PAX East 2016: Hands-on with NCsoft’s Master x Master

The first dozen of cuts are all equally deep, really.

Master x Master might very well be the MOBA that I learn to love in spite of any and all preconceptions.

I am not, categorically, a fan of MOBAs. This is not news. It’s not a moral stance of any sort; the genre, as a whole, just holds very little appeal. Master x Master had that to overcome right from the starting gate, along with the reality that the game’s very nature didn’t sound to appealing. A mascot-based MOBA based on NCsoft properties, most of which have very little resonance for me in the first place? I can live without that.

Walking away from the demo I had with the game, I’m humming an altogether different tune. The game actually exists in an odd hybrid space between MOBA gameplay, twin-stick shooters, and cooperative ARPG gameplay in more ways than one, and its “mascot” nature has been vastly overstated. What I’ve seen and played thus far is smart, fun, and almost everything I would have asked for from a genre that I normally don’t have much interest in.

Rather than being a straight mascot-based fighter, MxM does actually have some lore and storyline going on behind the scenes. The short version is that humanity started uplifting and augmenting itself, then decided that it was a good idea to network itself together, then plot happened, and now the remaining humans are trying to take Earth back from the evil no-longer-humans known as the Synd. As stories go, it’s not a natural segue to why all of these characters are supposed to be shooting at one another, but that’s part of the point; there’s more to the game than just having characters shoot one another.

While at the show, I took a tour through three different bits of content in the game, and only one of them served as a PvP mode. That alone got my interest. There are storyline maps and missions that feel very much like a twin-stick shooter in their execution, co-op dungeons which provide an interesting push-and-pull mechanic, and the usual MOBA-style maps for those who prefer that format.

If that alone isn’t enough to pique your interest as a veteran of MOBAs, however, there’s the game’s hero swapping. Unlike most titles, in MxM, you don’t pick a character when you load into a map. You pick two different characters whom you can swap between with a quick scroll of the mouse wheel, with around a 15 second cooldown necessary between each swap.

This alone changes the game’s dynamic considerably. Each individual hero still has a great deal of dials and knobs to turn for your personal preference, but you can also form your strategy based heavily upon your mix of characters. The enormous Cagnazzo can grab enemies, pull them in, and smash them up… then once teammates arrive, you swap to the more support-oriented Demenos and heal your teammates through any counterattack. I personally focused on playing the versatile ranged Taejin and the more assassin-focused Sizuka, allowing me to use Taejin’s crowd control and range when engaged while switching to Sizuka’s higher damage as the situation warranted.

The property values here are never going to recover.

It also helped my opinion of the game that you move via WASD rather than by clicking; left-click triggers your attack, while right-click is a dodge maneuver. You can also jump around, but both jumping and dodging are limited by stamina, keeping you from ducking away from everything with impunity. It very much feels like a twin-stick shooter in its controls, or possibly like a Gauntlet derivative for those more familiar with that.

The single-player mission we ran through really drove this home, with hordes of enemies showing up for slaughter, a locked room section requiring careful play to avoid being overwhelmed, and a big stompy boss at the end. I made good use of Sizuka’s abilities on that fight, dodging his jumping attack, then dashing in with my weapons enhanced. Individual heroes have just two abilities selected from a larger pool; you still have access to the usual spread of MOBA skills in the end (four skills plus an ultimate along with passive effects), but it relies on the character swap.

This is the mode that relied most heavily upon the game’s controls, and if you’re a big fan of clicking to move, you might be disappointed. For my part, I was very happy with it. The only minor complaint I had with the controls were the fact that I couldn’t double-tap to dodge (which makes sense based on the twin-stick control scheme) and that scrolling down swaps characters, but scrolling up does not. It felt like it should work in either direction.

Beyond that, however, hits had a notable impact, health was clearly visible, and everything seemed crisp and responsive. Characters move at just the right pace as well, slowly enough that I always felt as if I had control enough to aim before I fired but quickly enough that I had to be alert. Taejin’s shotgun blast worked quite well when trailing little hordes of enemies, I’ll note.

Our next port of call was the Blackram Supply Chain, which might sound familiar to fans of Blade & Soul. Yes, it’s the dungeon from that game ported more or less wholesale, complete with a boss encounter at the end, and it was grand fun. Having multiple people running around and working together made the gameplay just as fun, and the swapping mechanic meant that it was very possible to develop emergent strategies depending on who is running with what. There’s little attempt to provide in-world justification for what’s going on, but that’s not really the point.

Here goes smashy.

The boss in particular made switching heroes very valuable, at least for me. During various stages of her attacks, melee range was just plain unsafe, which meant that I needed to have Taejin out, attacking, and moving. Once she shifted into a different attack phase, I could swap and move in for melee strikes. It emphasized both the nature of the swap as well as the need to pick heroes that don’t necessarily do the same thing.

Last but not least, we took on the Titan Ruins as the most traditional MOBA-style map of the lot, complete with three lanes and an enemy base to destroy. The big mechanic of the map was being able to summon a Titan to storm the enemy base, along with various side shrines that could be used to summon lesser Titans as reinforcements. Here, I must confess, my lack of experience showed, but the balance still seemed tight. The biggest weakness of this mode in comparison with other genre entries may simply be that there wasn’t a lot of reason to head back to our base on the regular; more often than not, it made sense to just wait until death rather than retreat.

Of course, that alone adds strategic depth. You have two health bars at any given time: Do you bring one hero near to death before swapping? What’s the right time to swap to avoid being stuck as Sizuka when you need Cagnazzo? The 5v5 map really offers a 10v10 roster on either side, which means that players have to be aware of a much larger pool of potential opponents and have a much wider network of interactions.

Epic flex.

MxM‘s big uphill battle is going to be in convincing players about what it has to offer. The MOBA genre is crowded with titles that haven’t made the distance, games that have functionally offered League of Legends with a different skin. This is one of the reasons I appreciate MxM, which certainly still adheres to that format but takes a number of the core components in different directions. It’s a good game for fans of MOBAs, but it’s also a good game for fans of games like Gauntlet and anyone who just likes moving around smashing enemies. Even if you don’t care for PvP, it has plenty on offer.

And to my great surprise, it has plenty on offer for me. If you had told me before PAX East that this was going to be something I cared about or liked, I wouldn’t have believed you, but no small part of that comes down to a matter of perception. Now I know more, and I’m eagerly anticipating more.

It’s not going to be a game for everyone, that much is a given. But it’s a game that has a lot more to it than just NCsoft mascot MOBA. If you like twin-stick games, MOBAs, or just something with generous slices of action and RPG elements, I’d recommend keeping your eyes on it.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in Boston for PAX East 2016, bringing you expert MMO coverage from NCsoft, Daybreak, Square Enix, and everything else on display at the latest Penny Arcade Expo!
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