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It does work, but a lot of people have connection issues. It's ping-based too, so if you have a bad connection you're not likely to find many people to play with.
Once you unlock more items it won't feel unbalanced. You can use the same items as the other guy, or pick items that will neutralize or counteract theirs. There's nothing excessively cheap that you can't avoid with skill and practice. Until you can afford more items, though, it will indeed be difficult to match up against higher-level players.
Well, there is no balance. Since all the power-ups don't have both pro and cons. They only improve your gameplay. But, you can still make it a long way with only bare minimum. I'm almost to Earth with only using the Reverse Controls and Proximity Mines. I've also managed to get a Draw game twice with the #2 ranked player on the board.
It's only after you have lost everything that you are free to do anything.