Hi-Rez Studios pulled quite the ace out of its sleeve during Gamescom with its freshly announced new addition to the shooter market, Paladins. The earliest playable build of the game was quite a crowd pleaser and was great frantic fun to both play and watch on the booth’s large screens. I spent some time crushing foes at lightning speed and equally getting splatted against the battlements myself and am happy to give you a full battle report that includes my first impressions. That’s the kind of risk I take for you, fair reader!
Paladins is the latest free-to-play team-based FPS to hit the booming online gaming market. While walking around the many halls of Gamescom, I found that Paladins fit right in with the overwhelming number of similar FPS-with-a-twist titles that were attracting large audiences during the event. If the past few years have been all about the MOBAs, this year it was all stylised competitive team-based shooters, with games such as Overwatch, Gigantic, and Battleborn also adorning the halls. Closed beta registration for Paladins is now open and the first testing phase should be live shortly if the polish of the Gamescom demo was anything to go by.
Paladins will release for both the PC and current generation consoles, and it combines a very beautiful sci-fantasy setting with super-fast team combat and strong strategic elements. The core shooter gameplay has a distinctly Quake 3 Arena feel to it, but it features a strong emphasis on strategic character development as seen in decks of collectible character advancement cards that both amplify and augment a character’s core set of abilities. That blend creates a fun and exceedingly competitive mix of mechanics that definitely lends the game that “just one more match” hook that elevates a solid shooter to an excellent one.
The art is stunning, and I spent part of my time steering myself away from combat just so I could take a look at the wider map… sorry, team! There’s plenty of cover to hide behind and the environment creates some fantastic natural holding or bottlenecking positions that you can drive the enemies to. The character models are nothing short of adorable and were perhaps enough to draw attention in themselves; members of the audience were shouting across to the booth staff and current players to find out the names of the characters each person played while I was there, and this is I’m sure in no small part due to how eyecatching the models are. I didn’t expect anything less after seeing how the studio mastered the aesthetic of SMITE, of course, but I was very impressed with the unique visual characterisation on show with the first six playable characters.
I was given my choice of characters to play, and each station in the booth ran only one of the six characters to guarantee a balance and diverse team for both sides. I decided to go for Ruckus and Bolt, a very cute combination of a mech suit and goblin with plenty of tricks in its arsenal: The pair packs a double-shot punch to the gut of all who are silly enough to get in the way. We sat facing a row of identical machines that the other team used and soon we were facing off in the one map that was made available to us.
The strategic card element to the game was similar to the selection of skill levels in a MOBA, so you can definitely see the influence from Hi-Rez Studio’s experience with SMITE. As a character levels up, players select from several cards that enhance and augment their abilities, with choices largely depending on the strategic benefit required as the game unfolds. I was immediately taken with how well these abilities tie in with the large map we played; nearly every attack was some sort of projectile, which helped me make the most of the vast scale that was offered. Point-capture objectives gave me something to strive for, but I didn’t feel funnelled into tight lanes or railroaded into established pathways.
Each card has five tiers, and the tier offered depends on what level you just hit, which is where the strategic element comes in. I found that some cards were worth hanging onto for later levels when higher tiers would make them more powerful, so selecting was quite a fun balancing act with sacrifices and payoffs. Cards can affect damage dealt or your total health pool, and can most definitely mean the difference between dying or living long enough to make a difference.
The core shooter experience doesn’t really grab me much as a player, and I don’t usually enjoy FPS gameplay. I know I’ve said it many times before, but I throw my hands up right now and say that I could get lost getting out of bed in the morning. I’m terrible at making strategic use of a map, and when I do inevitably die in a shooter, it usually serves to isolate me from my teammates and leave me far too vulnerable while I try to fumble my way back to the pack.
Paladins has a very neat remedy to my map reading woes that I wish many more games would implement, PvP-heavy MMOs included. The pace is super-fast in the game largely because that dying and regrouping time is considerably shortened by the inclusion of mounts that carry you swiftly back into the fray. Add to that some exceptionally well-designed open combat space and it’s hard for even the worst offenders like me to lose their way. Straight from my first match, I found myself able to keep up with Paladins’ lightning-quick pace while still keeping my mind on the battle and not on the map.
My only real complaint with Paladins is that combat feels a little bit too simplistic; the team strived to create a system that wasn’t overly frilly and had a low barrier to entry, and while they’ve achieved that, I feel that there should still be room to create some more challenging mechanics. Considering that I played a pre-alpha build, however, I’m sure this sort of feedback has been seen during Gamescom (I submitted it myself using the after-test feedback form) and there’s plenty of time left to reiterate and enhance the combat. While there was only one map and a limited set of characters and cards in the demo, the core gameplay felt polished and content is typically added over time to these kinds of games throughout their lifetimes anyway.
I can totally see the scope for Paladins to capitalise on its frantic pace and massive maps for some insane e-sports fun. The team at Hi-Rez seems to have boiled down the essence of what makes a great MOBA, and I think we’ll see that know-how apply fantastically to this shooter. Given the range of similar titles coming to market, I won’t be surprised if this MOBA-shooter hybrid type of game is the next big thing in competitive gaming.
If you want to keep up with development until Paladins’ release next year, keep your eye on Brendan Drain’s Not So Massively column in which MOBAs and other online multiplayer games that don’t quite make the MMO descriptor get their fair share of air time. I’ll most definitely be keeping my eye on this one, and I’ve already signed up for the closed beta access.