Awesomenauts, a downloadable game for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, is a Tower Defense/beat-em-up hybrid that defied my expectations! I didn't think I'd like the game, as its opening tutorial annoyed me with its overdone voice acting and cheesy character design. Hoo boy, another indie game that tries too hard, I figured. But after spending a week of shooting, slashing and exploding turrets and taunting fools online, I've grown to like Awesomenauts a lot for its amusing presentation and addicting pick-up-and-playfulness.
Awesomenauts goes like this: Two teams, three players each, square off in an arena. Each team has a series of turrets protecting their base. The goal is to get past the turrets with the aid of A.I.-controlled droids and the teamwork of other players to destroy the other team's base. At the beginning of the game, players choose one of six unique characters, each with a dedicated attack, two support moves and the usual jump move. These four moves are mapped to the face buttons, while L1 opens up a communications menu (Taunt enemies, tell allies to Attack, tell allies to Defend, ask allies for Help) and holding R1 makes your character teleport back to base, where you can then heal and buy and upgrade abilities with the "Solar" currency collected throughout the arena. As you play the game, you gain levels that unlock more abilities for each character. Eventually you'll have enough abilities to set up loadouts for each character, so you can potentially have different builds for each character.
Take Leon the Chameleon. No, not the Star Fox 64 bad guy... this Leon's a French lizard with a dagger that can cloak to hide from enemies and grab them from afar with his long tongue. His theme song (each character gets a tune that plays while sorting out their abilities) also has sophisticated French lyrics like "fromage" and "chameleon." You have a couple choices with him. You can focus on upgrading his blade attack -- make it faster, make it leech life from enemies, etc. -- and his tongue lash -- upgrade its speed, add extra damage -- as well his walking speed and maximum health to make Leon an offensive powerhouse. On the other hand, you can focus on his cloaking abilities to make him a sneakier bastard, to have him hide behind enemy lines to ambush opponent players and wreck droid units.
There's a good variety in the characters, in both their design and their capabilities. Besides Leon, there's Voltar, the Mars Attacks!-looking support character who can heal teammates and spawn little orb-like droids that orbit around him and shoot opponents automatically. Lonestar, a Texan sheriff kind of a guy, has defensive, keep-away moves. Clunk is a big, slow robot with lots of health and an interesting self-destruct/life-leeching dynamic that works well together. Hip-hoppy Froggy G is an all-out offensive powerhouse, while Yuri the floating space chimp can slow down enemies and place and landmines throughout the battlefield.
It's a great, distinctive stable of heroes, it's almost a shame battles aren't 6-on-6 to see them all in action at the same time. As such, 3-on-3 battles require some careful choice. I greatly preferred playing more unpredictable characters like Voltar, Leon and Clunk than the other guys. I found I had more fun cloaking, ambushing and self-destructing than just plowing into guys or playing keep-away. And Yuri's just a weird character. I haven't really nailed his strengths down yet. DLC characters are supposed to come along down the line, so we'll be getting more choice eventually.
Though you can play solo in practice matches and local split-screen games, the real draw is to play online. In my experiences, matches are mostly well-balanced. I've been grouped with players close to my level, and besides a few games with newbies, players close to my skill level as well. When that happened games lasted quite a while, and I lost track of time altogether as I played game after game after game... Though some games can last just ten minutes or shorter, depending on the players. I experienced lag only a few times, just a few hiccups from game to game. It's been a smooth ride for the most part. One game was a mess of lag. I pressed the Select button to check the player list (where you can view player profiles, mute mic-abusers, see kill/death scores) to see who it was (as if I could do something about it) and saw I was the match host... well, damn. Otherwise, the game runs well online.
Awesomenauts surprised me with its depth. The range of characters and abilities, the rhythms of battle -- to know when to go offensive, when to go defensive -- and the maps that have gimmicks like a giant worm that can eat everyone if a button's pushed, add up to a solid experience. It's one of the best titles of the year so far, and at such a low price, well worth picking up. And out of TOV 5 stars, I'm giving Awesomenauts a 4.