start, but they determine what you can buy over the course of the match. This stands in for the uncertainty in a game like League of Legends with its 100+ characters. When you face — or play — Voltar, will he be a dedicated healer, a drone swarmer, or a guy who hunkers down by tossing out a turret to help his team? Is that enemy Lonestar packing a rampaging bull, a spray of dynamite, or boosted firepower? Is a cloaked Leon lurking on the map, or is he going defensive by dragging you into range of enemy turrets? And is the guy playing Yuri going to be able to take advantage of his jetpack or will he be easy pickings? Where League of Legends poses these questions in terms of what characters show up and what gear each character buys, Awesomenauts offers the broader, more meaningful, and ultimately sleeker choices appropriate for a 20-minute match.

There are only three maps, but they have distinct layouts and features, such as jungle beasts for easy healing, a deadly aquatic worm threatening the bottom lane, and plenty of shortcuts, jump pads, and ambush opportunities. You can play practice games to learn the maps, but you won’t be able to practice on the third map for a while, since it’s locked pretty deep into the progression system.

Yes, locked. Most of Awesomenauts is locked behind a drawn-out grind. You’ll unlock all five characters quickly enough, but you won’t get access to their skills and therefore the game’s variety until you’ve spent literally dozens of hours leveling up your account. Dozens. Think about that. Are you willing to spend that much time with a game this modest and familiar? And are you willing to play against people who’ve unlocked the advanced skills? Because you will. Awesomenauts is ultimately an online or not-at-all game. You can play skirmishes against not very good bots, and you can even do it locally with friends (with, but not against; Awesomenauts has no support for local head-to-head matches because of the way everyone shares a minimap). Like many Defense of the Ancients clones, this is about going online and head-to-head against another team.

And here’s where it’s the usual hit or miss situation, especially for an unproven game like Awesomenauts that might never find an audience. When I first started playing with a friend, we were matched with teammates who didn’t really know what they were doing. The left bumper lets you issue a general command, but that’s not much help when someone keeps attacking turrets single-handedly. That’s going to happen. It’s the nature of online, especially in the early days of a game. And unlike League of Legends, with five players to a team, every Awesomenauts player is one sixth of the match and one third of your team. A little ineptitude goes a lot further.

But then we found a third player who actually found smart ways to work the map. He stuck with us. He alternated between lanes as needed. He was cautious, but aggressive enough. We won. The three of us continued on to a new game (to its credit, Awesomenauts easily plays you into and then through matches) and won that one. Then we went on to another game, grouping a healer and a couple of powerful heavy hitters, all of whom moved forward with our AI army, plowing easily through turrets to the enemy base. It took us less than three minutes. Then we won another game in less than three minutes. And another. And another. If we’d stuck with it long enough, we eventually might have found some sense of balance. Maybe later that night. Maybe a few days later. Maybe in a week, depending on what kind of community builds up around the game. It’s the nature of online matches in a game like Awesomenauts that it’s only going to be as good as the people who play it.

And if that’s your bag, you’ll feel right at home here as you log the dozens of familiar hours on your way to unlocking the full game. Choose a lane, endure, upgrade, push, endure, upgrade, push, repeat. I forget, does familiarity breed contempt or content?

3 stars
Xbox 360