Review: Keys of Sealing

Preview imageKeys of Sealing (RazorclawX, 2004) is a rare example of an AoS whose gameplay is formally divided into stages: imposing a structured path to victory rather than the blurred lines of “early-game”, “mid-game”, and “late-game”. It also has a special victory condition that is more teamfight-oriented than the familiar “destroy the main base”.

In this review I’m going to cover features from both early and later versions together, as there aren’t too many differences.

We don’t see an air lane very often! It activates later into the game.

The Book of Sealing:

Keys of Sealing‘s most distinctive feature is it’s unusual victory condition. Instead of a main base that needs to be destroyed, the game gives a cinematic introduction to the Book of Sealing which is located near the center of the battlefield. This Book is protected behind a layer of barriers, and three keys must be used to remove the barriers. Once exposed, having a hero channel for 2 minutes in front of the book (without dying) bestows victory.


The Book of Sealing, currently behind barriers.

Thus, the game is divided into three stages, of no fixed length:

  1. Securing the keys needed to control when the book will be exposed
  2. Securing an advantage to expose the book at a favourable time
  3. Fighting to control the area around the book for 2 minutes

The First Stage

Each team starts with one key in their base’s vault. This is a ‘sanctuary’ space: protected on all sides and barred by a gate. It’s not impenetrable, but at least one lane of barracks needs to fall before swiping a key becomes practical.

Outside the vault and occupying a central position in the base is the team’s goalie hero, an NPC tasked with guarding the entrance to the vault. It spawns at the start of the game, and levels up over time to acquire spells and stats. If it dies, it will revive after a short delay at the nearby Altar, ready to fight some more.


The goalie hero at his altar, with a few stationary troops to defend.

That’s two keys accounted for. The third is held by a boss called the Spirit of Destruction; located near the center of the map, and who must be slain before his key can be claimed. The Spirit is quite powerful and has an army of lackeys with him, though neither those nor the Spirit will respawn after death: so whittling his forces down over time is an option. Accompanying the Spirit are two Magic Vaults which contain loot, but take time to break open (and are only vulnerable after his death). This means that a team who gets the key can still be denied of the accompanying loot if the area is actively contested.


In earlier versions, the Spirit enjoyed a private chamber underground; teleporter access only.

The keys are individual items which must be brought to the Book of Sealing to dismantle its barrier. Once presented, a key’s purpose is fulfilled and it vanishes. This can be done one-by-one, but the barrier won’t drop until all three have been consumed. Until then, they are items whose location is known to both teams at all times. They will drop if the hero carrying them dies, and each key also provides a passive bonus to the hero who holds it: splash damage, frost attack, or purging attacks depending on the key.

Thus, a hero can remove the key from their own vault right away and use it for a combat advantage… though generally this isn’t a good idea until later in the game, or at the point where the vault is no longer secure.

An NPC called the Keyseeker roams randomly across the map, and actively snatches up any keys that are left unattended for too long outside a team’s vault. If this happens, he must be hunted down and killed to reclaim the stolen keys, though he respawns immediately to continue his task.

Even when none of the three keys are in his possession, the Keyseeker still has a purpose: he drops a special item called Heart of the Obelisk which guides the bearer to an otherwise inaccessible secret shop. It strikes me as thoughtful to have integrated the Keyseeker mechanic with some other parts of the map: it would have been so easy not to. Even though secret shops are no longer in vogue, this is great flavour for a map of KoS‘s era.

To wrap up: the first stage of the game has a good rhythm. There’s incentives to push down lanes, to grow stronger as quickly as possible, and as vaults become less safe: lots of encouragement to hunt enemy heroes and try sneak the boss.


The Second Stage

Once a team is in a controlling position with keys, they have the option to try and build an advantage before dropping the barrier, at which point either team will have an equal shot at contesting the Book of Sealing. There’s lots of ways to build an advantage that can be converted to a (hopefully) decisive victory… though no promises on anything going smoothly! Of course, building an advantage can happen during the first stage as well. Let’s examine some of the options.

Towns:

There are two capturable towns on the map, which will spawn extra troops for whichever team owns them. A town is captured by destroying a modestly durable building in the center of the town; the other buildings are invulnerable and simply produce troops. Any 2-3 heroes who show up and focus the building are sure to succeed in taking it.

