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I like Heroes of the Storm because it's a MOBA you don't have to spend weeks of your life learning, but even it can sometimes be demanding. Coming back after a while away there's definitely a sense of having to regain momentum, putting in effort to catch up with the new maps and characters and the tweaks to the old ones.
Returning to Awesomenauts now that it's gone free-to-play has been a smoother experience. Originally released in 2012 by Dutch studio Ronimo, it takes some of the concepts familiar from DOTA and games like it—teams of heroes with powers on cooldown, enemy cores protected by waves of weak NPCs and hardy defences, currency to spend on improving abilities mid-match—and then slaps them onto a side-scrolling platformer with all the color and energy of a 1980s cartoon.
That changes everything. Instead of clicking to move you have direct control of your hero, and can comfortably play with a controller (I prefer keyboard and mouse, but the option's there). Attacks need to be aimed, making every shot a skill shot, and instead of staring at your ability bar to see when Ball Lightning is coming online you engage with the action. The readability problem other games in the genre struggle with is reduced, the size of the characters and cartoon aesthetic making it easier to tell what's going on and what you're supposed to take away from it.
Those characters are great too. They feel like castoffs from Saturday morning cartoons, like a crossover between BraveStarr, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, five shows about aliens that look suspiciously like Earth animals, and two about giant robots. Each has their own theme song that plays on the character select screen, with Froggy G's bouncy rap a highlight.
There's a French chameleon assassin who leaves decoys and turns invisible, a hairdresser in a VR helmet that makes her think she's using her scissors to cut hair and not throats, a Russian monkey cosmonaut who turned his rocket into a jetpack, and a squid sea captain named Admiral Swiggins. That's not even half of them.
And, blessed relief, there's no meta to speak of. Almost every one of the characters is a valuable part of a three-Awesomenaut team, and nobody throws a tantrum in the chat window because someone bought the wrong power-up. Only Clunk, a robot with a bite attack and self-destruct button, is seen as a bit of a liability in competitive play—everyone else is worthwhile.
That's not to say it's perfect. While Awesomenauts is the easiest MOBA to recommend to new players, those new players immediately face a two-part tutorial narrated by a robot with an incredibly annoying voice. It's skippable, but doing so means losing out on a hefty amount of Awesomecoins, the currency used to unlock characters who aren't part of each week's free rotation. And though Awesomenauts initially did without experience points, instead relying on Solar—basically gold—for in-game levelling up, they were later added by an expansion and have proved controversial. It's another reward for the team that's already winning, and another thing for new players to learn about.
But the matches are quick, usually around 15-17 minutes long, and the chat's relatively free of rage. Perhaps the quick matches and bright colors help keep it friendly—Overwatch is the only online game where I'm less likely to come out of a loss feeling frustrated by it. When you die you get launched back into the fight via drop pod, and spend most of your wait steering it to the ground collecting Solar on the way. It's a minigame that gives you something to do while waiting to rejoin play instead of stewing on your failure.
Another plus is that there are mods if you want some more maps or to sample the chaos of no-cooldown mode. Custom mode lets you try out these, as well as offline split-screen play, which is something I wish more MOBAs had, though perhaps it's uniquely suited to Awesomenauts' side-on view.
Going free-to-play has given Awesomenauts a boost in player numbers, and I usually only have to wait a couple of minutes for a game at the moment. (During the wait there's a secret minigame you can find by pressing the tiny play button in the corner of your Awesomecoins balance, top right. You're welcome.) It's impossible to say how long this burst of interest will last, but Awesomenauts certainly deserves a second chance. In a crowded genre it's a rare standout, one with personality and the confidence to mess with the formula.
I'll leave you with Leon Chameleon's theme tune, a straight-up Serge Gainsbourg chanson. Leon is for lovers.
The three-on-three platformer-MOBA Awesomenauts has been around for nearly five years now, and has done quite well for itself in that time. But with all that water under the bridge, and player numbers not quite what they used to be, developer Ronimo Games has decided that it's time to switch things up by making the game free to play.
"Going free-to-play has always made sense for Awesomenauts, as more players simply means it’s a better game for everyone," the studio said on Steam earlier this week. "It greatly improves the matchmaking and networking experience, and brings more people to community events and the amazing community-made mods."
The full changeover won't take place until May 24, but the free-to-play beta for existing players went live on Wednesday with the release of the 4.0 update, cleverly called "Going Free-to-Play." It includes a new tutorial and "beginner experience" to help ease new players into the game, a new progression system for both player profiles and individual characters, an "Awesomepoints" in-game currency that can be used to unlock characters, portraits, and "droppods," and medals that will showcase various in-game achievements.
Real money will remain the only way to purchase character skins, but it can also now be used to acquire individual characters and droppods as well. There will also be a new "Awesomenauts All Nauts Pack" available for purchase that will grant access to all current and future characters, as well as an exclusive "Collector" medal and skin. Existing players will keep all the content they currently own, and everyone who owns the base game and the Starstorm and Overdrive expansions will be automatically upgraded to the All Nauts Pack.
Ronimo rolled out a 4.0.1 update today that takes care of a number of gameplay issues that surfaced in the 4.0 update, which you can read about here.
Being one of the few MOBAs that doesn't make me angry or feel incredibly stupid (often at the same time), it's nice to see that Awesomenauts still has the playerbase to justify an expansion. Awesomenauts: Overdrive will arrive early in the new year packing premium and free components.
For those dropping cash ( 6/$9), there are three new heroes: Professor Milton Yoolip, a scientist who looks to be in command of mecha-saurs; Chucho Krokk, a bounty hunter who rides a hyperbike; and twin babies Jimmy and Amy, who pilot a death-bot.
The game as a whole will get substantial tweaks to encourage more team play. Details are light on this point beyond the statement that patch 2.13's XP and leveling changes were the first of many similar updates to come. Matchmaking is also in line for an overhaul and will assemble a pool of players to match instead of allocating games on a first-come, first-served basis as it does at present. Late joining matches will be removed, but games can be re-joined after disconnecting.
There's more free stuff! Starstorm Station map is actually playable now in custom matches in a pre-alpha state, but Overdrive will patch it into the mainstream. The big draws on Starstorm are its wormholes and the bottomless space under the map (protip: hazardous to health). Finally, Ix the Interloper, the product of autumn's Design-Your-Naut 2 contest, will be added as a free hero. Ix can link to other heroes, healing or damaging them and switching places on command.
If for some reason you budget your video game spending by the weekend, then here's good news: you can spend that money on something else. May I suggest: nicer food. A new pair of shoes. A trip to the nearest theme park.
The reason is, Steam is making ten games free this weekend as part of its aptly titled Free Weekend promotions. The games include Company of Heroes 2, XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Grid 2. You'll have over 48 hours to play them, as they unlock 10am Pacific time on Thursday, October 16. After that you'll need to pay for them, with the promise of substantial discounts.
Here's the list:
Awesomenauts Blade Symphony Company of Heroes 2 Don't Starve Grid 2 Injustice Killing Floor Payday 2 Trine 2 XCOM: Enemy Unknown
It's a good week for free games: GOG.com is giving away Alien versus Predator Classic this week as part of a GOG Galaxy test run.