I stumbled across an old gem called Aerie of Ruin (FuriousBroccoli, 2004) just recently, and I'm delighted that I did. It's a highly asymmetric game, but in a way that creates great dynamics and makes you think deeply about how to play the matchup.
The terrain seems rather empty at first glance, as there's no defensive towers dotted around the map: only spawn buildings (outposts for the humans, gates for the demons). The main building in each base also serves as a super outpost/gate that sends troops to all 3 lanes at once.
All outposts and gates have a strong attack for self-defence. In exchange for gold, they can also teleport friendly heroes to themselves as reinforcements, or spawn bonus waves of troops on a modest cooldown.
The building site at the centre of the map can construct either a new outpost or gate for 2000 gold. Any destroyed outposts or gates will leave a building site behind them, which can be claimed by either team, and is constructed immediately with full health. Hence the initial race to 2000 gold is an important one, as an extra base on the mid lane will add spawns, making a counterpush quite difficult.
The humans have a natural push advantage along the mid lane, since it is fed by three spawn buildings rather than two. But that isn't necessarily imbalanced, as this is an asymmetric game. The asymmetry is very noticeable when it comes to each team's troops and upgrade paths, which deserve to be described separately:
- The Humans have four Outposts, and each will periodically spawn a war party of five units: two Soldiers, a War Hound, an Archer, and an Adept or a Priest (has Heal). The waves alternate between Adepts and Priests.
- Humans have six research buildings, one corresponding to each unit type (there is a separate building for each soldier spawned). The buildings are themed: barracks for soldiers, altar for priests, menagerie for hounds, etc.
- Each building has two upgrades available, costing 500 gold and causing all future spawns of the corresponding troop to become a new unit type. For example, Archers can be replaced with Seasoned Rangers or Matchlock Snipers.
- (Soldiers have two tiers of upgrades available, so it costs 1000 to fully upgrade a Barracks.)
- Any upgraded building can be reset for 100 gold.
- The Demons have three Gates, and each will periodically spawn a raiding party of four units: two Feyrling, a Darkling (has Silence), and a giant Nightmonger.
- Each Gate may channel one of four available Rituals for 600-800 gold. Once a ritual has begun, it will continue until death, or another ritual is started. The cooldown on invoking a particular ritual is 1 hour, so once you switch, it's unlikely you'll ever be able to switch back.
- Gates channelling a ritual will spawn additional troops, with unit type corresponding to the ritual.
- Demons also have four research buildings: one for each ritual. Each building contains 3 upgrades which will permanently specialise the units produced by Gates channelling that ritual. The upgrades cost 600-1000 gold each.
The unit type upgrades for both teams are listed with their armour/damage types, as well as notes about what they're good for (hunting heroes, siege, area damage, etc.). Some units have or gain special abilities like healing, flying, magic immunity, siege damage, slows, spawning in batches of 2-3, etc.
Fundamentally, the Demons have more precise control over what troop types spawn on which lane, because they can choose different rituals on each lane. However, they are very limited in the number of times they can pivot. The Humans can only upgrade their army as a whole, but may re-tech as often as they like, provided they have the money for it.
Properly played, Demons should always have the advantage on at least one lane, and will be trying to force re-techs out of the Humans without spending too much gold on their own upgrades.
Two important notes are that the main Gate's ritual will send units to all three lanes, making its ritual choices particularly important (and cost-effective!), and that any new or reclaimed Gate will have fresh cooldowns, allowing it to (re-)use any ritual.
Another feature I liked is that the troops themselves have very high damage compared to their maximum life, and there is a lot of diversity in the life each troop has. For example, Human archers have 100 life and deal 40 damage, while Nightmongers have 1000 life and deal 150 damage. Hence troops die quite quickly, which is compensated by fairly frequent troop waves.
The result is that lanes have a different feel to most genre games. It's difficult to describe, but I found it very refreshing and fluid. It's more like a brawl; the wave moves around more while fighting. The number differences also change the relative effectiveness of single-target and area-of-effect damage against troop waves.
The heroes have very distinct roles: a single hero might comprise most of their team's area damage, defences, or anti-hero burst. Furthermore, Aerie of Ruin has the smallest cast of any AoS I've reviewed to-date, with only six heroes available on each side.
