I'm in the heat of battle, slamming down minions left and right. An enemy approaches me but they're not ready. I key off one attack, stomping the ground and knocking them back in a wave of power. I follow up with my flying haymaker and a flurry of punches. There's no defense. I'm a Juggernaut. I'm City of Heroes' Statesman.
I'm overconfident though. I pushed too far and now I'm alone. It's 2v1 and I'm down on health. Time for change. I spin my mouse wheel and now I'm Sizuka, the assassin. I had an ultimate ready and I activate it, slashing everyone in the vicinity and stunning them. That gives me some space. I quick dash away from the fight and drop caltrops behind me to slow my foes. In a while, I'm back in areas my team controls and it's time for Statesman again.
This switching mechanic is the core of Master x Master, NCSoft's shot at the MOBA genre. It's launching in a crowded space that's chewed up lesser titles. Riot Games can rely on the community they're cultivated from the beginning with League of Legends. Valve leans on familiar trappings like the Dota name and the fact that Steam is such a major platform. Blizzard counts on its strong catalog of recognizable games to provide their game with heroes, while their strong polish finds the fun within a hardcore genre.
Master x Master is new to fray. Sure, the game pulls its playable characters, called Masters, from titles like Guild Wars 2, Aion, Blade & Soul, Lineage, and City of Heroes, but it's not a stretch to say that might not help the game here as much as Blizzard's slate or the classic MOBA archetypes found in Dota 2. So character switching, which is available in nearly every mode in the game, is one hook.
Another is the unique control for the MOBA genre. Instead of the mouse-based click movement found in everything else, Master x Master uses WASD on your keyboard (or the directional pad on a controller). The mouse (or your other analog stick) handles the direction and distance of your aiming. This is actually preferable in my mind, as it makes movement in the game far more precise than I'm used to in other MOBAs. I like having direct control of my character, instead of that strategy game movement style.
Both hooks are meant to draw you into a game that tries to stand out by doing a bit of everything. I say that because it's hard to say what the "core" gameplay of Master x Master is.
There's player-vs-player combat, which is split into 5v5 or 3v3 modes. The 5v5 Titan Ruins mode is the closest to a classic MOBA within Master x Master. Lanes, towers, minions, it's all here. Like everything else, NCSoft tweaks the formula a bit though. By collecting Titan Points, you can eventually summon a Titan to fight on your side and wreck any barriers in your way. Finish off an enemy Titan and you'll gain a Titan Shard. Collecting a number of shards at your base will allow you to become a Titan yourself. Titan Ruins also respects your time a bit more than other MOBAs: there's a hard lock of 25 minutes, 1,000 points, or finishing off the enemy's core, meaning there's no hour-long matches where you still lose.
On the 3v3 side, there's the Combat Arena, which is exactly what the name says. Two teams of three players fight in quick 5-minute deathmatches, competing to get the most kills over all. While Titan Ruins has only one map to work with, Combat Arena has three, each with different obstacles and morphing layouts. Combat Arena is more about footsie and twitch play than the other modes.
There's player-vs-environment (PVE) play, too. This is Diablo-style dungeon diving across multiple themed stages. PVE stages have enemies mid-bosses and full bosses, with completion rewarding experience, gold, and other items. These PVE stages can be tackled solo or with a team, or at higher difficulties for better loot.
Master x Master also features a host of mini-games to tempt players to waste time in-between PVP and PVE play. There's Sprint race courses, Bullet Hell dodging arenas, and other obstacle courses. Master x Master is just full of things to do.
Outside of the mini-games, none of the modes really steal the show. Players actually have to jump between them to really progress through the game, for good or for ill. If you like the single-player action, you'll need to dip into multiplayer. If you're big on the Titan Ruins PVP mode, you'll still have to dive into the stages occasionally in order to really move forward.
I admit, the progression systems in Master x Master feel a bit unwieldy at times. You need XP to get stronger. You need SOL, gained from leveling and daily activities to unlock more Masters. Nodes are required to improve your offensive and defensive abilities, but they also have various levels of rarity and compatibility with each Master. You can buy multiple Node pages as loadouts. You can unlock new skills, and upgrade those. There are weapon augments to also unlock, upgrade, and slot in.
I assume all these methods are here because NCSoft wants you to have reasons to pick up X-Coin, one of the in-game currencies. Yes, the game is free-to-play. It's not pay-to-win by any means, but you can tell the developer wants you to lean towards picking up a bundle every now and then. The base currency, Gold, can be earned simply by playing the game, from daily, weekly, or monthly missions, but you can also also buy bundles of X-Coin as a shortcut. X-Coin feeds into everything: unlocking Master, buying new skins, picking up Nodes, and more.
I honestly found myself a bit lost at figuring out which currencies and items go where. I'm sure that's something that will become easier with time, but the learning curve isn't easy and that'll probably turn away some folks. There's a lengthy tutorial to help, but there's still a lot to take in.
Despite that, everything that Master x Master tries to do, it does well. Dungeon diving in PVE is fum, it's a good MOBA, and arena combat is enjoyable. The characters, even if they're not as immediately well-known as Blizzard's fodder, have their own distinct looks. If you're a fan of Japanese anime and manga, these Korean character designs are close enough to home that you'll likely find a favorite.
Master x Master is a damned good time. It's not the best at any one thing, but it offers such a variety that you can't help but find something to enjoy. It's free-to-play, but leans more on the free side of things. It's easy to get into, even if the progression system is a bit too complex for my liking. I'd actually like a bit more PVE content in the future, but we'll see where that all shakes out. At the very least, Master x Master is worth checking out if you're a fan of dungeon crawlers, MOBAs, or hot anime-style folks fighting it out.
Menus upon menus greet you if you're trying to upgrade and equip your character. It can be overwhelming.
There's always something to do in Master x Master, as long as you're opening to the various gameplay modes.
Master x Master isn't the best looking game on the block, but that's because NCSoft seems to have prized performance over visual prowess.
Master x Master is not the best at any one thing, but it offers such a variety that you can't help but find something to enjoy. Combined with a free-to-play model isn't too harsh and you have a damned good time. The progression system could use a bit of slimming as it's rather complex, but that shouldn't turn players off completely. Master x Master is definitely worth a shot.