Review: MountainStruggle

MountainStruggle (NEHZ, 2004?) is one of those old maps where relatively simple scripting plus creative thinking produced some interesting results. The game is 5v5, and is themed around two opposing nations which are separated by a giant mountain. The lanes defy usual conventions by weaving their way over and under the mountain’s ridge, resulting in a rather unique layout.


O’er the mountain we struggle

Lanes:

These deserve individual discussion:

  • Mountain Lanes (Yellow and Pink): The outermost lanes follow a narrow path up the mountain, and intersect along the ridge separating the two teams. At the centre of the ridge, there is a weak Watch Tower which exchanges control whenever it is killed. It is more useful for its persistent vision than as a defensive instalment.
  • Ground Lanes: (Teal): These lanes follow the shores of each lake, leading to the entrance of a cave. This entrance is a teleporter which leads to a small underground chamber, which contains teleporters to exit on either side of the mountain. Units travel through the cave, and continue towards the enemy base on the other side. Inside the cave is a Fire Tower which exchanges control when killed. Instead of attacking, it casts a negative-armour debuff on enemy units.


    The isolated cavern, with its Fire Tower at the top.

  • Water Lane: (Orange): This lane is the most direct, and also the shortest. Inside each lake is a teleporter which leads directly to the opposing lake. The lakes are surrounded by towers from the ground lanes, and as there’s no ‘space’ in the middle of the lane due to teleporters, units are almost always under fire from one team’s towers. The water units are able to hit the ground lane’s towers though, as they’re close to the shore. The water lane isn’t accessible to units or heroes who can’t swim or fly.

All three lanes are short, narrow, and can easily get cramped with units. There is very little space to manoeuvre, but as there aren’t really any side-objectives, the lack of alternative places to be keeps players focused on the action at hand.

Each troop wave on the land-based lanes has a commander unit, which is equipped with a different aura depending on which of the four lanes it spawned at. This isn’t terribly important as there’s a lot of overlap, but because the troop spawns are staggered (every 12 seconds, a different barracks will send its wave), a successfully pushing wave can sometimes enjoy the benefit of two auras.

The commander troops also drop a random item when they die. These items include consumables like healing potions, permanent items which improve stats, powerup runes which provide instant healing or other beneficial effects.


Sadly, these formerly pristine nature trails have been subject to littering.

Soulstones:

Commander troops also drop one other type of item, called Soulstones, which are comfortably the most valuable drop available. They are used to supplement each team’s troop production.

There are four primary colours of Soulstone: Melee, Ranged, Caster, and Water/Air. They all start at level 1 by default, but can be merged to produce higher-level stones. Soulstones don’t do anything when held by heroes, but they can be placed inside a barracks to add new units to that barracks’ creep wave, with the unit spawned depending on the stone. The level 1 stones add a Militia, Wurm, Sheep, or Mur’gul Slave to the wave. Up to six stones may be placed in each barracks, and they cannot be removed.

Soulstones may be merged at the forge in each team’s base. The forge takes two stones, and merges them into a new one. The resulting stone will have level equal to the sum of the component stones. Examples:

  • Level 1 Melee + Level 1 Melee = Level 2 Melee (Footman)
  • Level 1 Melee + Level 2 Melee = Level 3 Melee (Grunt)
  • Level 2 Caster + Level 2 Caster = Level 4 Caster (Renegade Wizard)

The highest level of stone is 4. It is also possible to combine stones of different colour together to produce a unique result, but the new ‘mixed’ stone cannot be used in any further merges.

  • Level 2 Ranged + Level 2 Water/Air = Level 4 (Dragon Turtle), a ranged siege unit which can swim.

In total, there are 52 different units which can be produced via Soulstones. I like this mechanic for choosing units, particularly when compared to a direct listing of the 52 options. With Soulstones, units are tiered by ‘price’ in an intuitive way, the combination for a particular unit is easy to remember (or can be guessed by observing the unit in action), and there’s more than enough diversity to keep the game interesting.

If you don’t want to rely on randomly dropped Soulstones, or prefer to accelerate your troop production, it’s possible to buy Soulstones directly from a shop in your base, though you need a special resource called Diamonds to pay for them.

Quests:

Occasionally, the game will announce a new quest, which reward diamonds upon completion. These are a secondary player resource (like gold) which is primarily used for buying Soulstones. Usually, quests take the form of some neutral creeps being spawned on the map, with a bounty of diamonds for killing them. There’s also the ‘gladiator’ quest, where killing a hero or stash within the next 30 seconds will grant bonus gold and diamonds, and a couple of others.


Suddenly: a dragon!

