Multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA, is a genre of games packed with some heavy hitters in the PC space. Whether it's a legacy game like Dota (or Dota 2) or the ever-expanding League of Legends, there's one thing most MOBAs have in common: an absurdly steep learning curve. Expertise in some MOBAs isn't measured in hours, but in months. It's not exactly a pick-up-and-play genre. Enter Awesomenauts, a colorful 2D MOBA that is approachable for genre newbies but is deep enough to satisfy veterans. On consoles, Awesomenauts had the luxury of being one of only a few MOBA-type games. That's not the case on the PC. It may not be as novel, but the PC version is definitely the best yet. It includes additional characters and some subtle balance tweaks. Also, it still has a French chameleon with a robo-laser sword for an arm, and that ranks pretty high on the awesome scale.
You play as one of eight Awesomenauts (the PC version comes with the two console DLC characters) on a mission to mine solar, a galactic fuel source and currency. Unfortunately, another group of Awesomenauts wants the solar too, and so you must fight to control the precious resource. The premise and plot are as absurd as a monkey with a jetpack, but Awesomenauts isn't about telling a story; it's about battle. You pick your hero, join two others (or AI-controlled bots), and slug it out against another team of three on one of a few symmetrical maps. Your goal isn't to kill other players, but to reach and destroy their solar core. While killing opposing heroes helps, this is not a game of 2D team deathmatch, and playing it as a straight team deathmatch game is a recipe for frustration. Success in Awesomenauts requires teamwork, strategy, and smart upgrade decisions.
You need your teammates to get to the solar core, which is housed behind layers of heavy-duty turrets. To aid you in your efforts, your solar base cranks out a never-ending stream of droids, Awesomenauts' version of creeps. They whittle away at the turrets, providing you cover to stand behind so you can blast them with your more powerful weapons. You battle back and forth, in a constant struggle to press forward into the opposing base.
It might sound like a plodding war of attrition, but the setting and crazy characters turn every match into a frenetic clash of strategies. It feels like you're always just one button--one quick decision--away from death or domination. The maps have multiple levels filled with jump pads, a couple of environmental hazards, and some local creatures you can kill for health. There's plenty of space to duke it out while your droids bop along on their paths of destruction. It's a dead-simple concept made more complex by the three player-controlled hero characters on each team.
There's a lot of room for customization in Awesomenauts, both as an individual and as a team. The heroes blur the lines between traditional battle roles, like tank, healer, ranged, and damage dealer, thanks to a diverse set of upgrade options. As you fight, you earn solar, which you can use to buy upgrades and abilities. There are more than a dozen upgrades per hero, some passive and others active. Seeing them all listed before you can be overwhelming early on--this isn't a simple loadout choice like in a team-based shooter. The cartoon icons help explain each upgrade's basic function, but learning how to use them and when they should be purchased takes practice.
The upgrade path you follow can have a huge impact on a match. For example, you could go full-tilt tank with Clunk the robot and upgrade his bite ability so that it steals health and lengthens his health bar with each successful bite. Or you could be a bit of a glass cannon and dump points into his missile launcher and self-destruct ability. The former build makes him last longer, while the latter does more damage but could lead to more deaths, which costs you precious solar. Awesomenauts gives you wiggle room to shape characters to your style of play. Like with a good fighting game, in time, your favorite character will feel uniquely yours.
Unfortunately, not all of the characters are available up front, which means you need to level up your profile through matches with characters you might not like in the meantime. You can level up in offline practice modes (the only single-player option because there is no campaign mode), but playing against the not-so-smart AI doesn't come close to playing against real people with real strategies. There's a short tutorial in the beginning of the game, but it focuses more on the basic mechanics than it does on how to build a character and a team. It would have been nice to see some character-specific scenarios that offered tips on upgrade selections. Instead, you'll likely learn the hard way, by coming across nearly unbeatable combos--like a fully upgraded Voltar and Clunk.