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Review: Monday Night Combat

Team Fortress 2 has been the undisputed champion of team-based, competitive multiplayer chooters. With characteristic classes, high-octane gameplay, and continued support from the developers, it's no wonder that TF2 has gone on to become one of the biggest games on the PC. However, they certainly don't have a monopoly on this sort of creativity, and upstart Uber Entertainment has managed to deliver an incredible freshman game that is on par with, if not better than, TF2. Monday Night Combat is a polished masterpiece, and despite a few nagging issues, it remains the best multiplayer shooters we have played in almost four years.

As always, presentation in games is incredibly important and Monday Night Combat is no different. The art style is cartoonish and full of vibrant colors, and everything looks unique. You can instantly tell who and what an enemy or friend is by very distinctive designs, and the smooth, specular-lighted models really capture that exaggerated violence feeling. The music is alright, as it is intended more to evoke the background music of a football game than anything else, but the sound effects are top notch. Grenades thunk, blades swoosh, and headshots ding, and each sound effect feels both proper and satisfying. However, Monday Night Combat is a bit of a system hog, so be forewarned that this artistic excellence comes at a price. It also runs on the Unreal engine, which means that texture popping and the occasional physics glitch are present. It's not that noticeable in-game except in the match zoom-in and character spawning.

The basic mechanics of Monday Night Combat are very simple. It's a third-person shooter with elements of MOBA games like League of Legends or Defense of the Ancients. You pick one of six classes and defend your moneyball from advancing hordes of robots, both with themselves and with turrets they construct. The two game modes, blitz and crossfire, are simply whether any enemy team is also pushing or if it is just your team against the robots. To assist you, your moneyball is shielded and must be brought down by bots before it can be damaged. However, players deal the more damage to a moneyball than bots. It's an interesting trade-off between keeping your bots alive and massacring the enemy team, and is very characteristic of the MOBA genre. However, unlike MOBA games, a lack of teamwork will not guarantee death, as most classes are roughly equal with other classes in terms of strength.

The six classes roughly align with normal archetypes, such as the Heavy being a hybrid tank and ranged damage dealer. However, each class has also had its weaknesses shored up by skills. Assassins pestering you as a Sniper? Lay down some freezing traps behind you to catch her before she gets close enough. Tired of that Gunner killing you all the time? Charge him off a cliff. Want to set up a forward base? Upgrade your powerful firebase as a Support. These skills don't come free, however, and the price to upgrade is a significant amount of cash. Not real cash, but in-game currency earned by killing players, destroying turrets, and eliminating advancing bots. The skill system (especially the grapples, of which every character has at least one) really spices up the gameplay, but it can also be frustrating. After all, who wants to get frozen in place by a sniper and kicked out of the arena?

The strategy behind each attack is further complicated by the addition of bot spawning and turrets. Players can spend money on accentuating their defense (or offense!) rather than skills, and in the late game is is actually the easiest way to score a win. Spawning bots gives you a bot (or group of bots) that is dependent on your class. For example, the Engineer spawns an artillery bot called the Gapshot, while the Sniper spawns a floating clawed menace called the Scrambler. Turret construction has more choice involved, thankfully, and breaks down to four turrets: artillery, weak, strong, slow. Each turret has up to three levels that improve the firing rate and damage of the turret, and each level costs twice as much as the previous. For example, to build an artillery (Longshot) turret, you must run up to a turret nub and spend $75. To upgrade it to level 2 and 3, you will require $150 and $300, respectively. It maintains a very simple balance while making it easy to remember which turrets require how much to upgrade. If you see a level 2 strong (RockIt) turret, you instantly know it will cost $600 to upgrade it to level 3.

