Review: Overdrive

Overdrive_Preview Overdrive (Pzygho, 2008) is one of those AoS maps which delivers a surprising amount of emergent gameplay by introducing a single twist. The twist in question is using the Overdrive mechanic from Final Fantasy X to give heroes their ultimates, rather than the usual method of granting them at level 6 and having lengthy cooldowns.

In this map’s implementation, a hero’s ultimate becomes available once they have taken a certain threshold of damage. Once cast, the ultimate vanishes and the hero must again take damage up to the threshold to re-enable it. A hero with their ultimate available displays a clear graphic to all players.

Ultimates level up exclusively through usage, with the damage threshold increasing at higher ranks. Hence, any hero aiming to have a maxed-out ultimate is going to need to tank damage and use their ultimate many times to get there. One of the best ways to achieve this is using neutral camps, from which any hero can absorb damage while staying out of enemy sight. This interaction elevates neutral camps to being an important game element, for every hero.

The two lanes are very close, and are easy to move between.

Creep Camps:

It’s not strange to see a two-lane map, given that Overdrive is a 4v4 game with a considerable emphasis on jungling. The lanes are close and it’s easy to hop from one to the other. The jungle entrances are mostly covered by towers, which makes ganking a bit more difficult early in the game.

Inside the jungle itself, creep camps are haphazardly scattered around. There are 8 camps on the south side, 6 on the north, and given their loose placement it seems fair to assume that there wasn’t any particular intent behind this. Committing to this idea by having a “hotly contested” jungle in the south with a “quieter jungle” in the north could have worked well: it would add some much needed asymmetry to the map’s layout, and make jungling (and tanking for ultimates) a more nuanced decision.

The “corner camps” located just outside each team’s base are perhaps the most useful ones in the game. They’re furthest from the possibility of enemy ganks, have the shortest escape route, and are also closest to friendly healing: making them ideal for working towards ultimates. They are so good that I’d rather see them removed, since they trivialize the overdrive mechanic.


The short walk from corner camp to the north base entrance.

The logic behind how neutral creeps spawn is a bit unconventional. Each camp houses a fixed number of creeps, with unit types randomly chosen from the camp’s encounter table. When a creep dies, its respawn timer begins immediately (instead of waiting for the rest of the camp to die), and it is guaranteed to be a different unit type upon revival.

Also unusual is that in Overdrive, it’s possible to find a lowly Sea Giant (level 3) and a burly Revenant with chaos damage (level 8) in the same encounter table. So the corner camp a player might be relying on could randomly be too weak to provide good dps for tanking, or too strong to kill for experience. The lack of consistency isn’t to my taste.

The game explains that there’s a chance for neutral creeps to drop a random tome on death, permanently granting +1 to a stat for whoever picks it up. However, the chance is abysmally low, and since the jungle already gives heroes a reason to visit, this feature doesn’t make much difference.


Bosses:

There are two bosses on opposing corners of the map. They are about equal in terms of power, but each has their own name, and set of abilities (both single-target and area-of-effect) which they will use whenever the opportunity presents itself. Unusually for boss creeps, these abilities cost mana, of which the bosses have a large (but exhaustible) supply. In practice, the regeneration is too high for “bleeding” a boss’s mana before attacking it to be a viable tactic, but that’s a pretty neat direction that some other game could experiment with.

Each boss inhabits an enclosure, which initially looks decorative, but actually serves a purpose: heroes can’t attack a boss unless they’re inside. This seems to be a solution to ranged heroes kiting a boss to death, and to an extent it works (though the boss can still be affected by spells from any distance).


Murkius in his lair.

Bosses are a great way to take lots of damage quickly at low risk due to their location (there is still some risk, as the bosses have single-target disables). However, bosses are a one-time objective: they don’t respawn, and hence killing a boss means it can’t be tanked in the future. For this reason, it’s slightly disadvantageous to lose the boss closest to your own base.