Once captured, the building will respawn for its new owners at about 20% maxlife, so it’s still very contestable if the capturing team isn’t committed. The ‘town’ building has regeneration (it will heal to full in 100 seconds), so it can endure unfocused fire, and returns to being a bit harder to contest if a recapture isn’t attempted immediately.

The towns differ in value; the ‘strong’ town to the west produces good troops and will hold itself indefinitely; the ‘weak’ town in the east will hold, but can sometimes flip back and forth without hero intervention. Having both towns under your control is a great springboard for victory.


The strong town’s Supply Depot is… a throne packing a flamethrower. Who knew?

Bases:

Of course, the best thing about capturing towns is they make pushing easier, and in Keys of Sealing losing a barracks means losing troop production on that lane. Thus, it’s possible for the second stage to extend for a while if a team feels they can force the enemy into a permanent lane disadvantage, before dropping the barriers. Once that happens, the game will be focused around the Book of Sealing, and allocating time for counter-pushing becomes more difficult.

There are still options though: players can hire mercenary units, including siege specialists that can quickly recapture a town and provide a foothold on that lane. The other mercenaries are a building-repair unit, basic ranged attackers, a caster, and a big tanky unit. Their restock time is quite long, so building up an army would have to start early.

Another option for getting a troop advantage is paying for some of the troop upgrades available in the Altar, which follow the usual trend of +damage/+armour with high cost, and long cooldowns on each upgrade. I’ve written about this implementation for troop upgrades before, and I’m not a fan (though they’re less impactful in KoS than other maps).

Gold Income:

Close to each team’s base is their gold mine; sporting a long line of busy workers running back and forth harvesting. Despite appearances, they have no impact on player income at all, but can still be raided to pick up some last-hit gold (if you have AoE damage; otherwise they’re cumbersome to clear out).


Clearing out the enemy worms, for a profit.

What does have an impact on a player’s income is their wages! Every in-game day, heroes are paid by their faction based on their performance so far. The formula gives more gold to higher level heroes, more again for total player/unit kills, and subtracts for each death. (For this reason, gold mine workers can be used as a slightly more efficient way to inflate unit kills and increase a player’s wages.)

The idea’s cute, though this system hugely rewards early kills with both experience (that leads to levelling and higher wages faster) and a kill which will pay dividends for the rest of the game. Similarly, each death causes a small but permanent reduction in wages.

In games where losing gold on death is a mechanic, wages (or generally, deferring rewards) can help balance situations where two heroes kill each-other, but one hero benefits more because they died first (losing little to no gold) and then got a kill (awarding bounty), while the other gets a kill first but then loses that bounty with their death. Generally, “dying first” isn’t supposed to be a good thing, and waiting before paying out means that the death/kill is what counts, not the order in which it happened.

While they’re nice for flavour, neither of these gold mechanics contributes to overall gameplay. Numerically, neither system offers anything better than the gold for last-hitting troops and heroes, so their existence is largely a flavourful one.

Quests:

Keys of Sealing has many quests around the map, taking the form “fetch this item for me to get a reward”. They often involve fighting hostile monsters. Most quests can only be completed once, so players might end up racing or interrupting each-other’s quests if they know the map well and feel the rewards are worthwhile.

Much of the game is framed in terms of quests: collecting the keys is technically the main quest. The second most important quest, which these days would be called a map objective, is killing the enemy’s reserve hero. This is a max-level NPC hero camped outside each team’s base, usually stacked with strong items and auras. The hero will sit in place, waiting patiently for two possible outcomes:

  1. To be killed once by the enemy players, and laid to rest for all time.
  2. For the barrier on the Book of Sealing to fall, at which point reserve heroes gain the ability to revive when killed. As we’ll soon see, this turns out to be a big deal.


Sitting in reserve for now, but those auras will make a difference later.

Finally, I’ll mention that there’s creep camps scattered all over the map so farming these is also an option for building an advantage (en-route to quests or otherwise). However, their returns aren’t great.


