I need to confess, when NCsoft first showed me MXM last year I was pretty skeptical. While the version we played wasn't localized, it was evident that NCsoft was trying to push into the free-to-play space of other MOBAs—which at the time seemed like an awful idea to me. But MXM isn't a MOBA, it smartly borrows some of those ideas, a few more from action RPGs, and then even a sprinkling from MMOs, and turns that all into something that so far feels distinct and different.
I got to go hands on with MXM at E3 in LA, thankfully this time in English, and I walked away feeling optimistic that this wasn't just a "us too!" attempt from NCsoft to cash into the MOBA hype. And I mean, that's exactly what MXM could have been: just another MOBA with a subtle twist that's expected to go toe-to-toe with giants like DOTA 2. But MXM smartly skirts that in such a way that I almost hesitate to call it a MOBA altogether.
The demo I played started off with MXM's brand manager and I jumping into a cooperative mission mode together. And, unsurprisingly, they're basically just dungeons from any other MMORPG. Groups of monsters cluster together to form different kinds of pulls, we needed to lightly manage aggro and make sure not to accidentally pull too many. There's even optional areas where extra tough monsters may spawn from time to time. And of course, at the end, a boss battle caps it all off.
The first obvious twist to MXM is that you actually play two separate characters that you can freely rotate between with a cooldown. While the hero pool isn't huge right now, being able to swap puts the emphasis on how well your two heroes complement one another instead of just focusing on one's abilities. I like thinking more about synergies between my choices rather than just puzzling out how my one hero plays. It's also a great way of injecting a sliver of variety into combat. If I feel like I'm bored of a melee character, I can always swap to a second ranged character instead.
Each hero has abilities that can be augmented or rotated out, giving them quite a bit of depth when building them before jumping into a mission. I'll admit, my eyes tend to glaze over when I look at this stuff during demos, if only because it often veers into information overload territory. Still, while I wasn't hastily jotting down notes on how to build Mondo Zax, It seems to be that kind of approachable depth where players who aren't overly interested in it don't need to theorycraft just to have fun.
Speaking on Mondo Zax, yeah, he's in the game. MXM pulls in characters from all across the NCsoft sphere of gaming in something like a Smash Bros-eque character mashup. Only, aside from Mondo Zax and a few other notables, you're going to need to be familiar with NCsoft characters in a way that I fear so few will. I mean, I've been playing MMORPGs since I can remember, and many of the characters from Lineage, Aion, and elsewhere go right over my head. And the ones I do recognize don't inspire any kind of attachment from me.
That isn't a bad thing per se, just that I feel like MXM is desperately trying to engender some sense of cohesion across NCsoft brands that absolutely will never exist. With Nintendo, it works because those are characters who we grew up with and thematically fit together quite well. It's a smorgasbord of the most iconic characters in video game history fighting together. With NCsoft, I don't feel much of anything looking at its roster.
I only bring this up because of all of MXM's ideas I've been exposed to, it's the one that feels the most shoehorned in. But everything else feels quite natural, and it ends up being a lot of fun because of it.
In the mission we ran together, I was stricken by how much it felt like a MMO-lite—and yes that's a good thing. While at first it feels a little slow pulling small groups of monsters and quickly chewing through them, we quickly reached points where we were outnumbered five to one, and the overlapping monster abilities really started to shine. There were snipers that could also cast walls that would stun us, other creatures would be super aggressive and rush us, and others still would sometimes trigger a deadly explosion that we'd have to try and avoid.
It's here that I'm so grateful that MXM opted for a direct control scheme using WASD rather than mouse clicks to move your character. It's basically a twin stick shooter where you can move and aim in separate directions at all times, and it works really well. Every master also has their own dodge ability, which is crucial for getting out of tight spots. One of my personal favorites, Poharan from Blade and Soul, has a cool ability where she flips through the air while shooting everything beneath her, acting as both a forward-moving dodge and an attack.
At the end of the dungeon we squared off against a boss who, just like in a real MMORPG, had a complicated rotation of abilities that we quickly had to adapt to. Only, where a lot of MMOs will simply punish you for not memorizing the rotation, here it felt like the emphasis was on being reactive. As her abilities triggered, we were quickly learning to have to adapt and keep pace, and when we took too much damage, we could quickly swap to our next hero.
Admittedly, the one thing I haven't had a chance to experience is MXM's economy or financial aspects. NCsoft announced as E3 that MXM would indeed be free-to-play, to the surprise of no one, but there's obviously a lot that can either make that a good thing or a bad thing. The only real indication I have one way or the other was the mission I demoed, where at the end I was given a wall of hidden loot that I could randomly select as a kind of lottery (show him what's behind door number 23, Bob!) But it's hard to get a sense for what the progression will be like and how much you'll feel forced to spend. When starting, MXM will give you two free heroes (everyone gets the same ones), a third hero of your choice, and then there's a rotating pool of heroes that are available. Considering that the hero pool isn't huge, that actually means you'll probably get quite a bit of facetime with each one.
In PVP modes, NCsoft has told me that there's no vertical progression to consider, so you won't have to worry about other heroes overpowering you because they've spent more money in the game. However, in PVE, where you're cooperating, there are ways to make your hero more powerful, so that's likely where we'll see the crux of the progression outside of cosmetics or unlocking new heroes.
While others might feel differently, I'm betting that MXM's free-to-playness will be pretty fair. While I'm not always the biggest fan of NCsoft games, few of them have given me cause to be outright mistrustful. I mean, Wildstar is basically the paragon of free-to-play, so my hope is that MXM follows a similar trend. Regardless, there's a closed alpha test starting on the 24th, so if you're interested you can check that out to see the game in action. Otherwise you can join me in eagerly awaiting MXM's full launch later this year.