Reviewing…Paladins (beta)

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This week I felt like jumping into something new. So I signed up for, and was entered into, the partially-available beta for Paladins, upcoming game from Hi-Rez Studios.

Right out of the gate, it’s easy to see what Paladins is about. It works as a kind of cross-breed between shooters and MOBAs. Two teams, playing five a side, controlling a range of different characters, who each have their own skills and range of playstyles. So far, so…not that new. After all, Hi-Rez Studios are also the company responsible for Smite, an over-the-shoulder MOBA game which blends elements of action and shooter with the more tactically distant DOTAs of the world.

Where Paladins pulls away from this is with it’s pace and simplicity. It continues a current trend to try and pull away from the MOBA black hole in which games can last over an hour and have a learning-floor of around forty hours before you can play ‘properly’. So currently matches last between ten and twenty minutes, with ten minutes being much more likely. It’s nice! Each match has it’s own curve as your own power increases, and as the maps push forward. Currently, the objective is always pretty damn simple; either stand on the points, blow open the vault, or stand on the points until you blow open the vault. The simplicity and focus of these objectives mean that the match is constantly turning certain parts of the map into a hotzone. If you’re competing to control a point, then you want to be on it, and the enemy want to kill you to get you off it. If you’re escorting a cannon – a heavy hitting damage soak that you need to batter down the enemies defences – then you can be sure the enemy want to kill your cannon. It’s enjoyable to always have such a direct aim: stand in a place and/or kill anyone you see.

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That’s quite a busy screen you got there son.

Currently, there’s no real reason to go off the beaten track, as even if you want to go player-hunting, you’ll do it more effectively if you’re with the group. This limits player choice somewhat, so a little more nuance would be nice for longevity. Of course, it’s a beta, so things are still in the works and may well be added to change this up.

Much like the MOBA-brawler Heroes Of The Storm, it’s impossible for any game to go on too long. Cannons are difficult to kill and pack a huge punch to structures, which means they will always do at least some damage to a team’s base, and that damage never repairs. Equally, in capture the point mode, it’s first to five – and the constant deathmatches breaking out means that each point can never be in stalemate for more than a couple of minutes.

Again, much like Heroes Of The Storm, things like gold-collection and items are gone, shearing away a whole complex part of the game in favour of a more direct experience. You don’t spend much time cogitating in Paladins, because those seconds could much better be spent filling something with bullets.

And really, that’s it: Shoot the enemy, and possibly their cannon. So where’s the nuance, the strategy, the flexibility? These things come from other half of the game; the range of characters you can play as, the skills the have, and the cards you upgrade them with.

Currently there are nine characters available to choose from, with the roster aiming to expand to around fifteen for release, and more being released at intervals afterwards. These characters are defined by three main things; their main weapon, their skills, and their cards. I quickly found that the main weapon – your default attack – was one of the most deciding factors in a character. They can range from a minigun which pips out very rapid, low damage bullets over a long range, to a short-range constant flamethrower, to an ultra-long range slow firing staff. It’s really quite enjoyable how these basic attacks alter the essential feel of the character. As of the moment, everyone has only guns – no melee weapons in sight. Backing up your basic attack are your three skills. These are unique to each character, and are all available straight away. With no mana-system in sight your skills all have a long cooldown, leading to timing being the key. Not only do you have to work out when is the best time to use something, but then bear in mind that you’re locking that option out for the next ten to thirty seconds. As anyone who’s played a MOBA-like before will know, these skills are a big chunk of making your character fill a certain roll. So Skye, for instance, has two damaging skills, and one that allows her to stealth. She’s much more likely to play well as an assassin type character. Someone like Fernando on the other hand, with skills to summon a moving shield, shoot a fireball, and the ability to bull-rush forward, he’s much more likely to be a front-lining meat-shield. Those basic-attacks inform this too – with Fernando wielding his short range flamethrower, he needs to be at the front. I’ll come back to the visual design of these characters more later on, but mechanically, they fill out a range of different playstyle niches.

My name is Buck, and I came to...
My name is Buck, and I came to…

Every game needs at least one unique hook however, and in Paladins it’s those cards I mentioned earlier. Now as with all other points in this game, things can potentially change as the development continues – and it seems like it might be particularly true of these little cards. Currently, these cards work like a collectible deck. Each character has around thirty to forty unique cards they can collect. When you level up – which can happen up to five times in a match – you’re offered one of three cards to choose from. Each one of those cards offers a boost, giving a permanent buff to your damage and health, while also having a unique power, buffing a particular skill or situation. Perhaps it boosts your evade skill, while also lowering it’s cooldown. Or do you buff up your main damage skill in some way instead? There’s potential for real depth here as with each card you choose, you’re affecting several things about your character that game, all of which will stack or combo with your other cards. It’s a neat system, giving your leveling experience a level of flexibility and tactical nuance.

One thing that adds to this is that when you’re knocked out (the game’s friendlier term for being killed) all your cards go on cooldown, denying you the unique benefits of that card, while still keeping the passive damage and health boosts. It gives a nice swing to the game – as when you respawn, you’ll be weaker than any of the opposing players for up to a minute, but you’re more likely to run in with full health, while they might’ve been constantly in a firefight until you get back.

These cards then seem like a cool idea; simultaneously feeding into several areas of your game. But, unfortunately, they have some failings too. First up, some of the card artwork is odd. I don’t mind the placeholder art – it’s a beta afterall – but a lot of the non-placeholder art appears to have nothing to do with the character it’s on, which is peculiar, since every card is character-specific. It’s not a major gripe, but it’s also not as minor as you might think.