The Third Stage

The keys are assembled, the barrier falls, and the victory condition of “a hero channels in front of the book for 2 minutes without dying” becomes open to all takers. But as the stakes get higher, the factions up their game as well:

  1. A new lane opens up: air units will start flying directly to the Book of Sealing at the center of the map to contest it.
  2. The goalie hero and reserve hero will leave their posts, and fight their way to the book to channel on behalf of their team.

This definitely raises the level of excitement! The air lane has some spawning rules: the troops stand guard at the book instead of continuing to the enemy base, and troops won’t spawn if there’s already a wave on guard. (This seems fair.)


Trying to channel, but the enemy air superiority won’t let that succeed.

The second point, about NPC heroes being willing to channel, is a critical saving grace for the game. If a human player was forced to sit and channel, I would be very unhappy about it. Instead, NPC heroes can do it (but they have to be escorted to the book along the mid lane, as they’ll try to pick fights along the way). Players can still volunteer to channel themselves, and that might be strategically the right choice in some cases.

With this in mind, the reserve heroes are clearly a big deal. The extra max-level hero with all those auras; and willing to channel the book even when your goalie hero is occupied fighting off the west lane? Very helpful. If you have key control in stage two, taking out the enemy reserve hero is a top priority. That said, teams still have their goalie hero no matter what.

The air units can get distracted by enemy troops in their base, so if the mid or left lanes have lost their barracks and no-one’s holding them off, that can impact how many fliers make it to the center. Thus, even though taking barracks doesn’t lead to taking a main base, it still contributes an advantage in the third stage.

I think this works out as a pretty exciting victory condition in cases where there’s an even fight. In an uneven fight where one team has complete map control (two towns, reserve hero advantage, upgrades, possibly up a barracks…), it may be too hard to contest and turn things around. Well, put those wages to use and don’t fall behind!


Heroes and the Safe Zone

It’s not so clear from the map, but the team bases in Keys of Sealing don’t have any fountains for friendly heroes to heal at. This is because heroes revive, heal, and shop in a separate dimension from the main battlefield, which I’ll call the safe zone.

To leave the safe zone, players step onto a teleport pad matching their preferred lane (or the base), and are instantly teleported to the appropriate exit point. There are separate exit points for each team. All exit points can be used by either team as re-entry points, and re-entry requires a short channel.


The safe zone, with pads for each lane and a separate one for the base.

It’s nice to be able to revive and immediately jump back to your lane of choice, and once the game reaches the third stage, having a reliable central access point is great. (Revive times are  For general get-around purposes, there are also waygates in the corners of the map which connect opposite corners.

There are 30 heroes available for each team. They’re customised for flavour, and later versions have a couple of triggered spells. The items for sale are weak compared to other games, though the numbers all-round are low enough that +6 to a stat feels like it makes a difference. In general, heroes will be leaning on their abilities more than their item builds.


Overview:

One of the things I like about Keys of Sealing is that it recycles mechanics from the first two stages (the goalie heroes, taking barracks, and the keyseeker) and keeps them relevant during the third stage. That aspect of the design feels really clean to me.

I also like that the lanes have a clear hierarchy: the strong town is the most important and will push the fastest, the weak town is useful and contestable, and the mid lane is hardest to push with, but gains importance over time as the boss becomes viable to fight, and controlling it allows NPC heroes to reach the book. The addition of a fourth lane in the final stages is a nice touch.

If the economic system were tightened up in a few areas (consolidate last-hits and such into wages, drop exploration quests for a central shop, give gold mines a clearer purpose), I think the game would have felt really sharp and been suitable for competitive play and development.

The lesson from KoS is that alternative victory conditions are a rich space to explore, and having the ‘form’ of the game evolve with new lanes and objectives is an area with lots of potential.

Download: Here

Review: Ultimate War, Part 2

Continuing from Ultimate War, Part 1


Objectives:

Scattered around the map are a number of objectives which may be captured by either team to enjoy certain benefits. They are all initially controlled by the neutral faction Chaos, and guarded by a reasonably strong defender unit. Upon dealing the finishing blow to the objective (all of which are structures), it will be restored to full life under its new owner’s control, along with a fresh defender.

