Comfortably one of the most refined AoS experiences in the genre, Desert of Exile (Rising_Dusk, 2007-2009) is 6v6 map built on the premise that simple, elegant systems can produce complex and engaging gameplay when their parts are allowed to interact. It is the first AoS to adopt this philosophy seriously, and it is executed with confidence and discipline. There are no half-baked systems, nor any peripheral mechanics that don’t quite tie in with the rest.
The game features a fresh approach to hero design, clear and satisfying objectives, and a unique flavour of teamwork and synergy that distinguishes it from its peers.
Desert of Exile is true to its name: featuring a barren wasteland with nothing to see but the bases and some stray merchants selling items. The terrain is largely flat and unobstructed, save for carefully moulded cliffs which enclose each team’s base and side-bases.
In the absence of any distractions, the main “map objective” is collecting Faction, the familiar resource from Advent of the Zenith which was awarded for hero kills, and here is also awarded for participating in destroying enemy structures.
Like it’s predecessors, Desert of Exile has four lanes, with a Keep spawning the troops on each lane. If a Keep is destroyed, troop production will permanently cease on that lane, allowing enemy troops to advance onto the primary structure. Additionally, losing a Keep in one of the side-bases will give the enemy team control of its adjacent healing fountain, and cause one of the two healing fountains in the main base to deactivate! If both side-bases have been lost, a team will have no fountain healing inside their main base.
Losing fountains is a very “suitable” reward for taking out side-bases, as it makes attacks on the main base more effective: particularly the loss of the front-most fountain which makes defending the mid entrance sustainable. I really like the natural progression that this mechanic carves out for players.
Keeps are also the place to buy extra units, which will be queued up and march with the next troop waves that spawn. There are eight available unit types, including cheap backup, specialised attackers, and heavy pushing tools. Below are the Hallowed Order units; the opposing faction has functionally identical ones with different names.
The most expensive units cost Faction (which is considerably more scarce than gold), but that’s fair considering that used effectively, they can take out buildings and help pay for themselves. The cheaper units have fixed pricing brackets, which I like a lot because it lets a player’s choice of units be strategically motivated, rather than picking the best thing you can afford.
Anyone on the team can buy extra units at any time, which allows reinforcements to be queued remotely for distant lanes. Keeps can spawn at most four extra units per wave, limiting how much lane pressure can be applied at once.
Integral to hero design and combat are conditions: a selection of 8 negative buffs loosely modelled on those in Guild Wars, which are shared and re-used by the entire cast. With almost no exceptions, these are the only afflictions that may be placed on enemy units:
- Bleed: 10 physical damage per second
- Burn: 20 magical damage per second
- Blind: 90% miss chance on attacks
- Cripple: 50% movement speed slow
- Knockdown: Stunned
- Maim: 75% attack speed slow
- Mute: Silenced
- Ruin: -10 armour
One immediate advantage of this system is that it makes efficient use of information. New players don’t have to adjust to different damage-over-time values on graphically distinct buffs from all the different heroes; there’s just burn and bleed. Similarly, there is exactly one slow at 50%. This efficiency carries into the hero ability descriptions, which can be concise because they don’t have to explain the specifics of each debuff, only its name and the duration for which it will be applied.
Individual heroes range between having all eight of the conditions at their disposal, to having none of them (typically it’s 2-3 each). But even heroes and abilities which don’t inflict conditions directly still have a lot of interaction with them: perhaps a bonus effect if the target is blind, increased healing against a bleeding target, or more damage for each burning unit nearby. The limited number of conditions in the game makes them relatively frequent in the hero pool, hence many heroes can synergise particularly well with each-other by providing the right conditions at the right time.
Other abilities interact with conditions in a more general way, such as transferring them to chosen unit, extending their durations, cleansing them, rewarding the presence or absence of any conditions, or reacting to new conditions being applied. Desert of Exile’s custom buff system is the most advanced of any Warcraft III map, and it’s utilised to the fullest to create lots of interesting dynamics, all with effects that are (as an added bonus) easily described in plain English.
