In a world of mobas which are aiming for the skies, it's nice to see a project that executes well with a smaller scope. I was recently introduced to AoS Sunken Ruins (Quillraven, 2008-2010), which manages to provide a surprisingly complete AoS experience despite having less heroes, items, and supplementary mechanics than its peers.
The simplicity of the map objectives, and transparency of gold-spending options make Sunken Ruins a game to be played, rather than solved.
Temples of the Tides:
An invulnerable temple stands in the centre of each lane. Temples initially belong to neither team, but heroes may capture them by standing near them and channelling for 40 seconds. If several allied heroes channel together, the countdown is accelerated.
It is possible for heroes on both teams to channel a temple simultaneously, with the capture being awarded to whichever completes first. Taking damage will interrupt a hero's channelling, and if no other heroes are channelling, progress will immediately be lost.
The range for channelling is generous: heroes can stay in fog of war or behind their troops, forcing the enemy to come to them.
Capture attempts are both visible and audible, and the temples also show the location of any channelling heroes through fog of war using a purple beam (though this doesn't give vision or show which hero's channelling).
Having lane control helps with, but doesn't guarantee a capture. The enemy can choose to dive past the troop line to harass during any capture attempts, but it's dangerous and they're likely to miss out on experience.
I like this system of mechanics for capturing an objective. It allows any hero to force a response from the enemy team (or get a free temple), which is great for player agency. The forty-second channel time is long, but that has some advantages:
- It gives the enemy team time to form a meaningful response, rather than having to drop everything and rush over to deal with one hero (which would make temples a chore).
- Threatening a capture drives the gameplay and makes things happen, which makes it feel less like "standing still waiting for this thing to complete" and more like actively applying pressure.
- Capturing with team-mates is now much more valuable, not because it's safer, but because it saves a lot of time.
Capture attempts are easily punished if done thoughtlessly, but they can also be a useful tool for setting up traps. This wouldn't be possible if there wasn't a generous capture radius, which means the enemy has to venture a little out of their safety zone.
Once captured, a temple spawns additional troops on that lane, and grants a global aura to the owner's team. The temple auras are:
- Top lane: +100% armour for all friendly units and heroes.
- Middle lane: +20% attack damage for all friendly heroes and units.
- Bottom lane: +25% attack damage for all friendly towers.
Both the extra troops and the auras passively increase lane pressure, which makes finding time for recapture attempts more difficult. This can be tough to deal with early-game, while heroes are relatively weak compared to troops, and lane pressure is still a burden.
The bases in Sunken Ruins are wonderfully efficient. Every building in the base is worth destroying, there are enough that there's a sense of progression when doing so, and there is no wasted space.
At the centre of the base is the Altar. It serves as the primary structure, and is also the location where heroes revive. Sunken Ruins does not have any safe-zone in which heroes may rest: they get 8 seconds of invulnerability upon revival, and that's it.
The surrounding Coral Bed buildings each have an aura that heals nearby friendly heroes. If all four are destroyed, heroes will have to rely on consumable items for healing.
There is only a single tower defending the inner base. The buildings' close proximity means that freshly spawned troops from each lane will retaliate against attacks on adjacent lanes, which helps somewhat when defending.
The remaining buildings in the base are all unit factories. Each factory contributes one unit towards a troop wave. If a factory is destroyed, then the corresponding unit will no longer spawn, and if all three factories on a lane are destroyed, then that lane will no longer have troops.
Coral Beds have a dual purpose as both fountains and unit factories. (One of the four Coral Beds does not produce units, it is presumably there for symmetry, or as a backup fountain.)
It's a small thing, but I enjoy that there are three "barracks" instead of two. It adds just a little more progression to destroying a base.
The lack of a safe-zone turns out to be surprisingly acceptable. Without any spare buildings for troops to get tangled up with, being in a position where you could spawn-camp is equivalent to being on top of the enemy's primary structure with your entire army. Any effort to spawn-camp would equally be an effort to end the game, so there isn't any "drawing it out" or associated negative behaviours.
This approach also saves map-space, and cleans up the minor narrative issue of having technology powerful enough protect the safe-zone, but not using it to protect the primary structure.
Each team starts the game with three (dead) faction-controlled heroes, and these may be individually revived at the Altar for a fixed gold cost.
Upon returning to the land of the living, they will march down a lane of the player's choosing, pushing as far as they can until slain again. The NPC heroes are similar to regular heroes, with the exception of having incredibly high maximum life (for a hero), and no inventory.
They gain experience, and both their stats and abilities will automatically level up as they do. For this reason, reviving them as often as possible is advantageous in the long run.
There is no cooldown on reviving NPC heroes, which (unfortunately) means that a team with gold to spare can maintain almost 100% uptime on these powerful creatures, without putting much thought into defending them. They're not unbeatable, but applying this tactic puts a losing team under a lot of pressure.
It is possible to revive all three NPC heroes at once, and they can be sent down separate lanes, or all put on the same lane. They don't synergise particularly well, and their damage isn't enough to push quickly, but if left uninterrupted in the latter case, they would almost win the game on their own, since only heroes have enough damage to kill them.