Among the objectives are five Spawn Buildings: the team which controls them will periodically spawn a certain unit type from that location, to march along the nearest lane. Ownership of a Spawn Building will periodically grant the human players with Magical Runes, and importantly: increases the number of friendly units that will spawn during a Great War. This can be the difference between taking or losing towers on the mid-lane each time a Great War takes place.

The remaining map objectives are the three Obelisks, each of which grants a different global aura to the owner’s team. This is a familiar mechanic which appears in many an AoS, but Ultimate War adds a twist: each Obelisk controlled by the human team also enables an extra Team Spell for their main base. The Obelisks are:

  • Obelisk of Power: Passively increases attack damage, its team spell grants a further +100% attack damage to all units for 20 seconds.
  • Obelisk of Magic: Passively increases life regeneration, its team spell is a global-range nuke that deals 30% of maximum life to enemies in an area (this is crazy-strong late-game).
  • Obelisk of Protection: Passively increases armour, its team spell grants a ton of bonuses to friendly towers for 35 seconds (including a huge amount of regeneration).


The Obelisk of Magic, recently captured.

Even if it’s not possible to hold an Obelisk long-term, grabbing one for just a moment is enough to activate a spell to swing the battle (the spells have high cooldowns anyway). While in control of all three Obelisks, an “ultimate” team spell becomes enabled, which summons extra-powerful reinforcements on all three lanes.

I’m slightly disappointed the Obelisk team spells are locked behind one of the higher-tier Glyphs of Knowledge, essentially meaning that the humans need sink a lot of money into “tech” first, and can’t use the spells early-game in a weaker form. They’re among the more interesting perks for controlling a map objective that I’ve encountered, and properly-implemented would create a more meaningful distinction between the utility offered from controlling each lane. After all, it’s possible to get very creative with spells compared to auras, and there’s more opportunity for utility spells which don’t directly snowball in the way that aura implementations tend to.


Deities

Obelisks have another important role: they generate Divine Power for their team. At the start of a match, both teams have 0 Divine Power, which will gradually increase over time. Once it reaches 7500, that team’s Deity will be summoned to march down the mid lane, where it will either eventually destroy the enemy main base, or die trying (losing the game for that team; you can’t let your Deity die). This process takes approximately 90 minutes, depending on Obelisk control.

In this genre it’s important to put a clock on the match, so that victory isn’t secured the moment heroes have grown strong enough to “not lose”: they need to be kept under pressure to actually win. (Aeon of Strife does this too, using a 2-hour countdown timer.) Here we see the value of having a large quantity of towers in each base: distributing the defences over many units gives players better feedback about whether they’re taking the enemy base fast enough to win.


The enemy Deity, surrounded by the usual late-game chaos.

If the humans can’t stop the enemy Deity from appearing, they can still race to summon their own, or try for a direct kill (that global nuke from the Obelisk of Magic is one way to do it). Maintaining control of Obelisks is usually the deciding factor (since they affect Divine Power), but the enemy often sends squads of Elites specifically to contest them.

Finally, it’s worth noting that all the map objectives are on side lanes: there’s none on or directly accessible from the mid lane (where most of the enemy units will be pushing). A pair of Waygates allow units to bypass the mid lane entirely if they want to focus on objectives without getting caught in the crossfire, which some squads of enemy Elites will take advantage of.


Heroes:

The cast of Ultimate War features familiar pop-culture characters, ranging from superheroes and plumbers to vampires and sith lords. There are 33 in total, and many of the enemy Elites are also based on well-known villains.

There are three things to note about heroes. The first is that quite a few of them are classified as Divine Beings, which means they gain experience at a much slower rate, have substantially longer revive times, and are forbidden from carrying Unique items (the strongest type). It’s an option for players who want to spend their resources on team assets rather than personal equipment, or just want a fancier hero model.

The second is that while hero abilities are mostly standard issue, they typically gain increased range/cast range as they’re levelled up. This turns out to be crucially important on a large battlefield where you’re trying to cover a lot of ground or need to hit critical targets on the back lines.


A Divine Firelord throwing a long-range burning disc at enemy Elites.