Item Drops and Stashes:

At the beginning of each match, players select their hero, and choose a “stash”: a special unit dedicated to the storage and delivery of items. There are three types of stash available:

  • Stationary Stash: This unit behaves like the stash in DotA, it’s a place to secure any items you don’t want to leave lying around. As the name implies, this stash can’t move and remains in your base for the entire game. It has plenty of life, a ranged attack, and strong defensive abilities like temporary magic immunity, life drain, and mana shield.
  • Packbeast: This stash is mobile, fairly durable, and a good all-round choice. It can’t attack, but is well-suited to ferrying items, and has abilities that provide temporary protection from harm like divine shield and phase shift. These abilities work in-combat, making it more suited for aggressive play.
  • Messenger: This horse starts with significantly less life than the other two, but makes up for it in speed and mobility. Its abilities include blink and wind walk, which help it roam around the map picking up and delivering items as quickly as possible.

As heroes are limited to 6 item slots, the stashes allow players a little more control and security than leaving all their unequipped items lying around the base. They can also be used to gather up items which are lying around and sell them for a modest profit. The stashes revive when killed, and keep any items they were holding, just like heroes do, which removes most of the risk you’d expect when using them. While most items in the game will appear as random drops, a couple of high-end ones must be bought, and it’s also possible to spend gold on hiring player-controlled mercenary units.

Other Features:

The hero abilities are very close to regular Warcraft abilities, but heroes can access up to 7 of them: four levelled hero abilities, a randomly rolled ‘ability’ and a randomly rolled ‘spell’, both of which are bought from the shop by spending diamonds, and an ultimate which is automatically granted at level 15. As a result, there isn’t much to be said for building heroes in any particular way. The two rolled skills are of different types: the ‘spell’ will have a mana cost, the ‘ability’ won’t.

The map’s code suggests that there were further plans for the forge. I mentioned previously that inside the underground chamber is a Fire Tower: but several other tower types were also defined within the map file. It seems that it was intended that heroes could merge the innocuous Ivory Tower item (which allows you to place a mini-tower that grants vision) with various other items like a damage item to create a damaging mini-tower, or a healing item to create a healing mini-tower. Due to the surplus of items around the map from drops, this is a nice way to recycle redundant items which would otherwise just be sold off.

There are only a few strategic locations on the map where mini-towers may be placed; clearly intended to augment existing defences, which explains why so many apply debuffs rather than dealing any damage. These mini-towers have inventory slots, but can’t use or benefit from items, so they provide optional storage.


A patch of fertile, tower-growing goodness.

Gameplay:

Stashes are crucial for controlling the game and gaining an advantage. Aside from helping to grab items, they can also be equipped with aura items, or use consumables which would otherwise take up valuable space in your main hero’s inventory. The stationary stash (which sits in base) is a poor companion for this reason.

As should be apparent, MountainStruggle is a game which embraces a chaotic battlefield. Optimal play requires a surprising level of hero and stash micro, along with attending to macro concerns like Soulstones, reacting to randomly presented quests, and trying to build your hero around whatever random abilities you rolled. There isn’t much overall strategy aside from grabbing what you can, and I feel players are rewarded too highly for managing the logistics of ferrying items around the map. That said, the game makes good use of the systems it has, and executes well at keeping players busy and focused on the action.

Download: Here

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3 thoughts on “Review: MountainStruggle

  1. I know you note the lack of overall strategies for playing, but I find that to be its strength. You don’t need years of play or knowledge to do well in the game — as long as you keep your wits about you and understand how the Soulstones work (or, hell, just have another person on your team that does), anybody can dive in and have a blast.

    When playing larger, more traditional AoSes, I always found big chunks of down-time where I was miles from the action, walking for ages, where just I felt like minimising and going away for five minutes while I waited for something to happen (there’s my lack of strategy right there). Because MountainStruggle is small and chaotic, it’s fast and full of surprises so it never lets you go. There’s no assured victory and stalemates either; the tug of war between waves can range back and forward across the entire map even if you’ve split down a laneful of towers and it looks like a done deal.

    Plus, the emphasis on Soulstones means you can be crap at PvP and still win out by finding the best Soulstone combos and creating insane spawn waves.

    Well, it is my favourite AoS, of course I would say these things. :)

    • I think the chaotic style is a good one, but Softmints is trying to say that the tedious job of managing items better than the opponent as a primary strategy means is not only poor game design in a sense that it’s boring, but also aesthetically distracting. I have a stationary stash which has huge defense, life steal, automatically revives, and it’s extremely important for me to manage my items using it. Doesn’t sound fun, and doesn’t present much strategy for the player *or* the opponent.

      I think the small, fast paced, chaotic style would be completely unchanged if the stashes were removed and replaced with a backpack system attached to heroes.

      Nice article Soft – never heard about this one before.

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