The Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre is a very polarizing community of gamers. MOBAs have a long history, dating their origin back to the days of the popular Aion of Strife and Defense of the Ancient mods–created for Starcraft and Warcraft 3 respectively–that have caused a modern day eruption in popularity. The two leading games in the genre, Dota 2 and Legend of Legends, make millions of dollars over their free-to-play models and pull in hundreds of thousands of concurrent users every day. Their fans are fiercely loyal and their games’ popularity is immense; hosting tournaments that hand out millions of dollars in prize money, it’s no wonder that many game studios and publishers want a slice of the action. Several clones of these two juggernaut titles have cropped up over the past couple years, saturating the market and failing to duplicate their level of success. In order to succeed, a new MOBA game must differentiate itself in some form to truly captivate an audience.
Enter Smashmuck Champions, a game developed by Kiz Studios. Founded back in 2007, Kiz Studios has offices located in Atlanta and Charleston that focus on creating unique game experiences that blend the lines between casual and hardcore. Smashmuck Champions represents their goal perfectly. Rather than tackle the genre head-on and try to create the same three-lane-map-with-two-teams-of-five-characters formula that has been proven to be tried and true with Dota 2 and LoL, Kiz is taking their title in a much different direction.
The game cuts out many of the punishing decisions other MOBAs have to make an easier barrier of entry. Gone is farming for gold to buy items, putting points into skills to create builds, and gaining experience to level up. Players instead have a set base level of health and energy to use for abilities that regenerate over time and a base set of only three skills. The character pool boasts only 24 available champions as of this writing, a drastically smaller number than the hundreds that are normally in a MOBA. These changes combine to allow players to jump in and contribute immediately without needing to have any previous knowledge of builds and complex game mechanics that make MOBAs intimidating. No matter if its your first time playing or if you’re a grizzled veteran, the ability to immediately fire up Smashmuck Champions and find success is a refreshing change.
The next drastic change is the removal of the traditional three-lane base race that is common in MOBAs. In its place are five unique game modes: Plunderball, Conquest, Destroyer, Gauntlet, and Siege. Plunderball acts as a capture the flag type mode with each team needing to capture the other’s ball three times to win. Conquest is a territories-styled game mode with players earning resource points for holding more territories, the first team to 100 points being the victor. Destroyer revolves around players trying to collect power crystals to power up their team’s massive colossus while simultaneously trying to destroy the enemy’s team colossus. Gauntlet is a cooperative mode where players take on waves of enemy robots while trying to complete five random challenges within a time limit. The final mode is Siege, which is similar to typical MOBAs where teams must destroy the enemy’s base and towers to win, but with the twist of bombs that can be picked up and planted to do most of the heavy damage.
The game modes are all unique and allow freedom in players’ choice of how they want to play. The best part is that each mode takes only between five to fifteen minutes to complete, a far cry from the normal half-hour or longer matches found in the rest of the genre. This bite-size approach of playing three to five matches in the time it takes to play one game of Dota 2 or League of Legends gives it a more relaxed approach while still retaining a competitive nature.
Smashmuck Champions’ replacement for leveling and purchasing items during a game instead transfers to an account-wide level. Upon completing games players can receive rewards and earn experience to level up their account. Workouts can be earned that give statistical boosts like additional damage or attack speed. Players can also get unique weapons to equip to specific champions to augment their skill sets further to mold them to their play styles.
The combined effect of all these changes has been a positive experience thus far. As someone who has personally logged over 1,000 hours into Dota 2, Smashmuck Champions has much different rhythm and pace to it that is refreshing. The games are fast and furious with action taking place at all times. Never falling behind in experience or farm allows for extremely aggressive play as you find yourself diving into fights much more often. Plunderball has been especially frantic trying to chase down and defeat the ball carrier before they can score and has been my personal favorite game mode so far. The mechanics of the game are also much more akin to a third-person shooter as the point-and-click action for movement is replaced with WASD keys to control player movement. The 1, 2, and 3 keys allow you to swap abilities and replace the normal QWER typically used. The left mouse allows you to perform basic attacks and the right mouse button executes your currently selected ability. Pressing the spacebar allows players the ability to jump and adds an interesting wrinkle to combat as you hop around each other trying to secure a kill. Each champion is uniquely crafted and none feel similar aesthetically or in their repertoire of skills. I found particular joy using a sword-wielding brawler named Brutus that could slow in a small 180 degree AoE swipe with his first ability to follow up with a large straight path nuke to do serious damage. Using his third skill to increase attack speed I could dispatch several opponents with ease and a little teamwork.
Unfortunately, the fun of game is weighed down by a few nuanced issues that are holding it back in its present state. Namely, when objective warnings were displayed during five-on-five Siege games, they were immensely distracting in their screen placement. Displaying these notifications as a bar completely across the near direct middle of the screen was incredibly distracting and could force me to lose vision of what was going on. This lead to more than a few frustrating deaths that were less due to my own personal skill but rather by the game temporarily handicapping my vision. Swapping abilities by tapping the 1, 2, and 3 keys and then casting them with the right-mouse button is functional, but I found it to be very clumsy. Considering how fast-paced the game already is, not being able to make lightning-fast reactions by simply casting abilities by pressing the 1, 2, and 3 keys feels counter-productive and something I hope is changed before final release.
The other main issue I have is its form of free-to-play. While promising to not be pay-to-win, I question that intent in its shop. Items can be crafted for free, but doing so requires completing daily challenges or grinding through the game to earn in-game currency. Instead of doing this, you can also drop real cash to get badges, weapons, and training to give yourself additional stats. I wonder how large of a gap this will create between devoted Smashmuck players and those who simply want a quick pick-up game when the Steam closed beta ends. It could potentially make some more powerful and break all the good the title has going for it right now in its pick-up-and-play ease of access.
Overall, Smashmuck Champions is certainly a game to keep and eye on. It certainly won’t replace Dota 2 or League of Legends as your go-to MOBA of choice, but it doesn’t want you to do that to begin with. It’s all action with fast-paced combat that can be consumed quickly and easily offers an experience that anyone can dip into for a five minutes or for several hours of fun with friends. Look for Smashmuck Champions to enter early access on Steam in the coming weeks and keep an eye on Indie Game Insider for more Smashmuck Champion news.