I say almost, because there is one curious mechanic which prevents this from happening. The "Shrine" unit-factories in each team's base pack a special surprise: when destroyed, a super-powerful monster called a Behemoth will pop out and start marching down the corresponding lane, as a last hurrah.
Behemoths can handily slay NPC heroes, and thanks to their cleaving attack and high regeneration, will cut through regular troops and even towers with barely a scratch. Left alone, they will only die after killing an enemy Shrine and unleashing a higher-health enemy Behemoth upon themselves!
I consider this mechanic to be a "for fun" addition. It buys time for a winning team just as much as it does for a losing team, and may even cause players to hold off on pushing until they can deal with the Behemoth that would be released.
The items in Sunken Ruins are simple, but fulfil their purpose nicely. They are split into two categories: permanent items, and consumables.
The permanent items are crisp and simple: no flavour text, and no more than 2 effects per item. There are also some recipes which package the effects of their component items into a single slot.
The available bonuses include increased spellpower and spell-vamp (which helps to improve build diversity), and a handful of active effects such as silence and restoring mana to allied heroes. Hero abilities scale with agility/intelligence/strength, which opens up some different uses for stat items.
Consumables have a surprisingly large impact, and each one contributes something unique to how the game can be played. Some examples:
- Staff of Teleportation: Teleport to any point on the map after a 3.5 second cast time. Incoming teleports display a graphic at the destination point. Probably unfairly powerful at interrupting capture attempts, since nothing can stop such a hero from landing an attack and running away (unless there's enough friendlies to secure a kill on the out-of-position hero).
- Staff of Shadowweb: Snares the target unit for 3 seconds, making it unable to move. The target cannot be webbed again for 5 seconds.
- Tome of Summoning: Summons three powerful troops at your location, which will march down the nearest lane. Expensive, but makes pushing past a temple to try and capture it more practical. Can also substitute for lane troops if unit factories have been destroyed, though it's not sustainable.
- Wand of Decay: The target enemy unit cannot regenerate life by any means for the next 15 seconds. Great for pinning enemy heroes inside their base.
- Repair Kit: Instantly heals the target building by 220 life, has a 35 second cooldown, and must be used at melee range. Buildings have an unusually low amount of life for the genre (1200 for towers, 500-900 for factories), which means that Repair Kits and regular maintenance are important for keeping buildings above the "easily killable" threshold.
Each of these consumable items unlocks a strategic opportunity, which means that there's a surprising number of contenders for a player's gold.
The fact that these opportunities are contained within a single item rather than being entirely separate mechanisms is neat, and sets a precedent which makes adding new game-changing consumables quick and easy. It's great to see a game where spending gold for a short-term gain can be so routinely interesting and powerful.
Gold is distributed equally among the team for each enemy troop that dies, no matter where it happened on the map, or who witnessed it. Thus, both teams in a 1v4 would receive the same amount of gold over time, except for any extra earned due to hero kills.
Experience is gained only by heroes who are near a dying enemy unit. It's worth noting that all items can be sold for a full refund, allowing players to rapidly convert their permanent assets into consumables or switch to a completely different build.
There are eight heroes in Sunken Ruins, which limits the game to 4v4 (though there were plans for two more heroes, to support 5v5). Thus, every hero will appear in every match, but not necessarily on the same teams.
Heroes have three basic abilities, an ultimate which becomes available at level 5, and a global aura which is available at level 10. Mana costs are standardised at 10 mana for basic abilities, and 20 mana for ultimates.
Those heroes with lower cooldowns can burn through their mana faster than others, though a hero's maximum mana will grow from 100 to 150-200 over the course of a match, which works out as generous compared to other genre games.
The abilities are pretty, have a nice level of complexity, and make the heroes fun to use.
The level 10 global auras only affect non-hero units, so assuming they are balanced evenly, the first few heroes to reach level 10 will enjoy a small window of applying some passive lane pressure, and thereafter the system only kicks in while enemy heroes are dead.
The auras aren't varied or powerful enough to be worth picking heroes over, and if they were, that would be a problem unto itself for placing so much emphasis on a reward for simply being alive.
Sunken Ruins does a fine job of solving one of the issues which has plagued many an AoS: stopping matches from dragging on. Allowing unit factories to be destroyed, rewarding both map control and killing enemy heroes with a lane pressure advantage (in the form of global auras), the lack of defensive base features like walls or a fountain, and the "healing freeze" consumable all combine to snuff out losing teams fast.
The result might be too damning, but numbers are easy to adjust once you have the right systems in place.
While it's easy to pick up and play, the game suffers from a lack of replay value. Each hero is fun, but they all fulfil essentially the same role, and there aren't enough items to facilitate build experimentation.
There are different ways to approach this problem: declare it's beyond the map's scope and doesn't need solving, add more content, or diversify the existing heroes to the point where they have roles within the team, and players can learn the different roles.
I'm not sure which is "best" for the character of the map, but one thought did occur to me: this is a rare case where reducing the hero inventory size from six items to four might be a good idea. It would limit a player's ability to have all the relevant items they would like, and creates harder decisions among the existing items (particularly when it comes to carrying consumables). It also fits with the map's philosophy of doing a lot with less.
Overall, Sunken Ruins stands out for delivering an engaging and tactically interesting game by making use of relatively few, but carefully chosen and efficiently implemented mechanics.