On paper, it sounds like yet another MOBA, the rapidly-expanding genre pioneered by games like League of Legends and Dota 2. In practice however, while the game's DNA is undeniably colored by the m-word genre, you'd be doing the game a ... well, gigantic disservice to think of it as another imitator. "[The term 'MOBA'] gives people the wrong idea," James Phinney, creative director on Gigantic, told Joystiq at PAX Prime 2014. Of course, the term Motiga staff used to describe the game – "third-person team action game" – isn't much clearer. But that's okay, because according to Phinney, "the game should explain itself." Based on a match I played at PAX, Gigantic explains itself pretty darn well.
Before a match of Gigantic, you pick a fighter from a roster of vibrant and varied characters, each with five abilities tailored to that character's theme. The Magrave is a hulking, brutish knight-like character, and looking at him you get a sense of lumbering, heavy movement as well as powerful strength.
Voden, the satyr-like character I chose, wields a bow. Again, the character's defining attributes are implied by his appearance; he looks like a nimble, agile marksman, and in-game he plays like a nimble, agile marksman. His bow fires with pinpoint accuracy, and one of his abilities causes him to springboard into the air with ease. As he sprints forward, Voden bounds from side to side, hopping along color-drenched paths of cracked stone, sprouting grass and flowing streams.
It's not just the characters that are dripping with visual personality; the world of Gigantic is also beautiful to behold, to the point that it can be dangerously distracting. I found myself straying from team objectives because I was looking at how pretty a piece of scenery was more than once. More than twice. More than a few times. Even the things that kill you have to be admired for their beauty.
The ultimate goal of Gigantic is to take down the opposing team's Guardian: an enormous, powerful creature whose armor and health must be chipped away piece by piece. Guardians sometimes battle one another directly – a fight that calls to mind the battles of Godzilla and his foes – but more often it will be you and your friends against the massive beast.
Helping you along your journey are summoned monsters, which perform a variety of supporting tasks such as using melee or ranged attacks against enemies or healing nearby allies. Summoned monsters can only be placed on specific points around the map however, meaning where you choose to summon can add a significant layer of strategy. Having trouble staying alive? Bring in a healing tree. Want to go on an all-out offensive? You've got three-headed, fireball-spitting dogs and territorial dragons.
All the tweaks and changes to the MOBA formula sound like a lot to take in, but Phinney told Joystiq that the way Gigantic teaches strategy to its playerbase is meant to be low-pressure, freeform and organic. The game communicates what it needs to through a simple UI that's easy to understand (click the sword icon to upgrade damage, shield to increase defense, try to have more green monsters on the map than red) and character abilities, but from there it's up to players to adapt.
For example, while Voden was fun to play at long range, he suffered in close-quarters combat. One particular enemy, who seemed to move even faster than me, could just hack away at my health and take me down with ease. Even if I turned tail and ran, he could catch up and finish me off. So when I leveled up and had a chance to modify one of my abilities, I chose the upgrade that gave one of my area-of-effect abilities a slowing property.
The next time I saw the swordsman come charging, I plopped the slowing field at his feet and dispatched him with a smile, knowing I'd made the right choice. "You want people making discoveries like that," Phinney said. "Again: the game should explain itself."
It's clear that one match won't be enough to dissect this game, but I'm looking forward to more battles and more discoveries. Gigantic is currently in alpha, and you can sign-up to be chosen for early participation via the game's website. If you're at PAX Prime like us, it's also playable on the show floor.