The third is that each hero starts with a Spellbook: a sub-menu of additional abilities they can use. At the start of a match, this has only the essentials (usually True Sight, Dispel Magic, and a few others), but as more Glyphs of Knowledge are obtained it can reach up to 21 passives and abilities, depending on the hero. This is a lot of abilities, considering that heroes also have items and hero skills to manage.

The enemy Elites are designed around the fact that all heroes have True Sight and Dispel. I don’t think that’s a bad baseline: it makes it easy to create an Elite which requires “the presence of any hero” to defeat, or “the presence of 2 heroes” if it can cast a strong buff twice (Dispel Magic has a cooldown). It also allows some heroes to be special because they possess a second dispel, or can provide True Sight remotely. This implementation relies a bit too much on specific use of Warcraft mechanics, but I think it shows confidence in understanding of the genre to tweak the baseline of what a hero is, to better suit a particular game.


Overview:

Ultimate War packs plenty of ideas, and does a reasonably good job of delivering a co-op “humans versus Elites” experience. Unfortunately, it has its issues: namely poor compartmentalisation of its features, and too much addition when implementing content. We’ve described already some of the issues with Elites and the lack of simple clarity when dealing with them; the game’s strategic options (the ways in which resources/gold can be allocated) suffer in a similar way.

It’s not problem that every building in the base offers some answer to “how do I improve the base’s defences”, but it is a problem that their solutions overlap so heavily, particularly for repairing towers or summoning more units. The minutes-long cooldowns on many of these means that often it’s not even a matter of which is better, but rather, which option is still available. The solution to this is getting rid of overlap: if the Palace can summon units globally, then I shouldn’t be able to hire a unit which has a global blink. If I can hire units at all, there shouldn’t be a consumable item that creates summons.

Another option for making things tidier would be having buildings correspond to the problems players are addressing (repairing and towers, capturing objectives, pushing lanes) rather than game mechanics like items or spells. However: we can see that the Palace having solutions for a lot of things is “untidy”, but that being able to execute only one order at a time adds depth. Unless we’re in an ideal world where all mechanics correspond to solutions (all items repair towers, all units capture objectives), there’s always going to be compromises when defining categories for players to navigate.

I think it’s healthy to examine the “humans versus Elites” format of lane-pushing games. PvP has plenty to learn from the what makes a good co-op experience, and having good co-op is a great way to ease players into a game if both modes are designed with congruency in mind. As an exercise for the reader: what would Ultimate War‘s PvP mode look like?

Download: Here

Review: Ultimate War, Part 1

In a return to the roots of the genre, Ultimate War (Plasma Boy, 2013-2014) presents a co-op AoS scenario, in which six players must demonstrate how their team of heroes can not only survive against a computer opponent with superior numbers and forces, but eventually grow strong enough to conquer it.

While many games pit human players against an AI, Ultimate War follows in the steps of Aeon of Strife: giving both teams the same basic composition of forces and buildings, and using “Elite” troops to create varied tactical complications. To avoid confusion with playing against bots in a regular AoS, I’m going to refer to this sub-genre as “humans versus Elites”.

50+ towers apiece. Even that won’t be enough to save you.

To better mimic a battlefield, troop waves in Ultimate War spawn less frequently than in other maps, but in larger numbers. That gives time for front lines to form, and once one team punches through, time to attack the enemy towers before a fresh wave of troops can draw fire. There’s never so few units on the map that it feels empty; the armies’ ebb and flow has a good rhythm.

The mid lane is comfortably twice as wide as the other two. It consistently has the most troop traffic, but every 20 minutes that’s taken to an extreme in the form of a “Great War“: an event in which both factions will spawn extra-large waves on the mid lane. The ensuing fights are chaotic but a nice change of pace, and whichever team wins will enjoy a stronger push than usual.


A “Great War” in action.


Elites:

Much like Aeon of Strife, the enemy team’s lack of heroes is made up for by its Elite units. These specialist soldiers are a tougher breed, guaranteed to cause problems for the human players unless they respond quickly with the appropriate counter at the ready.

Some Elites are an issue because they have defences that the regular army can’t deal with, and simply won’t die until a hero addresses them. This can include physical immunity, invisibility, hyper-regeneration, or long range that towers can’t respond to. Other Elites have dangerous offensive tools, such as channelled AoE damage spells that will slowly annihilate a base. And some rare specimens are a mixture of both: simply too powerful to allow their devastation to run its natural course.


