It’s taken many attempts for me to get into the MOBA scene. Between needing to learn each character’s role, strength & weakness, as well as dealing with rage when I don’t know what I’m doing, I just haven’t been able to stick with it. That all changed recently, and now I’m finally beginning to understand the intricacies & appeal of such titles as DOTA 2, LoL and HOTS.
So when I was invited to check out Master X Master, NCSOFT’s take on the popular genre, I was intrigued as to how they could make an impact in an already crowded space. After all, at first glance it appears as more of the same – a roster of heroes with which to beat opponents with for competitive glory across isometric maps – but over the course of the session Product Manager Sean Orlikowski demonstrated the various ways MxM goes beyond just towers and creeps in PvP.
The most obvious difference from other titles in the genre is the TAG system, which allows players to select two masters and switch between them throughout the game. While there’s a 12 second cooldown on the ability to stop ridiculous levels of spamming, it means that players can go between being a ranged offensive character to being a melee tank in an instant, or switch to a support or CC-centric role instead. As I would discover during the session, it’s also a great way of cheating death, as both of your chosen masters have separate health pools. This is all on top of each master having a variety of different abilities to choose from, which Orlikowski felt makes “a very interesting dynamic” overall.
Another way MxM is trying to break away from the MOBA mould is by including around 20 PvE stages. We kicked things off by looking at one called the Black Ram Supply Chain – a dungeon Blade & Soul fans will be familiar with. Orlikowski explained that in this case the level layout had been lifted directly from the martial arts MMORPG, including its boss, Pohwaran. For the stage, I went with two masters that have already been revealed – the ranged-focused Taejin, and melee-centric Sizuku.
While it retains the popular isometric viewpoint, MxM is regarded as an “action MOBA” by its developers. The WASD keys are used for movement and characters are capable of jumping and dodging out of fire, while abilities are aimed using the mouse. With the high mobility of the player it became clear that all abilities in MxM are skill shots, putting it more in line with something such as an SMITE than HOTS. After a few minutes of play I felt that Twin Stick shooters and isometric brawlers played an influence in the controls, which led me to wonder if support for gamepads will be included in the future. While I did ask about it, NCSOFT’s response was that they “don’t have anything to share on that topic right now.” Make of that what you will.
While masters have their own resource pools for abilities, they share up to five charges for their ultimate skill. What’s interesting is that different ultimates have varying cost depending on their effectiveness in a fight. “It’s just to prevent you from being able to chain two really powerful ultimates together by just swapping, and doing too much damage,” Orlikowski explained.
As we progressed towards the final boss I was impressed how faithful the stage was to its source material despite the change in viewpoint. This includes the arena in which players fight Pohwaran, includes both the steam vents to avoid being frozen and her reversible shockwave ability from BnS. During the fight I began to pay attention to the combo functionality, which allows players to string attacks together to earn better grades – much like in brawlers such as Devil May Cry. One thing I was very aware of during this encounter was how much more mobile we were having to be, with Poharan aggressively switching between players. It was a notible step up in difficulty from the previous trash mobs, which had certainly been mobile but not this extent.
Thankfully, it was a “First time, every time” play from our group and we managed to beat Pohwaran without dying. We were then greeted with a screen that graded our performance based on damage dealt, damage taken, and completion time. While we managed to get an A rank, Orlikowski did point out that S and SSS grades were above that, making us feel a little less badass. There is another reason other than pride to get the higher ranks, though, and that’s getting more rewards. While Orlikowski did point out that it’s “subject to change”, players blindly choose from a shuffled grid deck and are given more chances based on their performance. Items ranged from crafting materials (which we didn’t get into), cosmetic items such as Pohwaran’s Eyepatch, and in-game currency.
With the Black Ram Supply Chain being as faithful a recreation as it is, I asked Orlikowski if there were plans to bring dungeons from Guild Wars 2 and WildStar into the mix. “We’ve got dungeons so far from Blade & Soul, from Aion, from Lineage and Lineage 2, so that’s what we’ve developed so far,” he replied. “As far as other dungeons, there’s nothing that we’ve announced yet but there are some other ones that we’re working on.” So, there’s not a no to a recreation of Stormtalon’s Lair – one of my favourite WildStar dungeons that I feel would work incredibly well in MxM – but it could be a while before it materialises, if at all.
