Free-to-play MOBAs are dime-a-dozen, even though they're far from their heyday. In the immediate aftermath of things like the Dota 2 International tournament, for example, every developer with a two nickles to rub together was looking for a piece of the pie. After the book has long-since closed on any free-to-play MOBA not named Dota 2 or League of Legends, NCsoft is looking to write in a new chapter called MXM.
You'll likely know NCsoft as the publishing team behind Guild Wars, but that is about where the connection ends. MXM has dungeon-crawling and battle-royale-like game modes, but it's premier offering is unabashedly a MOBA. Five heroes (actually Masters, if we're being technical), face off against five other he- erm ... Masters trying to push towers, kill enemy Masters and destroy a centrally located building in the opponents' base. As the resident MOBA expert here at GameRevolution, with more than 2000 hours in Dota 2, I can say that MXM is a diamond in the rough of free-to-play MOBAs, flaws and all.
Putting the 'Free' Back in 'Free-to-Play'
I've always said that Dota 2 is the only game to do free-to-play right, and I stand by that still. Not a single item can be purchased with real money to give players any in-game advantage, and the roster of more than 100 heroes is available to everyone from the first moment you install. That being said, I know Valve has a distinct advantage over its competition, in that they have a legion of followers who will purchase cosmetics until the cows come home to support the game financially. New titles from smaller studios don't have that luxury.
So I can understand why a game might have to push the boundaries of Free-to-Play in order to make their game accessible, yet profitable. MXM hits a remarkable balance, expertly toeing a fine line between free-to-play and pay-to-win that many MOBAs trip over with zero grace. MXM is perhaps the least aggressive free-to-play game I've played since Dota 2. It has premium currency, yes, but the only things worth buying with this are new Masters and new skins for those Masters.
In fact, MXM waved goodbye as a few opportunities to further monetize their game passed. Each Master gets to choose two unqiue base abilities out of a possible four, but only two of those are available to start with. You have to unlock access to the other two. But, while I fully expected these to be premium unlocks, or at least have the option for premium unlocks, they are only unlockable with Gold, which is MXM's in-game currency. And, you earn gold from just about everything, and you can unlock both abilities for only 1000 gold, which, believe me, isn't a lot.
You can find at least a half-dozen areas where NCsoft could have slapped a premium price tag on different unlocks but decided not to, and the game is better off because of it. It seems MXM wasn't lying about being "free"-to-play. Besides, you can earn premium currency and unlock Masters with alternative means at a decent enough rate that it shouldn't really be a problem if you're at all dedicated.
The Master of My Fate
If you're a Dota snob like me, you've probably got predicting abilities in crappy MOBAs down to a science. I'll say a generic support hero is going to have a skillshot stun, a gap closer, a lackluster passive ability and an AOE damaging or debuffing ultimate, and 999.999 times out of a million, I would be correct. But In the pages of history, every once in a while, fate reaches out and extends its hand. In this case, that hand is MXM.
I must say I'm pleasantly surprised by the hero variety and imagination that went into MXM. NCsoft wasn't afraid to push the boundaries and break with tradition when it came to designing these Masters. Not every Master uses mana, for example. One uses blades gained from making attacks, another uses anger built up from dealing or taking damage. Heck, one Master uses its own Mass as a means of paying for its skills, building up mass by charging attacks and spending it on skills that use a part of itself. It's this sort of outside-the-box thinking that is often lost on the creators of typical MOBAs, and it's damned refreshing to see.
This is a good thing, too, because you actually use two Masters at a time in MXM. You can "tag in" your other Master with the mouse wheel to use their abilities, and they each have their own Health and MP bars. This has a considerable cooldown, so you won't just be able to spam switch to avoid damage. The tag system opens up a world of possibilities with potential combinations of Masters.
And then the actual lore of each Master shows NCsoft's creativity even more. While not every Master is totally outlandish, some of them rival that of the oddest fighting games. One Master I've taken a liking to attacks by taking pictures with a camera, and her skills all rotate around that aspect (blinding people with the flash, for example). Another hero is a former baseball professional who hits baseballs at his enemies and slides in the dirt yelling "safe," and other like phrases. NCsoft is having a lot of fun with MXM, which allows us to have fun as well.
Not the Prettiest Gem
At this point, MXM is certainly a gem, but few gems are without their flaws. While it's certainly a step above the rest in terms of its creativity and use of the free-to-play model, it's not without the expected shortcomings of a newly released MOBA. On the more petty side, I found the mini-map to be difficult to read, and the screen locking on your Master is a real headache for me, who learned MOBAs with a free camera. You can select an option to make your camera move slightly when you move your cursor to the edge of the screen, but it will still mostly focus on your Master, which makes it difficult to set up for those surprise engagements.
For something more substantial, it's a bit of a bummer that there isn't much depth during PvP matches. You level up your individual skills as the match goes on, but that's about it. There aren't any items you can purchase or unlock to change up your game plan at all, you just get better at doing what you've been doing. This is strange, too, because MXM seems to have the infrastructure to make this happen: players can purchase "nodes" outside PvP matches than can help them while they're in PvP matches. Why not make these in-match items to unlock as the game goes on?
At the same time, this may not be entirely necessary, as each PvP match has a 25-minute time limit, so games don't really go on long enough to get boring. Still, though, in-match progression could go a long way to making it even more exciting.
Let this not deter you, though. If you're looking for an accessible, free-to-play MOBA that isn't trying to nickel-and-dime you at every turn, then MXM is the game for you. A few small flaws aside, MXM is a treat among free-to-play MOBAs that shows imagination and restraint not often shared among its peers.
As is customary with reviews, I have to give a star-rating, and I will (in fact, you probably already scrolled down past this to see it), but I think stars by themselves for this particular title are irrelevant. Given my background and the reputation those with my gaming background have, I think it's more apt to give MXM the "Dota-Snob Stamp of Approval."
James Kozanitis is the Features Editor of GameRevolution. You can follow him on Twitter @JamKozy.
MXM is a free-to-play product exclusive to PC.