To give a sense of condition-based combat, I’ve listed some hero abilities below:
- Abolish: Damages enemy units in the target area, and knocks down blind foes for 3 seconds.
- Dragonbane Hide: Reduces all incoming damage by 10% for each condition this hero suffers from.
- Upheaval: Channel to deal damage each second to foes in a target area, and cripple them for 4 seconds. Damage is doubled against knocked down units.
- Martyr: Heals allies in the target area, and transfers all their conditions to the caster.
- Epidemic: Spreads all conditions on the target unit to all nearby foes, with 150% duration.
- The Prevailing Winds: Upon being inflicted with a condition, this hero deals 50 damage to nearby foes.
- Twister: Sends out a slow-moving sandy cyclone which deals 20 damage per second, and applies 3 seconds of blind per second.
- Absolution Aura: If a nearby ally is suffering from no conditions, they take 40% less damage from all sources.
There is a lot of diversity among the heroes. Some are proactive, trying to apply certain conditions to set themselves up for a good fight. Others are more reactive, moving conditions around or extending them. Meanwhile, there are heroes who are happy to be in the thick of things, tanking conditions and triggering bonus effects as they do.
Since the negative effects of conditions are fixed and shared by all heroes, durations and ability cooldowns end up being the key to balancing them. Durations are chosen to be whole numbers (2, 3, 4) for simplicity, and easy addition and counting. Some spells have particularly long durations, such as Scarlet Maiden‘s 45 second bleed, which emphasises the importance of having condition cleansing or transference available.
While condition-based combat has many perks, it has a few disadvantages as well. For example, while each individual ability might be simple and elegant, their high dependence on interaction with other abilities means that players need to know how all the abilities in a fight work before they’re playing the game properly.
Systemically high interactivity comes at the cost of a (mildly) steeper global learning curve. This works out as a very acceptable trade-off for Desert of Exile, but we must remind ourselves that there is a trade-off taking place: one which could be problematic for a more modern game. In particular, a steeper global learning curve might alienate spectators, or make life difficult for casters who are trying to explain what’s going on without regurgitating the entire game.
A related concern is readability of the game state, which is largely an issue due to Warcraft III limitations. As it stands, there is no way to see the remaining duration of a unit’s conditions, nor is there any visual representation of conditions moving from one unit to another. This makes combat more difficult to follow, particularly for players joining the fray mid-fight. This problem is solvable though, and its resolution might assist with the learning curve issue discussed above.
In earlier versions, each team had two Trebuchets isolated on a cliff behind their main base. These enormous wooden war machines were invulnerable, had global attack range, and their sole purpose was to fling rocks at the enemy non-stop! In practice, this meant that every four seconds, a pair of rocks would be fired at the nearest visible enemy units, dealing damage in modest area wherever they landed, possibly hurting enemy heroes in the process. Having some serious artillery on the back lines definitely feels cool, though the mechanic was a bit awkward in practice, since it exclusively hindered melee heroes, affected how lanes would push in a somewhat unintuitive way, and incoming projectiles were not indicated in advance.
Trebuchet rocks were later changed to land at a random point near their original target, opening the possibility of hitting ranged heroes. They were also updated to apply a random condition (cripple/ruin/maim) on-hit, making them potentially devastating to get caught out by. The thinking behind this might have been to “mix up” the conditions on any given lane and reward quick reactions, but in practice randomly getting hit, slowed, and dying to an enemy hero proved neither fun nor satisfying. Not long thereafter, Trebuchets were removed for good.
Desert of Exile’s items can be divided into two categories; Regular items and Faction items. The former category consists of ‘cheap’ items which can be bought in each team’s base. These comprise:
- Potions, which provide non-combat healing or mana regeneration over time, as well as an instant ‘cleanse conditions’ potion. Potions cannot be stacked, and are bought as single-dose or double-dose (the latter being more than twice as expensive, since it’s slot-efficient).
- Permanent stat-padding items which each cost a modest 200 gold, and offer minor stat boosts such as +2 strength, +4 attack damage, +10% attack rate, etc. It is possible to buy several of the same item, but heroes are of course limited by having only 6 inventory slots.