Our next activity took us to Titan Ruins, which is MxM’s take on the traditional MOBA mode. Two teams of five face off over a map with three lanes to either take out the other team’s core, but that’s not the only way to win. You can also get a points victory either by having the highest total after 25 minutes or by hitting the points threshold. Points also act as the way to summon Titans, which stomp their way down the middle lane for every 100 points scored. For this match, we actually filled the other spots with AI, including the two free spots on our own team. As someone who likes to learn characters and maps before jumping into online play, I welcome the option for AI opponents.
Orlikowski was quick to point out that defence towers are actually fairly close to each base, making fighting in the middle of the map much more of a risk. Thankfully it’s not just creeps and death in no man’s land, as players can capture familiar perks such as Titan Sight pillars, which clear the fog of war, and Guardian camps, which act as MxM’s merc camp equivalent by summoning mini titans to help push side lanes. There’s also a world boss available, but instead of calling it to your add on the main map it awards 75 points to whoever kills it. In this regard it’s a crucial gamechanger, although killing it is no easy feat (especially if your opponents decide to drop in for the steal.)
At this point it seems much like the same old, but I found the combat in Titan Ruins to be much more hectic than anything else I’d experienced prior. Much like the boss fight against Pohwaran, the AI Masters are incredibly mobile and made landing basic attacks, let alone offensive abilities, a fair challenge. I was even surprised by how they would switch Masters before dying, which was both impressive and annoying in equal measure. Thankfully, I’d had the foresight to switch out Taejin for another character to help with the slaughter.
It was time for Mondo Zax.
Playable by the press for the first time, the mad scientist Chua from WildStar works in a very similar way to the Engineer class from the MMORPG. By this I mean you can select specific robot minions to act as tanks, support or damage, while Mondo’s main attack can be charged up to fire three bolts instead of one. The offset to this was that the projectiles are much slower, making it feel like a character only skillful players will be able to handle effectively. Thankfully, Mondo’s ultimate is a show-stopper, as he calls in an orbital laser that that can be directed by the mouse cursor. Once levelled up – something you can only do back at your spawn – I found the ability absolutely devastating, which pleased me greatly.
I asked Orlikowski if, considering how well Mondo Zax’s translation to MxM has been along with how WildStar and Guild Wars 2’s combat fits here, if we’d see more characters beyond the Chua engineer and the previously announced Rytlock Brimstone. “He’s the only WildStar character we’ve announced at the moment,” he began. “We’ve got a pretty big catalogue [of characters] to choose from. It’s going to be a mix of established characters and new characters, but it’s mostly going to be new characters. It’s roughly 80 / 20 [percent split] currently.” He went on to add that the team “have a pretty good list of characters that we’re going to bring in from our other games that we’re currently working on.”
After we had claimed victory we were greeted by the familiar sight of the scoreboard filled with statistics on how we’ve performed. Overall the familiarity to other MOBAs allowed me to settle in with relative ease, but the mobile nature of the action gave it an ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’ vibe. I certainly could have landed my abilities much better, showing that it’s a game that relies more on precision and fast reactions than others in the genre.
Of course, I only got to see a vertical slice of what MxM has to offer. I didn’t really get to mess around the ability combinations, or go through the roster of characters, but what I did see has me curious to see more. This goes especially for the modes we didn’t get to try out, such as the “Mario Party” inspire mini-games and the 3 vs 3 Deathmatch mode. If anything, MxM will be filled with content when it does go live, and there’s certainly plenty of promise with this action combat. Ultimately though, the jury is still out on if this will be able to stand up to the genre heavyweights when it releases later this year.
A huge thanks to Sean for taking the time to show us the game! You can learn more about Master X Master by heading over to the Official MxM website.