More Unique Than You'd Think
Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Monday Night Combat is more than a Team Fortress 2 ripoff. This quirky amalgamation of genres may take some getting used to for seasoned shooter vets who are used to gunning for the highest kill count, but those who stick with it will find a surprisingly deep and rewarding shooter under the candy coated visuals.
The premise behind the latest Summer of Arcade release is that in the future, cloned soldiers will do battle in corporate-sanctioned arenas for the amusement of the masses. The game sports a silly game show style complete with a hammy announcer, pit girls, and an over sized mascot, whom players may pummel for additional points. These game show elements, along with an exaggerated art style, serve to differentiate MNC from this year's gamut of modern warfare shooters. Further removing MNC from other shooters is the overarching goal of each match: while getting kills is still important, the main goal of each round is to carve a path through the enemy opposition for your team of robots to move through. When your robots reach the enemy's base, they will lower the shields on the enemy's money ball, allowing players to jump in for the final blow. The team that destroys the enemy's money ball first is the victor.
This mode, called Crossfire, is the only competitive mode of play in the game. While that may seem like a detriment, it's actually one of the big strengths of the game because it unifies all of the players into one mode of play. Most XBLA shooters, such as the recent Blacklight: Tango Down, fracture their already small player bases through many different modes of play.
Once you actually get into a game, there are six distinct classes to choose from, each with their own unique set of powers mapped to the face buttons. The assassin, for example, can turn invisible, while the engineer can build turrets. Most of the powers aren't terribly unique, as plenty of games have featured cloaking assassins and turret building engineers and the like, but the way that they all come together in a battle feels balanced and satisfying. Coupled with the ability for players to construct turrets at certain locations on the battlefield, MNC takes on a sort of tower-defense-meets-shooter feel, where teamwork and cunning often play a big part in success. There are times, however, when the game can feel cheap, and it's easy to feel cheated after some of the insta-kill deaths. You might, for example, be walking along peacefully and suddenly go flying out of the arena for an instant death because some punk pulled a switch on the opposite side of the level. For new players it can be a bit disorienting, but once you get used to each level's traps and shortcuts it won't be so frustrating.
While Crossfire is the only competitive mode in the game, it also sports the co-operative Blitz mode. In Blitz, players must defend their money ball from a horde of oncoming robots. Like other survival modes, it can provide some frantic fun, but the real draw here is the competitive play. The co-op is just a small distraction.
Character customization plays a small role in the game, as it is possible to give your preferred class up to three perks, (called endorsements in MNC) such as increased damage or armor. The endorsements aren't terribly unique, but the way that they are implemented is quite intelligent. Although the game doesn't really explain this (in fact, the game doesn't explain much other than the Assault class in a short tutorial,) the order in which you select your endorsements determines their effectiveness. The first endorsement you choose will be "gold," the second "silver," and the third "bronze." The gold endorsement will be stronger than the silver, and so on. This really forces you to focus on your priorities when choosing your set of endorsements.
In terms of gameplay, MNC works very well. The game brings the tower defense and shooter genres together in a way that feels surprisingly natural. The controls are mapped intelligently, and it shouldn't take long before you're pulling off head shots and risky grenade throws. The three powers that each class has are color coded to the face buttons on the Xbox 360 controller, so it's easy to tell which button does what. This is especially important given that some of the weapons can feel a bit weak at times, so the powers can really save you when you find yourself in a tight spot.
What doesn't work so well is the map designs. There's nothing really wrong with the layouts of the maps, but most of them feel too similar. While it's understandable that they would all maintain a certain futuristic game show theme, there is zero variation in the visual style of each map. It would have been nice to see some maps with trees or rocky terrain or bodies of water or some distinguishing feature. Just because it's the future, that doesn't mean it has to be all chrome and steel. Fortunately, although the visuals lack variety, they are not hurting for personality. The game is quite colorful, and the character models look great and animate well. The game also sounds pretty nice, although the announcer can get repetitive sometimes.
All told, MNC delivers a surprisingly unique and engrossing experience for 1200 Microsoft Points. The different classes complement each other well, the game play lends itself well to cunning strategies, and it just feels good to play. Despite a few minor complaints, this is easily the best XBLA shooter yet to be released, standing in terms of quality alongside many full-priced releases. Don't let the half-hearted comparisons to other franchises turn you off; MNC has its own distinct feel that is well worth experiencing for yourself.