At a preview event in downtown San Francisco, Bandai Namco Games and Hungarian developer Primal Game Studio revealed their current collaboration—a sci-fi MOBA called Supernova. The game, currently in its alpha stage, contains some predictably rough edges, but from what I saw at the event, it looks to be a more strategic kind of MOBA.
You don't immediately think of Budapest, Hungary as a hotbed for game development, but the Central European city boasts a small but committed group of development firms and a good-sized population of competitive gamers. The team at Primal are both. As long-time fans of the RTS genre, their original intent was to create a compelling multiplayer strategy game—they didn't set out to make a MOBA.
Studio Director Zoltan Zsuffa, explained:
“Our original idea was to create a real-time strategy game—that's what we started three years ago—that may have some MOBA elements. When we had our first prototype, we quickly realized that unit management like in Starcraft combined with MOBA elements was already too complex for the majority of players today. We ended up simplifying things here and there, and we eventually had not an RTS game with MOBA elements, but a MOBA game with RTS elements. We think we're lucky that we never set out to try and make a different MOBA game; through evolution we eventually had something every MOBA player will find familiar but that is quite different in the overall gameplay experience.”
At the event, members of the press were given access to the new hybrid and spent two hours alternating between trash talk and intense competition. My first 5v5 match started quickly, leaving me no time at all to check out the differences between the two playable factions—Human and Cyborg—so clicking quickly through the hero portraits, (in Supernova they're called “Commanders”) I chose a Cyborg called “Bloat”--an obese zombie wrestler looking guy with spider-like metal legs. I slapped his alternate “M.D.” skin on him (a fetching little number that gave him a stethoscope and white doctor's coat) and hit Play.
Having chosen my abilities as quickly as I had my Commander, I ended up with abilities called Death Blight, Entrapolizer and Glide. These turned out to be pretty interesting since the first one allowed me to blast enemies with an energy ball, the second let me pull them to me doing damage all the while, and the third provided a kind of damage absorb shield. The desert map we played was very straightforward: hexagonal with two large jungle areas surrounded and bisected by three more or less straight lanes.
Now for a new player, MOBAs in general can be overwhelming, what with all the skill upgrades, item buying and ability cooldowns, but Supernova expects you to absorb even more than that. Its RTS roots come across clearly in its Army system, a system that not only allows you to level up your minions, but to choose precisely which of them to use. Starting with simple ground units, you can research and upgrade your minions, turning starter minions into much more effective robots, flying machines and tanks. A special Army Overview window lets you assess just how well your units are faring against the enemy's units so you can add or subtract units accordingly. To that end, Supernova also has a buy/sell mechanic (pertaining to units) that you can use at any time during the game.
Since this was a little much to get ahold of in a mere few minutes, I was grateful for the Auto Army toggle (on by default) that made my unit choices for me. Ditto the Auto Upgrade toggle for Commander upgrades. In addition to upping your skills, special powers and army units, Supernova lets you assign a Mastery to your Commander and upgrade your Commander's stats (things like armor, power and cooldown reduction.) With the heat of battle preventing me from getting a real grasp of Bloat's abilities, I was more than happy to let the game take the wheel. Despite these built-in training wheels, the first match didn't go so well, but I was able to try another Commander in a subsequent match.
As mentioned before, Supernova at present has two playable races, Human and Cyborg, (more races are forthcoming, but Primal wasn't ready to reveal them) which I found to be somewhat indistinguishable. Though some of them appeared reptilian, all were mechanical to some degree, which lent a feeling of sameness to the designs. I mentioned this to Zsuffa, and he said:
“The first version of Supernova we had a more cartoony ratio of characters in the game and everything was less realistic in terms of the scale of the Commanders and army units. We changed to a more realistic way like you can see your mercenary units at the start of the game are these tiny little non-armored units just running around. We wanted the Commanders to be big...and with that came the necessity of making sure the Commanders aren't going to fall out visually from the overall logic of scale. That's why humans have more mech-like character. We are going to [differentiate factions more] by having more pieces of splash art and more of the lore behind the game.”
Though I get what Zsuffa was saying, I wonder whether those measures will be enough? Don't get me wrong; the character graphics are extremely well done. It's just that for me, many of the Commanders seemed to lack visual distinction.
Anyway, for the second match I went for a Human Commander called Bones Jones. He looked like a cigar-chomping Marine with a mech suit and a bigass hammer, so I expected to see a lot of “Jones Smash!” He came through for me by crashing down on groups of enemies, hammering them in a line, and dropping big, fat nuclear bombs on them.
After two matches, the play session was done, but it left me with the impression that Supernova has a lot to offer both MOBA and RTS fans. The game looks to be tailor-made for competitive tournaments, and I think the army customization will go down like gangbusters with experienced RTS-ers. Better yet, MOBA strategists will no doubt love figuring out the perfect balance of Commander, skills, attributes, Masteries and Army units.
From my perspective, Supernova appears to contain all the familiar aspects of a MOBA, but pluses those things with a higher level of complexity. Though it's early days yet and many things could change, what's there is slick and dynamic, and offers the promise of a new kind of competitive arena play. How long we'll have to wait for that promise to be fulfilled though, remains a mystery. Primal is committed to making the best game possible and said the game will be in alpha for the foreseeable future. Ah well, the longer they take, the more time MOBA players have to polish their RTS skills.