Super Monday Night Combat exists in a dystopia in which spectacle, corporate greed and marketing are the fundamental pillars that hold society together. The premise is this: there's a deadly organised sport — that'd be Monday Night Combat — where two opposing teams of corporate-sponsored clones duke it out for money and prizes by shooting each other in the face. Or, well, they shoot each other in the face while escorting robots to the enemy ‘Moneyball' in an attempt to destroy it. First team to destroy the Moneyball wins.
The thing about Super Monday Night Combat is that it's charming and personable, all while maintaining a playful tone. At first, there might not seem to be much to the class-based third person shooter beyond the mechanics — the way that Uber Entertainment develops the world is subtle. I like that about the game, too. It means that when Super Monday Night Combat delivers commentary that parodies serious subjects from real life, like politics or advertising, those who don't care aren't bashed over the head with messages or ideas they're indifferent to. For the rest of us, the MOBA shooter offers an absurd but smart and self-aware world to dig into. Sometimes, it'll make you chuckle, too.
This all happens under the watchful eye of a camera and announcers, of course: murder and mayhem needs a cheering crowd, TV ratings and play-by-play commentary.
With the type of circus the American media is famous for, it shouldn't be surprising that the characters in Super Monday Night Combat feel like the cast of a futuristic reality TV show. Y'know, if we had cloning and genetic engineering and if our animals had human-like sentience.
What kind of a society would create a sport like Monday Night Combat? Ours, probably! That's what makes Super Monday Night Combat's world so provocative. What it presents the player isn't particularly far-fetched, in some ways the world of SMNC is one that we already inhabit.
We come to learn of SMNC's world primarily through its announcers, who occasionally make quips about the insane conditions beyond the stadium stands. Not that the ‘real world' will get in the way of the blood sport, mind... just like, say, any of the wars we're engaged in real life won't interrupt the next American Idol broadcast. The first Monday Night Combat was slightly better for this: Mickey Cantor, the announcer, had endless lines musing over the societal climate and the police state that created it. Some of my favourite lines from the first game:
"Hi, everybody. This is Mickey Cantor reminding all the fans in the upper deck to check their ticket stub against the results of our population control lottery after the game tonight. Hey, good luck, everybody. We hope we see you tomorrow."
"To the lucky fan seated in Section 313, Row 7, Seat 8...CON-GA-RATS! You've been chosen to donate a kidney to the member of the elite overclass. Please stop by the press box to make your donation, pick up your voucher for a free stick of butter and some pre-war tomato seeds.
"Hehe. Hey everybody, it's Monday Night Combat's loveable mascot, Bullseye! Kill him. Kill him NOW!"
"Achilles! If the mind is your enemy's greatest weapon, that's all the more reason to shoot them in the head."
Super Monday Night Combat continues to build on this war-state where food, population and food scarcity are a problem. Despite the dire war situation, this is a society that loves violence so much, they're encouraged to bring personal snipers to shoot the mascot during gametime. Presidents are dictators-for-life. Violating copyright law results in entire generations of your family killed. It's all ridiculous and I adore that. The new announcers — Mickey Cantor is replaced in SMNC — similarly chat about their crazy world, though to a lesser extent, as the developers have prioritised banter that guides players toward game objectives.
Still, it's not just disembodied voices occasionally telling the player about SMNC's society. The world-building and commentary happen through the mechanics of the game, as well. Players take the role of specialised clones that have been manufactured to be athletes. Beyond being food for thought when it comes to the future of genetic engineering and sports, it also sets up player's ability to equip "endorsements" in the game. Endorsements are attribute-influencing ‘items' that double as advertisements. "The eye. The hunger. The attraction. The shot placement. Iturba by Martell Pierre" is a personal favourite, an endorsement that's meant to advertise a ‘classier' item to the player. There are also ‘products,' which function similarly to endorsements, but without any side-effects. Both of these can alter things like player accuracy, to bestowing the ability to drop bombs once dead.
SMNCembraces the possibilities of a future that's ludicrously overrun by advertisements. The announcers like to act as shills who will try to ‘sell' players on various products. Their ‘priming' works — if only because most of the products they talk about are kind of required purchases if a player wants to remain competitive in the battlefield. There's also special attacks, like "product grenades," that obscure the enemy's vision by overloading their screen with advertisements. These grenades are effective against bots, too.
When you take a look at any sport's playing field — or even the attire worn by players — this isn't really that crazy, is it? I mean, consider that the average person sees around 5000 advertisements every day. All done to cover every possible base, as a company can't know where a possible consumer will be at any given time, so why not make sure there's no way one can avoid the advertisements?
There's subtle commentary in-game, too. All players start out on an equal playing field, and the only way to gain an advantage is to farm bots for money to purchase skill-upgrades. A player will live and die by the money available in her pocket. Without enough upgrades, the enemy team may become almost unkillable. Obviously, that's no good.
There's something poignant about having two teammates race each other for a small trove of gyrating coins left behind by enemy bots. Someone will bitch someone else out for hogging all the coins, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. The coins will be mine by any means necessary — even if it means walking in the middle of an active turret that may tear me up. I can't tell you how many times I've died because I felt I really needed that single spare coin, regardless of how dangerous the situation is. I never really need the dang coins. Compulsion gets the better of all of us, though.
SMNC knows how significant that coin is. The marketing copy for the game reads "Why fight for 'honor' or 'duty' when you can fight for the real American dream: cash, fame and endorsements?" It's not just just that you need in-game money to upgrade and win matches. Money is important, period. Games reflect this. There's a reason coins are so ubiquitous in games. Players aren't the only ones who live and die by what can be found in their pockets. This reality is what makes the idea of playing a possibly lethal game just for a shot at some cash so incisive and thought-provoking. And it's the American dream to boot!
If there's one thing I bemoan in Super Monday Night Combat that doesn't work as well with the type world that the first game created, it's the loss of the twitch-based gameplay. There's something about the quick speed at which the first game operated that lends itself better to the idea of a society that functions too fast, and too indulgently for its own good.
Super Monday Night Combat is a world that feels like it takes place a mere 10 minutes from now. That's scary, but it makes the game evocative, too.