- One of the items grants +15 movement speed, but has the disappointingly fair downside of -2 armour. This item can be bought several times, but the negative armour will stack too, making the extra speed a risky choice.
- While they’re not exactly items, it’s possible to buy a cheap flying courier to ferry items around, and workers which can repair buildings at the cost of gold. Workers are very important for maintaining bases, as tower life is relatively low, and towers will slowly burn down if left unattended on low life!
Faction items are so-named because they cost a whopping 8 Faction each! Bought from the shops situated on the battlefield, they are substantially more powerful than basic stat-padding items, though they do little stat-padding themselves. Their effects are situational, clever, and let heroes significantly change how they interact with the game’s other systems. Here are some examples:
- Power Inverter: All damage this hero deals with spells is made physical if magical, and magical if physical.
- Crown of the Ages: Increases durations of conditions the hero causes by 25%, and decreases durations of conditions the hero suffers by 33%.
- Heart of Rendabi: Causes any magical damage you deal to ruin foes for 4 seconds.
- Phylactery: Adds mana regeneration, and restores 15 mana to the hero each time it is inflicted with a condition.
- Spectral Shard: Increase the damage of any conditions you inflict by 50%.
- Devil’s Thorn: Returns 50% of the physical damage you receive to its source.
While it’s not directly emphasised by most hero abilities, the distinction between physical and magical damage becomes important once items are involved, as half of the Faction items react exclusively to physical damage, or to magical damage. Hence, whether a hero’s abilities naturally deal physical or magical has a major impact on how they can itemize. The other half of the Faction items affect or interact with conditions in some way.
In practice, it was rare for a hero to buy more than two Faction items, due to their expense and specialised applications. Players tended to pick the 1-2 items which worked well with their abilities, and filled out the rest of their slots with stat-padding items like +2 armour, which were favoured over having a Faction item with conditional or inconsistent benefits. This implementation was effective at rewarding players who earned Faction, but didn’t achieve quite as much build diversity as I expect was planned.
Faction items seem like they would have been better off as upgrades. Warcraft III’s limited UI would have made that impractical, but theoretically it solves the problem of Faction items competing for inventory space with regular items. I also would have liked if upgrades had multiple ranks: allowing players continue to specialise their hero without making them uniformly “more powerful”. Even if the higher ranked upgrades weren’t cost efficient, simply having them available relieves players of feeling “maxed out” before a match is close to ending.
Like Dusk’s previous work, Desert of Exile involved collaboration with a number of artists to create unique, desert-themed characters which fit into the game’s distinctive setting. Lore was less of an emphasis compared to Advent of the Zenith, though it was far from neglected: with historical accounts available for each character in the hero-select screen. There are 30 heroes in the game, and the standard game mode is asymmetric, with 15 heroes in each team’s hero pool.
The heroes themselves have only four abilities: three regular and one ultimate. Each ability is intentionally kept simple: typically dealing damage of a certain type, and having some degree of condition interaction, just like the examples cited previously. Rather than being powerful and fight-deciding on their own, ultimates are often channelled or utility spells, and/or have some dependence on conditions.
By design, each hero is limited in what it can individually accomplish. Its own abilities probably have 1-2 workable synergies, but beyond that, teamwork is necessary to unlock each hero’s potential, and that depends greatly on which heroes are in play. Similarly, opposing heroes will have different ways to deal with conditions or apply their own, making for a complex web of possible interactions in any given combat scenario. Add all the possible item effects to the mix, and the potential depth that’s the crux of the game should become apparent.
Desert of Exile is one of the few AoS maps that has a timeless appeal: it has a clear central idea, and explores it rigorously and in great depth. Not only this, but conditions are given a suitable stage on which to shine: clear and reinforced map objectives direct players’ attention directly to combat, and there’s no clutter like a jungle or shops with recipe items for players to get lost in. The combination of both its clever idea and disciplined execution is what made Desert of Exile such an excellent map, and a fine example for the rest of the genre to follow.