It's one of the fastest growing genres in video games, but there's a fair chance you haven't heard of it.
Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games - or MOBA, for short - have taken the PC by storm, and are starting to take their first tentative steps on to Xbox 360. A team-based RPG spinoff of a fan mod for PC, they offer a unique tactical challenge that can be one of the most engrossing experiences in gaming. Assuming you can understand what's going on, of course.
The basics, at least, are simple: two identically-equipped teams each have a base on either side of a map, connected by two or three 'lanes' containing defences. Each player has a character, or 'hero', and each team has a steady flow of AI-controlled footsoldiers - the 'creeps' - which automatically attack the enemy defences. The trick, and it can be a very complex and extraordinarily compulsive one, is to work with your team and your creeps to destroy enemy defences - while preventing them from destroying yours.
The interface can vary dramatically: the next MOBA to hit Xbox 360, Lord of the Rings: Guardians of Middle-Earth, uses a top-down real-time strategy view - very similar to the first MOBA, a mod for PC RTS Warcraft 3, called Defence of the Ancients (DoTA). Recent MOBA release and OXM favourite Awesomenauts uses a 2D side-scrolling view, and the slightly older Monday Night Combat is a third-person action spin.
Regardless of the flavour, some fundamentals remain the same: each game lasts about half an hour, but begins with a strange period of seeming-boredom in which not a lot seems to happen. In fact, this is where you lay the groundwork for (hopefully) an exhilarating late-stage smackdown. The ultimate goal is destroying the enemy base, but you need to level up your character first. The most efficient way to do that is by killing the enemy creeps for XP, and the best way to start the game is to roam around the map doing that while making sure your tower defences aren't taken down.
This calls for extreme cunning, team chat and, most importantly, your continued survival. Dying isn't disastrous, but if an enemy kills you they get a huge XP boost while yours gets knocked back. Because this is proper RPG levelling, this means that a few deaths leaves you facing the grand finale with the equivalent of an entry-level character - while elevating your enemy to be a blinged-out superhero who can pound your defences into dust.
Because there's more than one lane to cover, you'll find yourself dashing around the map to provide assistance where it's most needed. In the early stages of the game your team needs to split up - defending each lane and sharing XP fairly - while trying to gain a decent advantage over the other team. Once you're all strong enough, it's time to join together, stomping around as an awesome super-squad.
When you're on the winning team this moment feels absolutely glorious, but getting there requires you to pay close attention to the details. It's all about perfecting the early stages of the game, which means playing the role you've chosen properly, and taking advantage of the other team's mistakes. This, ultimately, is the most compulsive element: games are won and lost by individual craftiness or stupidity, like a collective game of poker.
It's at its most satisfying when you can combine the individual skills of each character with a perfect reading of what the enemy is going to do. A simple example is pretending to lose: lanes are separated by 'jungle' which team members can hide in, and if some chums are lurking nearby you can start 'losing' a battle with an enemy hero - when they chase you down for the kill, your friends can use the element of surprise to pop out and reverse the situation. While cackling maniacally.