This is important, since being a 5v5 game with very specialised heroes, the hero a team doesn't take, will leave a hole for their opponents to exploit. Some mechanics are mirrored on each team, such as the ultimate which commands a team's entire army to march towards a particular point, the tower construction mechanic, or the passive which empowers the troops coming from a nearby outpost.
One demon hero (Manifest Insanity) passively spreads Blight wherever he walks, causing terrain to permanently look diseased and barren. His abilities interact with the Blight, and he can globally damage anyone standing on it after a delay. Some of his allies can help him out by spreading blight with their abilities, and the demon version of the Dispel item can spread Blight from a distance.
All demon heroes and some of their units use the default Warcraft 3 mechanic that undead units only regenerate health while on Blight, so even if Manifest Insanity isn't being played, there is still benefit from those abilities.
The humans have ways to deal with this though: they can construct towers which ward off the Blight, use their own Dispel item to cleanse the land, or have Bishop Sophrisyne purge it with her presence. It creates an engaging game of cat and mouse for Manifest Insanity, because both teams have ways to interact with him and his mechanic.
Each hero has a private building in the base. These buildings have specific names (General's Monument, Broodmother's Bordello, Insanity's Asylum...) catered to the hero, and contain four hero-specific items that can be bought using a secondary resource called Fate.
I've listed some of the available powers below. They are very diverse, and include passive bonuses, limited use abilities, items which improve the hero's abilities, or have effects which empower the entire team.
- Daughter's Kiss: Completely restores health and mana, then makes Strong-Arms invulnerable for 14 seconds. 5 uses.
- Thousandfold: The famous sword of Lord Lighton Orcbane, Thousandfold makes every swing a 2x critical hit.
- Mind Razors: Increases the effectiveness of the Dark Rite skill by 50%.
- Divine Rite: Immediately restores full health to all allies. 60s cooldown, 30 uses.
- Burning Crown: All demons enjoy improved attacks.
- Cloth of Gold: Awards additional gold when you slay an enemy.
- Hammerclaw of Unearthing: This item can launch the target enemy into the air with Cyclone, rendering it unable to attack, move or cast spells.
The variety of effects and the fact that they are hero-specific emphasises the importance of team composition and the unique aspects that each hero can contribute.
Fate and Theme:
Fate is a secondary resource acquired by completing certain quests, some of which recur. I've listed the available quests below; each is awarded with 1 Fate.
- Be the first hero to kill an enemy creep.
- Be the first hero to kill an enemy hero.
- Be the first hero to reach level 4/8/12/16...
- Be the first hero to accumulate 2000 gold.
- Stay alive for 10/20/30... minutes.
- Find two fate shards.
While the "first blood" quest is fairly standard to motivate early action, many of the others reward a very passive and economy-centric approach to gameplay. Maybe that encourages players to play the game "right", since economy is important, but usually aggressive play is more fun.
That said, it does feed a little into the asymmetry of the game. The troop upgrade mechanics discussed earlier imply that the Humans should win if the game goes long because of their superior ability to adapt and counter, so defensive quest rewards are somewhat weighted against the Demons, who can't afford to play passive.
The fate shards are items scattered around the map that can be picked up by any hero. Their purpose is to encourage players to explore the terrain and see all the neat little details, like gravestones laden with flowers, or hidden passages behind trees. It's a nice thought, but the shards are all in predetermined locations, making it less of an exploration, and more of a tax on new players, and a race for experienced ones. Most of the items above cost only 2-3 fate, and make a huge difference in how a hero is played, so this isn't a feature that would be acceptable in a modern game.
Aerie of Ruin does a great job of making its scenario feel authentic. The game opens with a cinematic, showing the demons entering the world, and humanity rallying against them. The heroes have themes that break out from the norm, and have playstyles to match.
General Ba'ar is at his best surrounded by friendly troops, while the Bishop must take charge of cleaning Blight from the land. Decoupling heroes from their roles has been championed as a feature of some recent commercial mobas, and while I think that can be good, it's also important to see the case in Aerie where fixed roles are a strength of the design.
On a grander scale, the Demons' choosing of rituals allows them (as the attackers) to set the pace of the game, while the (defending) humans must react to whatever is thrown at them. It's a subtlety of the mechanics which cleverly fits into the narrative.
I've been very impressed by the level of thought put into Aerie of Ruin. It is clearly designed to be at its best when played by experienced players, and I feel like the depth of strategy would be very rewarding at that level. It is surely one of the best examples of asymmetry in a lane-pushing game to-date.