12th Jun, 2014By Softmints7 minutes

The day has finally come where I review Ninjas on Battle.net! Formerly known as Ninjas in Pyjamas, NoB achieves an interesting contrast of being possibly the most informal AoS map ever developed, while simultaneously pioneering clever mechanics that have since been picked up on by commercial titles.

Its playerbase will describe the map as "silly, but fun", which echoes the relative unimportance of balance, the absurd abilities, and the plentiful references to gaming-related pop-culture.

Overview of the battlefield
Not much time was invested in environmental aesthetics.

Terrain:

NoB adopts the standard three-lane format, in a horizontal layout. The three lanes are each slightly different in terms of distance between towers and nearby map objectives.

As usual, the closer a tower is to each team's main base, the stronger it is; but with an exception for the tier 3 towers that guard the entrance to each team's base, because there are two of them. As a result it's easier to make progress by taking out one tower and retreating, and come back later for the second.

On-lane, there is no bonus whatsoever for last hits. Each team has a barracks on each lane which passively generates income for the team over time. Destroying the enemy's outer towers on a lane will cause your corresponding barracks to permanently generate additional income, while losing a barracks means that it can no longer generate income for you, eventually leading to a gold disparity between the teams.

Trying to deny your own troops results in the typical NoB tongue-in-cheek response of losing gold.

There are four sections of the map defined by the space between each lane. The topmost is the cave, which has three entrances. It contains a pair of creep camps which give gold on death, but is mostly desolate and used to get around.

The bottom area is the jungle, which only has two entrances, and consists of a maze of trees and hostile creeps to farm. The layout is such that it's very easy to bump into an enemy at any time, and it's equally accessible by both teams.

A few jungle creeps are visible behind a lot of tall, visibility-obstructing trees
Plenty of corners; primed for surprises.

Sandwiched between the lanes are two areas of forest. There isn't much of note inside, but they do have a rather interesting property: Each path from the forest onto a lane has an invisible wall of sight blockers which don't allow units to see past them. These don't interfere with pathing at all, but a unit on one side cannot see anything on the other side unless there's vision from another source.

Given that the other side is usually a lane with friendly units, we can typically see out, but not in. The forests have plentiful access points and are intended as cover for ganking. In practice, NoB pioneered brush, the mechanic prominently used in League of Legends.

While usually I'm not a fan of day/night cycles in a lane-pushing game, NoB's actually has a noticeable impact on gameplay. During the daytime, the full length of each lane becomes visible to everybody:

Overhead view of the battlefield, with the full area of the three lanes marked in yellow
The yellow areas become fully illuminated.

Examining the terrain, we can see that it's not possible to switch between any of the four off-lane spaces during the day without being seen (excepting ability use), so the moment before dawn is important in deciding where to go, and during the day, where to stay.

Tangentially, the creeps in the jungle sleep at night, but since there's only 2 access points, being able to navigate freely in there isn't very helpful.

Heroes:

Among the many many things AoS maps inherited from Warcraft 3 was the layout of each hero's abilities. The four would usually be assigned as follows (though the hotkeys were not standardised in those days):

  1. "Q", the hero's primary damaging ability if they have one. Commonly single-target.
  2. "W", extra utility, often a summon, disable, or escape. Toggled or autocast abilities are usually in this slot.
  3. "E", often this was a passive, and usually an aura that defined the hero's role in an army. Otherwise, some additional utility or defensive ability.
  4. "R", the hero's ultimate. Varies wildly among heroes.
A giant explosion covers half the screen while some heroes pursue a chase
In NoB, that's not even an ultimate.

There are plenty of benefits to this layout: players associate their most frequent actions with Q, they know that they can get a general idea of the hero's purpose from the E, and this knowledge transfers smoothly when picking up a new hero.

Many DotA heroes, particularly the early ones (Chaos Knight, Tiny), follow this pattern. League opted to give an innate passive to every champion to be consistent about having a point of reference for how the hero should play.

Ninjas on Battle.net goes a little further. Each hero's four abilities follow a strict formula:

  • Execution Test: These abilities are usually targeted against a single enemy, deal potentially a lot of damage, and are very non-trivial to execute.
  • Escape: They take many forms: mobility, damage mitigation, disabling enemies, but all of them provide a very reliable way out. This is counterbalanced by their cooldowns being 4/3/2/1 minutes.
  • Passive: These vary wildly in form and purpose. Many of them rely on randomness.
  • Ultimate: Not nearly as defining or memorable as the execution test, but a useful/powerful combat supplement. Contrast most other lane-pushing games where the ultimate plays a larger role in the hero.

The game features a fairly expensive item called Essence of Terror which forces the target enemy hero to use their Escape ability, which is a nice way to make use of the rigid format.

Execution Tests are one of the most fascinating parts of NoB. These abilities have the most input variety of any lane-pushing game, and push the Warcraft engine to its limits in finding ways to judge a player's skill. Examples?

