There are dozens of ‘me too’ free-to-play MOBAs vying for your attention, and Master X Master looks like any other at first. It launched in June as MMO publisher NCSoft’s answer to the genre, and features a standard 5v5 lane-pushing match on a single map called Titan Ruins.
The most interesting feature MXM brings to MOBAs is its dual hero system. In every mode you draft two masters and can switch between them on the fly with a flick of the mouse wheel. There’s a cooldown for ‘tagging out,’ but otherwise you can combo abilities on the offensive, switch out a dying hero while fleeing, or draft two completely different masters for laning and teamfights. Thankfully, this feature is not unique to the MOBA mode, which can't compare to League and Dota.
What makes MXM unusual is the breadth of additional game modes beyond the 25-minute 5v5 matches. Arena battles offer five-minute 3v3 team deathmatches that provide a constant stream of chaotic fights. A slew of goofy competitive minigames are available, most of which would be home in a Mario Party game. And then there's the best part of Master X Master, a surprisingly enjoyable cooperative PvE mode, which elevates an otherwise mediocre lane-pusher into a rewarding, bite-sized action RPG.
PvE consists of five different stages with four levels each, as well as a special rotating level that’s used to unlock masters from various NCSoft games, such as Statesman from City of Heroes. Each level can be run in about five to ten minutes, and ends with a challenging arcade-like boss fight.
Five different difficulty levels are available. Easy mode is designed for solo players and features some forgettable storytelling to frame each level. Harder difficulties are balanced for up to three players, with Extreme and Nightmare requiring an upfront gold cost to even attempt.
Stages play out like a simplified but satisfying action RPG. Your goal is to traverse linear areas filled with traps and spawning enemies. Dodge runaway trains and giant maggot worms in the subway tunnels. Help the native Kariths fight back against an evil tribal leader. Defeat science experiments running amok at an abandoned laboratory. There’s more than enough variety to make replaying levels enjoyable, particularly because each stage grows longer and more complex as you advance in difficulty.
AoE damage and enemy awareness reign supreme, but careful tactics and knowledge are required to survive the uncompromising boss fights in the later difficulties. I was cruising through Brutal earning S-rank in each run, only to stumble into a face full of humble pie when I reached a boss on Extreme.
Thankfully, you can win rewards, earn achievements, and complete quests by running the PvE stages, as well as by taking on daily, weekly, and monthly quests, making MXM the rare lane-pusher that you can play without ever setting foot in the actual 5v5 mode.
Completing a PvE level offers several randomized rewards depending on your final rank, including XP and Nodes (MXM’s equippable items). Other rewards include Sol and X-Coins, which unlock masters, while gold is used to level up master skills and basic attacks. Gold comes quick and often, and it's satisfying to level up a large roster of masters. Grinding certain bosses to get that rare drop for a master’s level three basic attack feels too much like an MMO, however.
The node system also falters. After each mission you'll receive nodes that masters can equip for paltry passive bonuses. What should’ve been fun random loot drops is instantly forgettable.
On a more positive note, there's an interesting Fire Emblem-like rock-paper-scissors system to each mission, with every enemy and master having one of three affinities: kinetic, ardent, or helix. If you draft ardent (red) masters against helix (green) enemies, you’ll deal 15% more damage and receive 15% less, which is absolutely critical in higher difficulties. More importantly, it encourages developing a more varied roster rather than sticking with the same two masters.
This combination of action RPG, multiple characters, and affinities is reminiscent of one of my favorite underdog games from a few years ago, Darkspore.
Darkspore was the unlikely action RPG spin-off of Spore. It used a limited version of the creature creator in an isometric, cooperative sci-fi world. You could switch between three different MOBA-like characters on the fly, and each loot-filled stage ended in a boss fight.
That game is sadly defunct, a victim of always-online multiplayer servers that ran their course. But Master X Master’s PvE mode is the first game I’ve seen in years that effectively uses many of Darkspore's cherished systems, and I love it dearly.
As only one part of a larger game, the MXM's PvE isn’t nearly as deep or compelling as it is in a game like Path of Exile. The node system is needlessly complex for little gain, and NCSoft is particularly brutal when it comes to the cost and grind to unlock new masters.
Yet the ease of match-making, breezy mission lengths, and straightforward controls and abilities keep me coming back to complete my quests and enhance my favorite masters. Even if you justifiably roll your eyes at every new MOBA release in an increasingly crowded market, Master X Master deserves a second look for everything else it offers.