To spice up each arena, there are a number of environmental hazards and triggers. They aren't particularly varied, as there's only four static and one (well, two) dynamic, but they do have strong game-changing effects. The static items also cost money. The jump pad allows players to reach otherwise inaccessible areas and move quickly around the map, the annihilator destroys all enemy bots and damages enemy players by about 1/5th their health, the ejector damages, throws, and dazes enemies, and the juice dispenser instantly maxes out your juice level. Alongside these static items, the Monday Night Combat mascot (or an infamous character from Penny Arcade, it is random) will show up approximately every 5 minutes to dispense goodies and cash. When he dies, your normal waves get stronger and a Jackbot XL, the strongest bot in the game, spawns to take you out.

There are two mechanics available to break stalemates. Juice is a game-changing mechanic that can be compared to an ultimate move in an RPG, or a super move in a fighter. After you have gained enough juice from killing enemies, destroying bots, damaging turrets, and collection juice pick-ups from dead enemies, you can enter juiced mode. You get cool holographic armor and weapons, and deal many times your normal damage. For example, a juiced Assassin can take out most of the turrets in an enemy base if unopposed, rendering the base vulnerable to bots. The only real issue with juice is that it's easy to farm it up if you are a skilled player, which means that you might get killed by the same player who has juiced three times in a row. The other mechanic is overtime, which is two minutes after the game's time is over where both moneyballs are down, everyone has maximum endorsements, both teams spawn Jackbots at a ridiculous pace, and everyone spawns with half their juice bar filled. It can quickly turn a game around for a losing team, much to the frustration of the winners.

These are all elements available in both single-player and multiplayer, but you will only really want to play multiplayer. While the single-player is alright, it is not nearly as fun as taking on enemy classes and bots in a dramatic showdown. You do, however, get stats for playing in single-player, so if you want to skyrocket your number of Blackjacks killed in order to unlock a new title, playing the single-player is your best bet. You can also grind for more cash to unlock that sweet new title or a new custom class as well. Keep in mind, however, that this only works for bot kills and turret constructions/upgrades. For weapon kills, enemy kills, and power-ups, you'll have to play the competitive mode to unlock new goodies.

It seems like every game is continually pushing the concept of meta-game persistent progression, and Monday Night Combat is no different. However, you do not actually unlock anything new in terms of weapons. Rather, you unlock different player cards and skins (at the moment, only TF2 skins for buying MNC before February 1st), and you get the ability to mix-and-match classes with different endorsements. However, if you decide to do none of this and simply play the game, you'll still do fairly well. The endorsement modifications are really only for people who are attempting to get the most out of a character, while the skins and player cards confer no actual mechanical benefits. We are on the side of "more stats tracking is better," so this added persistence to what is already a fantastic title just further drives our addiction.

Despite being so strongly polished and excellent, Monday Night Combat is plagued by a few small issues. The balance, while mostly good, is still in flux. Of note is that the Sniper is absurdly overpowered compared to his partners, thanks to a quick fire rate, high damage, and minimal delay between zooming and firing. When stacked with custom endorsements, such as fire rate and damage resistance, he becomes plainly ridiculous. A single excellent Sniper can clear a server full of decent players simply by headshotting everyone. While most classes require support to play effectively, the Sniper is one of the few that does not, and he can lock down an entire team on his own. The game also favors turtling teams far more over offensive ones, as overtime always triggers at the end of a game and renders most of the previous progress moot, as everyone is three times as powerful and the moneyballs don't have to be knocked down to attack. Besides balance, Monday Night Combat suffers mostly from a lack of content. After playing for a few hours, you will have experienced every commentator line, and there are only five crossfire maps. However, Uber Entertainment has pledged to continue supporting the game with more balancing and more content, and the goodies that are present are more than enough to sustain us for a while

Monday Night Combat is a potential phenomenon waiting to happen. The characters are funny and interesting, the gameplay is a compelling mix of class-based shooter and MOBA, and the meta-game drives us to just keep up the killing. Despite some extremely minor issues, it's absolutely worth the price. Uber Entertainment has come out of the gate swinging, and if their future titles are half as good as Monday Night Combat, we'll be overjoyed. Don't wait for a sale or patch or more content. Buy Monday Night Combat now. It's just that good.

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