Hands-on: Monday Night Combat

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Hands-on: Monday Night Combat
Why are so many good online shooters hitting XBLA? Monday Night Combat is Uber Entertainment's upcoming arena shooter, made exclusively for XBLA. Like Lead & Gold, it evokes a Team Fortress 2 vibe, thanks largely to its cartoon graphics and focus on squad-based play. Yet, it manages to have a unique flavor of its own, thanks to its satisfying close quarters combat, and original tower defense-inspired gameplay.

Monday Night Combat was one of the most populated booths at PAX East, an impressive feat considering the high-profile competition offered by the bigger publishers. Perhaps the long lines could be attributed to Gabe and Tycho's glowing endorsement of the game at their first Q&A panel. Or, it might be because the game is, put simply, fun.

I jumped into a round and chose the Assassin class. I've always preferred speed and stealth over gunplay, and this class was perfectly suited to my play style. Like the Scout class from TF2, this character is very agile, and can jump long distances. The Assassin has the special ability to cloak for a brief period of time, and can also launch smoke grenades. The cloak isn't infallible, as players will notice a shimmer where you're located; however, in the middle of a frantic firefight, it'll be relatively easy to sneak up behind a player and brutally stab him in the back.

The Assassin must play smart, as he won't survive more than a few direct hits. Thankfully, smoke grenades can be used as a defensive measure. Simply throw them down, and you'll be able to do a ninja jump, that launches you high above the playing field. The grenades also have a secondary ability: they disable machines, allowing you to take down enemy turrets with relative ease.

This was the only class I had a chance to play with, so I can't attest for the depth offered by the other classes but it should be evident that I had a lot of fun taking advantage of all my character's abilities. In addition to a character's innate abilities, you can also upgrade skills mid-match by using cash earned throughout the battle. These aren't permanent upgrades, so it's important to spend and adjust skills based on what you need at the time. I was able to upgrade my dagger into a sword, for example, making it easier to get stealth kills. I also upgraded my bombs, so I could have more time to disable enemy turrets.

It's easy (and tempting) to play the game as a simple death match, but the mode I played (Crossfire) had far more depth. In short, it felt like Unreal Tournament 2004's Assault mode, mixed in with a bit of tower defense. The key to winning is to open up the opposing team's "Money Ball," essentially the core of their base. The Money Ball can take quite a lot of damage, so teams will need to coordinate a fast, strong attack using players and AI-controlled bots.

While each team has an infinite robot army at their disposal, intent with attacking the other team's Money Ball, you don't have to sit idly by as the robots come marching in. Instead, each team can set up turrets, and upgrade these turrets as in a tower defense game. The key to victory is to somehow weaken enemy defenses enough so that you and your robot army can strike the enemy Money Ball with sufficient force. Teams will have to coordinate who will upgrade the towers, who will attempt to disable enemy turrets, and who will simply fight the oncoming robot onslaught. With so many characters -- AI and human -- on the playing field at once, it's clear that choosing a carefully balanced team is going to be crucial to victory.

It will take more than quick reflexes and a knack for headshots to get the most out of Monday Night Combat, and that's what has me most excited about the game. Importantly, the combat is a lot of fun. In fact, the melee (and grapple) kills are terrific, thanks to the detailed and varied animations added for each class. In addition, the production values are terrific, matching the ever-rising standard we've come to expect on XBLA. Monday Night Combat takes it one step further than most by also offering a single player mode, often overlooked by games in this genre. This game is huge.

Monday Night Combat may have a lot of competition when it launches on XBLA later this year, but I'm rather confident it'll turn out to be something special. I certainly can't wait to play more.
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