The only reward for defeating a boss is experience for heroes who are nearby, and a special permanent item which grants flat bonuses (and hence will be more valuable earlier in the game). However, with Overdrive being a fast paced game on a small battlefield, it’s easy to see when players are missing from the map, so early boss attempts are hard to slip under the radar.


Favour:

Players acquire a secondary resource in Overdrive called Favour. It’s awarded for participation in hero kills, tower kills, and map objectives, and is required (along with gold) to buy just about anything that can be bought.

One of the nice things about Favour is that players start the match with a modest amount of it: enough to get started on some items and not be under immediate pressure to get kills, or at risk of being starved after losing the first two flags. Most AoS maps start players with 0 of the secondary resource, and players are immediately racing with the enemy team to keep ahead. Having seen Overdrive’s approach, I have to say I prefer it.

The other point of interest is that Favour makes hero kills important for long-term progression, as pushing lanes and taking towers awards relatively little Favour. Since ultimates make it easier to secure kills, players have an additional long-term incentive to work on their overdrive.


Items:

The item system is divided in two: those items which do not cost Favour, and those which do. The former category is a tiny minority: it consists of cheap consumable items like teleport scrolls, wards, and potions. Healing efficiently in Overdrive is important, so weighing cheap non-combat potions against more expensive in-combat potions, against a refillable bottle, against saving for a permanent healing item, could be the difference between getting an ultimate off before dying, or not.

The Favour-costing items are divided into classes: Weapon, Helmet, Armour, Accessory, and Miscellaneous. At most 2 Weapons, 2 Accessories, 1 Helmet, and 1 Armour are allowed per hero. Some of these items are also primitive, which denotes that the item can be upgraded into one of 3-4 slightly better items, often having a special passive. For example, Speed Boots is a primitive accessory which has three upgrades, while Wooden Staff is a primitive weapon with four upgrades.

One of the disadvantages of a recipe system (like the one seen in DotA) is that a player must understand their late-game plan before they can efficiently choose early-game items. A system with primitive items that can serve as starting points should resolve this, by presenting players with meaningful choices one step at a time. (Dawngate showcases a solid implementation of this.) However, Overdrive completely misses the point, and instead has six primitive weapons all in the same price bracket, all giving roughly the same bonus attack damage, and providing no tangible decision-making data to players whatsoever.


Which will you choose?

It seems these primitive weapons were intended to divide the items based on the icons they used, rather than their effects. Not the most helpful categorisation…

Given the need to absorb damage, healing items are an appropriately diverse commodity: including the classics like life leech, a regeneration aura, and instant group healing, but also some alternatives like a mass-rejuvenation, sacrificing an allied creep to heal, or healing nearby allies on death.

One of the most expensive items in the game passively adds an extra level to the owner’s ultimate, which is a nice way to let players get more out of their investment in overdrive-related activities.

There are three available faction upgrades, for melee troops, ranged troops, and towers respectively. These cost favour and gold, and despite their exponential cost, they become a mandatory investment once one team has started using them. (As we’ve discussed in previous reviews, this is not a healthy system.) Upgrades complete instantly, so there is at least no pressure to start early due to long research times. I did enjoy that the towers’ upgrade increases their attack range; a small twist I haven’t seen before.


Flags and Runes:

The main map objective in Overdrive is a periodic quest. A flag will spawn every 6 minutes in the middle of the map, and upon being returned to a team’s base, it will award Favour to all players on that team. Each flag returned will grant more favour than the last, and the only restriction while carrying it is that dying or teleporting will cause the flag to drop.


Time to earn some favour…

Being situated on high ground encourages teams to show up early to secure the spawn zone and a vision advantage, which can lead to some pre-flag brawls. However, the open-plan terrain, and lack of any tangible disadvantage for the flag-bearer mean that the first team to pick up the flag can (and should) immediately disengage and bring it home, minimising the risk of losing it. If the purpose of flags was to create engagements, this isn’t a complete or effective implementation.

