Like many games that are a part of Steam’s Early Access program, SmashMuck Champions is rough around the edges. It’s incomplete and has a lot of problems to iron out. But unlike many of them, it doesn’t just show promise; SmashMuck Champions fulfills that promise. Mostly.
SmashMuck Champions is entering a steadily filling genre. It is a free-to-play multiplayer online battle arena, going head to head with the likes of League of Legends and Dota 2, the latter of which, if you haven’t been paying attention to the gaming industry, just stuffed 13,000 people into the Staples Center for the League of Legends World Championship. SmashMuck Champions, however, tries to shake things up.
As the fourth release from Kiz Studios, SmashMuck Champions eschews the normative structure of League of Legends and Dota 2, both of which thrive on five players fighting five other players across three lanes. Instead, Kiz mixes things up with a slew of new game types and a simplified hero structure.
It opens with a tutorial, which unfortunately has the problem of requiring platforming. Played with a keyboard and mouse, making jumps across gaps at increments of 45 degrees is fine, but at various points, you have to clear spots of indeterminate angles. Basically, not great. That doesn’t really come into play outside of the tutorial, but there it is.
You play as an ambiguously Russian minotaur named Minos (he probably should be Greek, but like I said: ambiguous) and are forced to escape an inexplicably collapsing cavern. After a short run that teaches you how to move and attack, you end up in a little arena and meet your coach who, after winning the battle, teaches you the rest of the ropes.
There’s some light story surrounding the rest of the tutorial that seems pretty neat involving a ninja and robot minions and a dude who is, for some reason, determined to hurt you. It does a great job of explaining how to work the systems of the game, but it doesn’t do well at explaining why you do any of those things.
It shows you how to buy a gear, but when you open up your hero’s loadout, it shows you more equipment to buy. Even ones, apparently, that you can’t actually buy or use yet. And then you just end up clicking around a lot until you figure out how to compare your stuff.
And then there are workouts, which are counter-intuitive to reality as something you can equip. You choose which regiments to put into your workout and then equip it which does…something. It actually boosts your abilities and attributes, but it’s never explicitly explained. It does, however, make it easy and fun to customize your heroes in a much deeper way than you’re used to.
SmashMuck Champions also changes it up with the idea of you being a coach presiding over heroes instead of actually being the heroes (which goes against the premise of the tutorial, but whatever?). It simplifies the process of tracking and testing the hundreds of heroes stuffing League of Legends and Dota 2 by throwing the leveling and inventory systems under a single umbrella.
As action-oriented as other MOBAs are, SmashMuck Champions feels significantly faster. It has something to do with the variety of game types (including Plunderball, Conquest, Destroyer, Siege, and Gauntlet) which almost all limit themselves to three to five minutes of game time, but it also has to do with the way the characters work.
They have a reduced set of capabilities with three base abilities and generating health and energy, so the learning curve is amazingly minuscule, a fact proven by the 15-minute tutorial. And, based on pure instinct, they seem to die a lot quicker than in other MOBAs, probably due to the fact that you almost always face off with other heroes.
Or it could be that everyone controls much more like an action game. WASD moves your hero around and you click either attack or activate your selected ability. And then everyone starts jumping with the space bar and it feels a lot more frenetic than even when you have dozens of creeps meandering around in Dota 2. It’s a lot more interesting to play this way when the more intricate systems of a traditional MOBA are simplified like this.
You do, however, switch your abilities with the number keys instead of casting with them. It adds the extra step of switching and then clicking instead of just casting and it feels unnecessary and unfortunate. It might have deeper implications than I know, but right now it feels cumbersome.
The game types, though, are mostly all lively and refreshing. Plunderball is basically Capture the Flag and carries with it all the excitement of chasing down your base’s invader while hauling back your pilfered treasure (the 3v3 variant is my favorite of all the game types). Siege and Conquest are the traditional five-on-five defense/assault MOBA setups while Destroyer throws a giant robot into the mix. Gauntlet is kind of like horde mode with a mix of randomized challenge shenanigans.
SmashMuck Champions is, however, free-to-play, which always makes me wary. You can either grind through challenges to craft items or you can just pay real money to get gear, items, and stat boosts. It feels right now that there’s too much grinding to equate the pay-value if you aren’t that hardcore into the game and that could lead to an increased barrier to entry, but it’s obviously too early to call something like that.
In fact, a lot of this is too early to call seeing as how this is an Early Access game. It’s free to get in so I don’t have a problem recommending you at least try it, but there are some very obvious problems that Kiz will have to fix before final release. Some of the UI, namely, is problematic and every once in a while, games will kick out or characters will get stuck in some weird areas, but this actually feels like a much more complete game than you’d suspect.
So feel free to jump in a try SmashMuck Champions. It’s a fun and faster take on the traditional MOBA that is incredibly easy to get into, but it’s also incomplete and rather rough around the edges. I liked my time with it, but just know that you’re getting into a work in progress.