Working on a new MOBA must be one of the most unenviable tasks in video-games development. It is, in the spirit of the genre itself, a relentless grind; a commitment to years of piecemeal content, fine balancing, and incentives to keep players paying, unlocking heroes, and pushing those lanes in perpetuity.
But unlike a wholesome videogame grind, where you slowly get rewarded for your stoic efforts, a developer’s MOBA grind doesn’t guarantee success. For every phenomenon in the genre like League of Legends or DOTA, there are ten Guardians of Middle-Earths, Transformers Universes, DC Comics’ Infinite Crisis... er Crises? (Hmm, maybe their failures have something to do with how badly they pluralise.)
Not that NCsoft, developer of new tag-team MOBA Master X Master, needs to force its way onto the scene using some flashy IP. The Korean developer-publisher has a strong legacy in the large-scale online arena, with series like Guild Wars and Lineage in its repertoire, as well as the now-defunct but excellent City of Heroes. It understands the golden formula to keep players ticking along better than most companies and, on the evidence of Master X Master, it’s reapplied that from MMO to MOBA quite smoothly, with plenty of its own twists.
MXM wears its Korean heritage with pride, with a bright, clean sci-fi aesthetic that rests somewhere between manga, Street Fighter, and vintage Marvel comics. Most of its 30+ roster is made up of new characters, though you may recognise Statesman from City of Heroes, Rytlock Brimstone from Guild Wars 2 and Poharan from Blade & Soul. Never heard of ‘em? Doesn’t really matter. MOBAs are, after all, the place where new iconic heroes are born, and where existing ones go to die (as per the LotR and DC Universe offerings). The key thing is that the roster is varied even in these early days, and brimming with loving artwork and inventive designs, providing a foundation for the fan art and cosplay it no doubt hopes to inspire.
Mechanically, MXM does things differently to the MOBA hegemony by letting you move around with WSAD controls, activating skills with ‘Q’ and ‘E’ and jumping with the space bar (gamepad controls are in the works). Then there’s the tag system. For every match in MXM you pick two characters, who you can swap between with a single scroll of your mouse. You can team up giant jelly-baby Bumaro with mech-armed boxer Pancuga, for instance — bombarding enemies from afar as the former before charging headlong into the fray as the latter. It’s always fun seeing the enemy’s surprise when I run into a crowd as vulnerable, blubbery Bumaro before switching suddenly to the boxer and letting those fists fly.
Or you could soften the enemy from afar by firing rockets as the robot MBA-07, then tag in Demenos, a electric-blue self-proclaimed ‘Thunder Lord’ who shocks enemies into paralysis and makes a great healer. The tag system offers up endless surprises and sudden turnarounds in combat, though it’s also your job to memorise which Masters your enemies are holding on the sidelines so that you’re ready should they tag them in.
These quirks give MXM a tactility and immediacy that you don’t get with your typical MOBAs. The action has an almost console-like quality — a bit of PS4 Diablo 3 here, a bit of Marvel vs Capcom there — which creates an air of casualness. That doesn't mean MXM isn't precise, with lengthy cooldowns on jumping, tagging and defensive abilities like dodging (triggered by right mouse-click) a stern reminder that, for all MXM’s light-hearted stylings, you need to be methodical with every decision.
Each hero has four active abilities that you can eventually unlock, selecting two for each battle to use alongside your default left-click firing mode and a special ‘Ultimate’ skill. These range from devastating firestorms that throw your enemies into the air, if you’re playing as blonde assault specialist Lua, to a cornucopia of power-ups for your team to pick through if you’re controlling silly giant ferret-thing, Nanurunerk.
Not a single sentence on MXM’s official website, press emails, or trailers mentions the word ‘MOBA’, but it unquestionably is one (sorry, NCsoft), albeit with frilly bits attached. Alongside the 5-v-5 three-lane Titan Ruins mode (the MOBA part), there’s a 3-v-3 Deathmatch, a wealth of minigames (that can only be played at certain times, for some reason), and a much-welcome PvE co-op mode, which is where that Diablo essence wafts in.
The Deathmatch and sporadic minigames feel like nice distractions, but it’s the dungeon-crawly PvE that really piqued my interest. Teaming up with up to three other players, here you can experiment with different character builds, farm resources to convert into weapon upgrades, gather gold for upgrading your Masters’ skills and (somewhat disjointedly) progress through the story. Each stage lasts five to 10 minutes and can be played on a number of difficulty settings, pitting you against hordes of enemy minions, before moving you onto the mini-boss and big boss. Neither the levels nor enemies are terribly eye-popping, and it all feels very lightweight in design and depth, but the two-life limit gives these PvE sprints a sense of urgency, especially as they partially contribute to your PvP progress. It also makes MXM viable for short, snappy sessions where you can run a couple of levels and call it a night, rather than commit to gruelling multiplayer wars.
Crucially, unlocking new heroes and keeping up in PvP isn’t something that will require you to spend money. Even cosmetic extras like costumes can eventually be unlocked by playing the game, although of course it will require more grinding than a Brighton cannabis convention. MXM veers well away from any pay-to-win trappings, particularly as the actual improvements you can make to your PvP characters are limited to a few weapon upgrades. It’s a good system, not that you’d expect any less from the publisher who gave us one of the first major subscription-free MMOs in Guild Wars.
So the structure is all in place for a fine new MOBA to flourish, and yet at this moment, over a month on from its official launch, hardly anyone is talking about MXM, and not all that many people are playing it, based on the fact that matchmaking times usually far exceeds the ‘estimated’ number so boldly displayed onscreen (though the sometimes unstable, laggy servers may also be playing their part in that). MXM is tailor-made for Twitch yet few channels stream it, while its absence from Steam won’t be doing it any favours.
MXM is trying so hard not to be pigeonholed as a MOBA, perhaps due to the insurmountable competition, that I wonder whether it lacks a clear identity for prospective players. It’s an 'action game', the trailer stresses, it’s a Diablo-lite, it’s a MOBA, and it’s mechanically competent — if strategically shallow, for now — at all these things. It’s a solid MOBA geared more towards sudden twists via Titans and tag-teams than advanced tactical manoeuvring, although its true potential on this front will only be exploited by players far more skilled than myself. But if we’re to ever see how much nuance and mastery can be squeezed out of its thoughtful mechanical quirks then MXM needs to get a serious promotional push, lest it join so many brethren in the vast dark ocean of MOBA obscurity.