There’s a very nice and relatively recent map called Crimson Coast (CycLotRuTan, 2009) which I never had the pleasure of playing in its prime. As lane-pushing games go, it doesn’t have much of an emphasis on interesting map objectives, but is instead a fairly creative exploration into different types of heroes and skill mechanics, particularly when it comes to increasing the quantity of abilities available to any individual hero.
Aside from a slightly indirect middle lane, Crimson Coast’s three lanes and their tower placement are very standard. The side paths provide a lot of access to the middle lane, but the outer lanes have long sections which are relatively isolated, which usually makes pushing along them safer due to less risk of being flanked. It bears mention that as Crimson Coast is a 4v4 game with 3 lanes, ganking is generally less optimal, since only one hero can roam without losing lane income.
A smattering of creep camps can be found amidst the ruins and jungle for any heroes looking for some income on the side. Interestingly, the creeps spawn when the map initialises. Usually, this is bad, because it creates pressure to rush picks for an economic head start, but in Crimson Coast the creeps remain invulnerable and asleep until the lanes start spawning. This means that players can clearly see what camps are where if they decide to go exploring before the battle begins. Landscaping like alcoves and circles of stones are typical indicators, but nothing says “there’s a creep camp here” like seeing it for yourself. I like this a lot.
I’m surprised to be remarking on this, but I suppose it’s just another one of those things inherited from Warcraft that one stops thinking about: there’s a creep camp which naturally spawns with 6 creeps. I’m so used to seeing 2-3 units in a creep camp that this really stood out to me. In theory, it might be cool to see more diversity among camps, such as some which naturally have 10+ creeps, and are very vulnerable to area damage. This might make two heroes with different specialities able to share a jungle. But, enough speculation.
Crimson Coast also features two major creep camps, each containing a powerful creep called a Revenant. Upon its death, it will drop a special item called a Rune, which can be traded in at the Rune Shop for a permanent passive. A rune is also unlocked for each hero upon reaching the maximum level of 15.
Only one Rune will drop from killing a Revenant, and hence only one hero can get the special passive. Acquiring runes early usually demands a team effort, but because many of the passives give team benefits, it’s possible for a coordinated team to make that work. There’s still a strong incentive for selfish players to snatch the rune though. They respawn at the same pace as regular camps.
Rune passives are varied, and pretty creative. They include:
- Rune of Blooming: Healing an allied hero will also heal up to 5 nearby allies for 25% of the amount.
- Rune of the Explorer: Your teleport time is reduced to 4 seconds, and sight range at night is increased.
- Rune of Earth: All damage against buildings caused by you or nearby units is increased by 30%.
- Rune of the Alchemist: Your consumable potions now have unlimited charges.
- Rune of Fire: Your spells targeted on a single enemy unit now apply a debuff dealing 200 damage over 30 seconds.
- Rune of Twilight: Heroes you kill take 50% longer to resurrect.
- Rune of Enslavement: Summons an uncontrollable Elemental Slave to fight for you. It will follow your movements, and automatically respawn after 60 seconds when killed. It benefits from summoning upgrades.
What I like about these is that they interact with game mechanics that most AoS maps tend not to play with. Teleports, death timers, single-target spells, and potions are all staple features of the genre, but rarely are they boosted or affected by anything else in the game. It’s good to see that in action here. There are 20 available rune passives in total, and each hero can have at most 2 active at any time. It’s possible to switch them in your base for a small fee.
On the other side of the island, tucked away up top, are a number of shops offering what I’ll call the Teachings. They sell humorously titled books, scrolls, and other reading material which allow heroes to teach themselves Level 5 of one of their two primary skills, which would ordinarily be capped at level 4. The teachings require a princely sum of gold, as well as minimum hero level 15 (of maximum 21) and level 4 of the desired skill. That might seem like a poor deal considering that there’s plenty of items competing for the gold, but the Level 5 version of a spell is actually equivalent in power to level 7 if the skill gained power linearly.
The spike in effectiveness is a nice way to let heroes keep their core abilities relevant, even late-game when most other numbers would normally surpass them. It’s not as elegant as League’s ability power, but it does give the designer control over which skills are allowed to scale, and how.
Where Crimson Coast really departs from the usual AoS formula is in the technology it uses to assemble heroes. Warcraft places a hard limit of 5 hero abilities (ones that can be levelled up in the skills menu) per hero, and most maps will use 4-5 of them. The more ambitious maps will give heroes an extra innate ability, which doesn’t have multiple levels (because that’s not supported), and settle for 6 abilities total.
Not Crimson Coast. While it’s not the first map to experiment with packing in more abilities, it does a pretty natural job of it across a large portion of the cast. Contrast with other AoS maps, which will experiment on a hero or two, and leave it at that. Invoker and Nephilim are examples from DotA and EotA respectively.