The existence of the flag makes pushing towers early more rewarding, as neither chasing a flag past enemy towers, nor conceding it, are very appealing.

There are four runes which spawn on the map, in familiar DotA style. Unfortunately, their duration is too short for them to make any practical contribution to gameplay: they cannot be bottled, they barely even help with jungling, and the one rune that would have proved useful (regeneration) isn’t available.


Heroes:

There are 12 heroes in total, which is comfortable for a relatively small 4v4 AoS. They each have three skills + one overdrive ultimate, done to a decently high standard of creativity. Sometimes it’s subtle variations which work best: Voodoo Shaman has a skill which hexes one unit, causing it to apply a poison to any other nearby enemy units. The overdrive ultimates of course are the stars of the show, and they deliver by being suitably exciting and high-impact spells.


Powerful huge area damage: ✓

When a hero dies, an invisible ghost spawns at its fountain, and may be ordered to travel to the hero’s corpse where it may perform an instant full-health revival. This isn’t possible at early levels where revive timers are too short for the ghost to even leave the base, but it eliminates a lot of downtime at later levels.

There were unimplemented plans to mark some areas on the map as “dead-zones” where in-place revival would be disabled: such as inside each team’s base, and around the boss areas. Aside from being necessary to stop abuse, this would have encouraged defending teams to make aggressive plays outside their base, before they get boxed in with no recourse.

Hero deaths incur no gold penalty, which means that dying to neutral creeps early-game is by far the most efficient way to get home and back to full life. Losing one’s ultimate or overdrive progress might have been a fair penalty here.


Conclusions:

Some of Overdrive‘s features are less-than-ideal in their implementations, and a lot of that can be attributed to the map being incomplete. What’s important are the overdrive ultimates: a core mechanic which impacts player decisions throughout the game: when it comes to healing, jungling, killing enemies to keep up in favour, or using the ultimates to level them up. There are also subtler consequences, such as how much one should harass an enemy in-lane, or how to conduct a teamfight.

I really like that buying regen and heading to the jungle for the first minute to ready an ultimate is a valid decision: one that creates action early, has its own trade-offs, and wouldn’t otherwise be available. I like that maxing out a hero’s ultimate as soon as possible is an alternative means of progression. Those are great dynamics!

I was lucky enough to chat with one of the players who was tangentially involved with the map’s development, and enjoyed hearing a story about a player who arrived a bit late to lane, but without an overdrive: as though they’d been afk. The enemy jumped, only to discover that the player had been jungling to just under the damage limit, and immediately had an overdrive ready as rebuttal!


Of course, big ultimates like this cost a lot of mana for a level 1 hero.

Reportedly there were plans to expand upon the overdrive system. The changes, still modelled on of Final Fantasy X, would allow players to pick one from five different activities that would be counted towards their overdrive; a choice made at the start of the match. The proposed options were:

  • Taking damage
  • Healing self or allies
  • Crowd control applied to enemies (in seconds)
  • Last hits
  • Heroes killed

Personally, I would hate to lose the universal option of taking damage, since it gives everyone a reason to jungle, but there might be cases where some heroes would appreciate something different? I’m not sure. There’s definitely a risk of taking damage being paired up with healing and proving far too effective. Heroes killed might be either too weak (difficult to have it ready at the start of a fight), or too snowbally, as getting 2-3 ultimates in a single fight could be ridiculous.

If this hypothetical system were to become reality, I would propose that part-way through a match (say around level 10), players should be allowed to activate a second means of building toward overdrive, to freshen things up and let them adapt. Committing to a single overdrive activity all game (particularly a niche one) would be constricting and tedious.

I hadn’t invested much time into thinking about ultimates before encountering this map, but I think the ideas speak for themselves and make a pretty good case for exploring alternatives to the familiar “level 6 + cooldowns” approach. Hopefully we’ll see more experiments like Overdrive‘s in future lane-pushing games!

Download: Here

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