  • AK-47: The camera switches to first person view in the target direction, and the player can right-click a point on the screen to shoot a bullet there, to a maximum of 20 bullets.
    A first-person view with a rifle held in the right hand, with bullets streaking towards enemy units in response to clicks
    Shoot 'em down, shoot 'em down!
  • Dance of the Red Moon: The player is offered a randomly generated string of directional arrows, and must press the arrow keys in order, scoring one hit on the enemy per key pressed. They have a short amount of time to do this, hitting an incorrect key ends the ability, and the final two hits deal bonus damage.
    A sequence of the characters '<' '^' '>' and 'v' have shown up on screen, with the first couple in blue to indicate that they were pressed correctly
    ^ ^ vv < > < > B A Start? Doesn't work.
  • Jaou Ensatsu Kokuryuha: Unleashes a black dragon spirit which can be steered using arrow keys; the camera follows it similar to a redeemer rocket. It deals more impact damage the longer it's been alive.
    The camera follows a black dragon surrounded by blue flame as it flies towards some enemy units
    As with many execution tests, it's possible to accidentally deny allied troops with it and lose gold.

These days, SMITE has several abilities that switch to a different camera position (usually overhead, funnily enough) for targeting and aesthetic purposes.

NoB's heroes leave very few aspects of War3's engine unexplored. They utilise typing chat commands to a rhythm to make abilities stronger, flooding the enemy with popups or blanking out their screen as a distraction, and even redirecting a player's unit commands to random locations as a 'disable'.

The maximum level in NoB is 20, but there's only 15 skill points for regular abilities. So from levels 16-20, players get five Stat Upgrades which are not unlike the Attribute Bonus seen in DotA, but they can't be allocated early, and there's a choice of stats to choose from:

  • +15 Damage
  • +15% Attack Rate
  • +150 Max Life
  • +3 Armour
  • +4 All Stats.

These bonuses are weighted towards attack damage, but having a sudden customisable power boost late-game definitely gives players something to level for.

(And of course, now we would equate these with Dota2's talents, which address the same problem in a very similar manner.)

The heroes are themed as a bunch of misfit ninjas from across the universe. GrumpyWookie is just as terrifying as he sounds. DrunkenM4ster is comfortably the best take on a 'drunken' hero in any lane-pushing game. Numbers has a bit of a thing for the number 6. Snail is an actual snail, and of course is highly mobile. The cast is fairly modest at 22 heroes, but their variety more than makes up for it.

Kirby, a snail, a samurai, and a ninja are standing by their team's fountain
Just spawned, and ready to go.

Items:

If the heroes weren't enough, the items are about as silly as it gets. Will you take the Fake Muscle Suit, or the Plot Armour? The Licence to Kill, or Knuckles' Knuckles?

Despite the variety of series referenced, most of the items are reasonably familiar in function. There are a couple of exceptions though, including a few late-game items with damaging actives that allow tanky/caster heroes to stay relevant.

There's a number of ways to get around, but none is so scenic as the Bike. After a 1 second cast time, it grants maximum movement speed while out of combat, while playing the Pokémon Bike Theme. Later, you can pick up Bike Gloves to be able to cast without dismounting. If this sounds familiar, it might be because mounts in Heroes of the Storm ended up working in an identical way.

I like that there aren't any wards, because that would take some of the meaning away from the surprisingly nice daylight mechanic. Instead, pick up a copy of the Art of Stalking, an item which lets you place a 120 second vision buff on enemy from infinite range. The enemy can see that they have the buff, but only in the buff tray as there's no graphic. This is quite a unique vision mechanic, compliments the lane vision nicely, and can still be countered via dispels.

Gameplay:

There are a couple of abilities in the game that specify units must not be "taking damage". In most lane-pushing games that's a bit vague, but NoB has a consistent system for it.

Heroes spill blood and are afflicted with a modest movement speed slow whenever they take damage from any source. This "Taking Damage" buff lasts for about 0.5 seconds, but often that can be a big deal. In particular, it impacts backdooring, tower diving, or diving in general, and promotes teamwork: maintain the slow to secure kills.

There's also an impact on hero abilities: damage shields are more powerful because technically the hero doesn't "take damage" (the shield does) so they won't get slowed. Damage over time abilities automatically slow for their duration as well.

An enormous blue laser causes an enemy hero to bleed while it tries to escape the beam
Abilities like this moveable laser benefit a lot from the implicit slow.

In other news, Runes of Horrible Luck spawn all over the map at a slow but steady pace. Upon being picked up, they randomly kill a living unit, heroes included. If your team's being pushed in and the enemy has more troops/heroes alive than you do, these do favour the losing team, though in a very minor way.

Another thing which spawns is Duomaxwe, who makes a brief appearance every 10 minutes in the centre of the map. He's worth 750 gold, and attacks for 1 damage, which is small, but enough to incur Taking Damage and make being interrupted risky. He's the closest thing NoB has to a boss... though I felt weird saying that. We can see that the addition of Taking Damage as a core mechanic creates several interesting consequences like this one.

When a hero dies, they lose gold equal to 20% of their current gold. If you're going to have gold loss on death, this is a pretty nice way to do it, as it punishes the winning team more in general.

A hero fights a gnoll in the middle of some woods. The gnoll exclaims: "I am respected and revered by the masses, you are unknown but hated by anyone unfortunate enough to see you"
Taking out Duomaxwe. He loves company.

Closing Thoughts

The verdict? NoB succeeds in its goal of being a fun and nonserious game, mixing humour with abilities that would be ridiculous anywhere else: leaving a lasting impression and lasting gameplay.

Don't let the exaggerated ninja personas fool you though: the game has proven to be way ahead of its time on a number of counts. The mechanics and design choices seen in NoB in 2007 echo as noteworthy features in current commercial lane-pushing games, and I think we'll be seeing more examples of that in the years to come!