One such hero is Avatar of the Elements, who levels up skills called Elemental Wave, Elemental Blast, and Elemental Infusion. The first affects enemies in a line, the second affects a target and adjacent enemies, and the third applies a defensive buff to an ally. The specifics will depend on which element she has active. For example, Elemental Wave:
- (Water) Tidal Barrage: Channel to send five waves at the target unit over 5 seconds, each dealing light damage and applying a slow.
- (Earth) Seismic Wave: Sends a slow-moving damaging shockwave which knocks back enemy units.
- (Fire) Phoenix Strike: A narrow damaging shockwave; her next Elemental Wave will have a shorter cooldown if this hits an enemy (stacks).
- (Air) Chain Lightning: Hits up to 3 targets, losing 50% damage with each bounce.
I am going to refer to this type of ability as a chambered ability, referring to the player’s ability to dynamically fire different effects from the same ability slot. Elemental Wave, being such an ability, has a single cooldown, so the hero isn’t some incredible area damage powerhouse. Rather, she has area damage, but can specialise it to her situation.
Another example of a chambered ability is my favourite skill in the game: Twin Cannons. The player can switch between four “twin cannon” abilities, all sharing the same slot and cooldown. It is functionally identical to Elemental Wave, but switching is done by typing single-letter commands in chat. Not anyone’s favourite way to get things done, but War3’s interface is a clunky thing, and this is a pretty clever way to make switching accessible, particularly since it can be done while the ability is on cooldown.
Plenty of other characters use this switching technique too; it’s often offered twice on the same hero. The druid hero has a chambered offensive totem and a separate chambered defensive totem. Another example is the Warlock, which can choose a preferred demon companion to summon (and of course the companions each have different abilities).
If any of this sounds a little familiar to World of Warcraft players, well caught, as there’s clearly a lot of inspiration taken from that game. Also notable are a hunter hero which can summon a semi-permanent companion and buy special food to heal it, and an implementation of the WoW Death Knight, including regenerating runes.
Despite so many heroes having a wide range of options to use, the heroes themselves are still fairly distinct. Sometimes that comes from the hero’s role (healer, pusher, ganker), and in other cases it’s how the hero can access their subskills. For example, the Avatar of the Elements discussed earlier can instantly switch elements, which makes her very fluid and reactive. Each element has a theme (earth disables, fire accumulates damage), and a quick-fingered player can switch chambers rapidly to maximise her effectiveness.
In contrast, some heroes like the Warlock can chamber different summons, and the summons have abilities. Hence a summoner can only use certain groupings of subskills at a time, must keep the summon alive, and wait for a cooldown before picking again. The hunter from earlier has a chambered pet summon, but the chosen pet can only be changed in-base, further restricting the player’s options, but not in a bad way. Another hero, the Shapeshifter, can morph into 5 different forms with 3 subskills each. The forms change the hero’s stats, last for a fixed amount of time, and the same form cannot be used twice in a row. So while these heroes are all versatile, they have different levels of fluidity and timings.
If all that wasn’t enough, every hero starts with an item called Staff of Teleportation, which allows teleporting to any friendly unit after a 10 second channel. All heroes start with one, and it can be re-purchased for free. So this functions as a 7th ability, even for those heroes who don’t have extra skills.
It also deserves to be noted that there is one ward item in the game, called Watcher’s Ward. They’re cheap, with no purchase limit, last 15 minutes, are invisible, and reveal other invisible units. I mentioned earlier that a 4v4 game with 3 lanes doesn’t afford much opportunity to gank, and the freely available persistent vision pretty much locks things down. For a game where heroes have the kit to handle different situations, and we want to test the player’s ability to choose the right subskills, discouraging roaming doesn’t make much sense.
There is one sliver of hope though: Watcher Wards are valid targets for Staff of Teleportation. So if you sneak a ward in behind enemy lines, it’s possible to teleport to it for a gank. The 10 second delay puts a damper on this though (unless you get Rune of the Explorer), and as funny as it would be to pop out of nowhere, the wards are revealed during the teleport channel.
The cast of Crimson Coast does a lot to explore the design space of chambered abilities and other subskills. While most heroes won’t cast more than 5 abilities at a time, players have lots of options available on the fly, and I found “picking the right tool for the job” to be a fun and satisfying gameplay component. Combine that with interchanging Rune passives, and there is a lot of fluidity of hero role and purpose throughout the game.
As there’s just about nothing else in the game aside from the heroes and their various powerups, it’s safe to consider Crimson Coast an experiment in hero design. Which is quite welcome, considering the territory was previously uncharted.