An element of the cards I’m really not so certain about are the card rarities. You gain new cards through chests, which are given as rewards for mastering a character (e.g. playing as that character enough), or for completing daily objectives. This is where also where Paladins’ monetisation model might start to show as well, allowing you to spend real-life currency to buy more chests. All fine and dandy – I don’t have a problem with games making money. It’s mechanically that it starts to lose me a little. I understand the appeal of the random-unlock, I do – I played Magic: The Gathering for over a decade. But, well, we’ve come a long way since then. Random-unlocks can be thrilling, sure. Until you realise that the only reason for them is to keep you chasing that dragon; a dragon locked behind a door marked “pay me more money”. The alternative to paying money in Paladins is, of course, grind. And this is where the problem really kicks in.

When you open a chest – which might be a normal one card chest or a fancy five card chest – you’ll get a smattering of these cards to feed your collection. Now bear with me here, because there are several layers of system at work. Firstly, that rarity; there are certain cards for every character that you’re just less likely to get. You have no control over this. The only way to get it is grind. But layered on top of this is the fact that the cards you get are not character-specific drops. Which is to say that while each card can only be used by certain characters, you never know which character your card will be bound to. So if you have a particular character that you like, there’s no guarantee when or if you’ll get cards for that character. And it’s a sure bet that you will have characters that you prefer – either for their visual design, or their playstyle, or whatever.

The final thing that really lays on the confusion with this rarity issue is that in Paladins, ‘rarity’ doesn’t mean the same thing it does in many other game ecosystems. Rare cards are harder to get, sure. And they’re more powerful too. But the final area is missing; in most games built around rarity, when you get a rare card it will often replace a less rare card you had in your deck before. You want those rare cards not only because they fill out your collection and make you feel like a boss, but also to make your deck better. Which makes sense. This doesn’t currently happen in Paladins, because of how deck building works. When you deck build in Paladins, you can choose up to three cards from each tier of rarity – three commons, three rares, and so on – but each tier corresponds directly to your in-game levelling. When you get to level 1, you’ll get to pick from one of your common cards – one of those three cards you decked a moment ago. When you get to level 2, from one of your pre-chosen rares. Do you see the problem here? These cards don’t have a rarity in matches, only in the card-collecting part of the game. Having more legendaries doesn’t mean your deck is any more powerful, it just means you technically options in how you potentially build that character. And again, that would be fine, grinding for more options is fine! But why arbitrarily gate those higher level cards, since every player will get to those levels in pretty much every game? All that means is that everyone’s account is going to be drowning in commons, and will have to laboriously recycle hundreds and hundreds of cards, just to get that one legendary card for that character they like…and then that legendary isn’t even, well, legendary. It’s both super-rare, and yet still common. It’s an ecosystem that doesn’t quite translate.

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Less like deckbuilding, more like choosing perks.

All of this is a shame for me, because I really like the principle idea at work here; that customising your character is not a matter of buying certain items any more, but something you gain partial control over even before the game starts; your Evie might be growing into a totally different Evie to mine even before the game starts, because your Evie deck has totally different cards. It gives your characters a great feeling of agency, a hugely satisfying feeling that anyone who has ever played a game with custom decks will know well.

Thus far, I’ve been talking about the mechanics and gamefeel. There’s a fairly large thing that I’ve been avoiding up until now. One of aesthetics, and originality. In terms of how it looks, it’s a handful of Wildstar and a big slice of World Of Warcraft, all spun in the tumbler of Overwatch. What it isn’t, to a noticeable degree, is even a little bit original. I’m talking specifically aesthetics and character design here – though it does counts for the rest of the game too. But, here, see if any of this sounds a familiar: A gruff bearded dwarf who plants barriers and turrets. A svelt female elf assassin, in purple. A tiny chaotic goblin controlling big robotic suit, and the suit is voiced like a long-suffering English butler. The single most original character – by a very long way – is Pip, a kind of fox-person who throws exploding vials in the manner of a cocky alchemist. It’s halfway interesting! But even then, not actually giving us anything new, or even coming close to it.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m being unkind to this game, because frankly I still had fun. But, let’s be honest here, a lot of this game feels like it’s been created by taking the nearest fantasy tropes and mix-and-matching them together – or quite often, by just directly stealing from the nearest existing IP.

This isn’t a little thing, it’s really not. I mean lets have another look at those characters. As the game stands, there are nine characters available. Six of them are male, covering a range of types from big white man to small white dwarf, to fox-person, to goblin, to orc. So there’s at least a bit of a range, even though that range is made of easy grab game-tropes. And then there are three female characters. A slim sexy redhead with prominent boobs in tight clothing, a slim sexy witch with prominent boobs and tight clothing, and a slim sexy elf with, yes, prominent boobs and tight clothing. Oh, and they’re all white, natch. I mean come on. I know some people (usually young white males) object to this kind criticism, but if this is you then I suggest you give yourself a slap and realize that you’re almost certainly being a twerp. This kind of sexualised-character has a place in games of course, as does everything else, but it is actually possible for female characters to exist and not just be fantasy pinups. It really starts to grate in Paladins just how lazy the visual aesthetics are when it comes to the characters. I’m not saying that every character in every game has to break totally new ground, but that’s not even close to what’s happening here. Paladins’ character design is the bargain bin of male-centric fantasy tropes.

Uh...huh.
Uh…huh.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed Paladins, I had fun with what I’ve played. But I really can’t shake the feeling that the reason for that is because Paladins is simply skitching along behind the bigger kids of gaming, and even the things I like – the short sharp matches, the blend of tactical thinking and twitchy shooting – don’t really belong to Paladins, it’s just what the game has hoovered up from other, more daring, games.

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