MOBAs are a popular genre now with multiple games fighting for attention. And while the big two, League of Legends and DOTA 2, garner the most attention, there are a only few other releases out there worth mentioning. Chief among these is Awesomenauts, a game I feel is the best MOBA available right now.
Here's a few reasons why.
The first thing you'll notice about Awesomenauts is that the game plays like a 2-D platformer rather than the traditional isometric view. As a child of the NES era, 2-D platformers are my bread-and-butter. MOBAs like LoL and DOTA 2 feel more like RTS's, which is understandable given the genre's roots. It feel like I'm giving orders to a unit to follow. In Awesomenauts, it feels like I am the character.
DOTA and LoL both have incredibly deep mechanics, but at the price of complexity that is about as inviting and forgiving to newcomers as their communities. Awesomenauts changes many MOBA standards in favor of more streamlined and comprehensible mechanics. For instance, instead of a huge list of items that every character can buy, items are character-specific and are chosen before the match begins. You then unlock the items by buying them with the money you earn in the match. There is still the depth of trying different builds as well as adapting as the situation demands, but it's all in a way that can be easily understood by newcomers to the game.
DOTA and LoL both boast over a hundred characters each, but that also means you get some overlap. Characters can share similar rolls or abilities, which means some characters can become overshadowed by other "better" characters. In all my time spectating matches (What? I'm terrible at the game and they make great background watching.) I don't think I've seen a single Axe or Morphling. And seriously, why would any sane person choose Meepo over Phantom Lancer?
The cast of Awesomenauts is indeed smaller, but more unique in their roles. Clunk, a giant hulking robot, can tank his way through most situations while Leon, a chameleon with a French accent, depends on deadly ambushes with his invisibility cloak. Each character is surprisingly malleable as well. Voltar the Omniscient, the only dedicated healing class, can become surprisingly aggressive if his Suicide Drones and Healbot are upgraded with the right items. Each character feels like they can do something that no other character can do, all with the added benefit of multiple builds that can yield different playstyles and strategies.
Awesomenauts knows it's at it's best when everyone is in the heat of battle vying for dominance on the battlefield. So the game does everything in it's power to make sure you're in the thick of it at all times. Matches are three-on-three on smaller battlefields that usually only have two lanes. Even for the slowest characters, the front lines are always just a quick walk away. There are also jump boosters placed around the maps and the ability to teleport back to base at any time. The game does everything in it's power to get you out of your base and back to the action as fast as possible, no Town Portal Scroll needed!
Both LoL and DOTA have fairly simple goals: push lanes, kill enemy players, destroy towers, and eventually destroy the base. But both also have extensive metagames that while deep and interesting, often seem to get in the way or contradict the basic goal of the game. Last-hitting in DOTA 2 makes the early game a lot more interesting, but also means the first five minutes of the game are spent pussyfooting around instead of trying to push lanes. Awesomenaut's approach to last-its is just that it's slightly more effective than not last hitting; the money drops either way, but last-hitting causes the money to go directly into your funds. Jungling mostly involves gathering health from easily killed critters rather than grinding for experience and gold. In fact, money and experience points are the same thing in Awesomenauts.
Even bots, Awesomenaut's version of creeps or minions, are designed to advance the core gameplay. Normally, only two bots spawn at a time per lane. On their own, they are fairly weak and easy to kill, meaning there really isn't a reason not to kill them and help push the lane. That also means bots can be easily ignored if a player wishes to engage an enemy 'Naut. However, bots gain more health when engaging enemy turrets, making them great meat (metal?) shields when trying to take out enemy turrets. Practically everything in the game is designed towards the main goal of taking out enemy players and destroying their base.
Usually in a MOBA it feels like one of two things is happening: The match is at a stalemate, or the match is slowly moving to an inevitable victory/loss. In Awesomenauts, a match is usually more of a frantic back-and-forth of constant switching between offense and defense. It doesn't feel like a stalemate, rather it feels as though victory can be snatched at any time. One botched attack or one attack can dramatically change the tide of battle, always making it feel like even the most dire situation can be turned around.
DOTA 2 has one map with a few variations on drafting rules. League of Legends has a larger selection of maps and two game modes, though Dominion isn't nearly as popular and Summoner's Rift is still the most-played map.
Outside of custom and private matches, most of the map selection in Awesomenauts is both varied and random. Each of the four maps has it's own style of play and strategies. Ribbit IV is the basic "vanilla" level with a jungle area separating the two lanes and a a pair of mini-bosses that yield a boon to those who defeat it. Sorona has wide open areas to fight and a giant instant-death worm in the center. AI Station 404 offers two crisscrossing lanes, with one of the lanes being filled with flying bots that must be deployed manually by players. And finally, Aiguillon has plenty of hiding spots to set up ambushes for enemies as well as an orb that grants any player invisibility should they grab it before the others. Each map offers plenty of different variables the players need to consider adapting to when joining a game.
MOBAs are well known for their hostile communities. Awesomenauts has it's share of people who probably take the game a bit to seriously, but nowhere on the scale of LoL or DOTA. Usually the worst you'll run into is a rage-quitter, but those are replaced with appropriately-leveled AI 'Naut. The absolute worst I ran into was a teammate who blamed the rest of the team for losing the match. However, an enemy player responded by saying our team was pretty good and that it was the raging teammate who was the worst of us. As far as competitive games go, Awesomenaut's community is quite respectful and friendly.
Most MOBAs are firmly panted in the fantasy genre. At worst, an art style can be a hodgepodge of conflicting designs and bikini armor. At best, you've got DOTA 2's fantasy. The Awesomenauts team decided to go far off the beaten path with a cheesy 80s cartoon-inspired sci-fi theme. Each character has his her own silly personality and quotes, from the Brittish tea-sipping squid Admiral Swiggins to the rapper-turned-mercenary Froggy G. Plus the 2-D artwork is just gorgeous, especially in motion. The characters themselves are vibrant and fun to watch, and the backgrounds are just dancing with detail.
To go with the Saturday morning cartoon theme, each character has his or her own theme song. If you get three kills without dying, a remix of your character's theme will begin playing to celebrate you're superiority. The result is extremely satisfying, and most of the character's themes have a way of sticking in your head. Don't believe me?
You enjoy that for a while.
Awesomenauts and it's early-access expansion Awesomenauts: Starstorm are available on Steam. It is also available on PS4 in the form of Awesomenauts Assemble! I cannot recommend this game enough, so just buy it already!