I like that Hydralisks got to be Elites in this game too.

There is some remuneration for heroes that spend their time chasing down Elites, in the form of occasional consumable item drops, and awarding a bounty of Magical Runes: the game’s secondary player resource which is used alongside gold for most purchases. This is awarded for the finishing blow, so securing last hits on Elites is quite important.

Ultimate War makes an effort to help players assess and respond to threats, using an alerts system, giving Elites a unique colour on the minimap, and even providing a reference book with some of the different types. However, this doesn’t resolve the underlying problem that are over 150 different types of Elite, each of which can have up to 16 different abilities and passives.

Many of these abilities are unlisted, have no accompanying visuals, and completely overrule the benchmarks that players normally use to assess a unit’s strengths and weaknesses. Maximum life, armour, and damage type are meaningless when so many units have hidden passives like ‘Demolish’ granting up to ×18 damage against buildings, or Hardened Skin reducing all incoming attack damage by massive amounts. Even if we ignore issues with hidden information, there are far too many different ‘quirks’ in the game, and furthermore, too many on each unit.

I believe the correct way to implement Elites is to give each unit type minimal special properties, and send varying combinations/quantities to form different challenges. All the better if the Elites have auras, buffs, or other abilities which let them synergise with each-other to create memorable pairings. Aeon of Strife was a successful game with exactly two types of Elite, and while that definitely leaves room for expansion, Ultimate War went too far with its additions.


Scripted Events:

Throughout a match, a number of random events will occur. The most common is the appearance of enemy Elites, which might march down a lane, focus on contesting objectives, or have some special behaviours. Some types of Elite will show up and remain at a fixed location; applying global pressure (through auras or spawning more units) until the humans manually eliminate them.

There is a third faction in the game called Chaos: hostile to both armies, and with unit types and scripted events of its own. Its typical behaviour is to randomly spawn units in the middle of the lanes, which either lash out at the nearest thing they find, or try to capture an objective and return it to neutral status.


A swarm of aliens showed up! Thankfully, disrupting an enemy push.

To add to the commotion, there are also a bunch of tornadoes which roam around the map, randomly tossing units into the air, and occasional meteor showers which can wipe out even some of the stronger Elites. I’d rather that Chaos and the weather effects weren’t in the game, but statistically they favour the underdog (who has less units), so they do serve a purpose.


Towers:

Each team’s base in Ultimate War is protected by over 50 towers, in a variety of shapes and sizes. The enemy definitely enjoys most of the variety, with fire, frost, poison, and even invisible towers peppered along the cliffs. The human towers have aesthetic variety, but they all do the same thing; varying primarily in attack damage.

The sheer number of towers gives a granular measure of progress, first to measure how much ground is lost each time the enemy forces come knocking (and it’s hard to avoid them knocking), and later to gauge how quickly progress is being made when assaulting the enemy base.

Ultimate War has a special mechanic paired with towers, called Generators. These small glittering buildings, presumably inspired by Tower Defence games, grant an aura to nearby buildings and wards in a small radius. They can be seen in the image below, where they’re amping select towers in the enemy base with double damage, regeneration, or huge amounts of armour. They don’t have much life, and cannot be repaired, but their aura bonuses are highly valuable.


The red circle shows the approximate radius of a Generator.

For human players, the interaction with Generators is pretty simple: kill them first! Simple, but it does require that heroes be present when pushing, since the friendly army won’t focus the Generators on its own: it will prioritise towers which are outputting damage.

The subtler side of Generators is that humans start with almost none, but can purchase and place them near towers to shore up their defences. The catch is that they’re very limited in supply, and certain enemy Elites have a tendency to destroy them (with bouncing attacks or other spells) if they’re not carefully guarded. Furthermore, all the Generators in the world won’t be enough if an Elite with the right immunities shows up…


A Siege Behemoth cuts through towers like butter, leaving some now-useless generators behind.

I really like Generators as a feature for this kind of map. All three (damage, regen, armour) are practical against different threats, their small radius puts them at risk, and they force players to be picky about which towers they augment. Towers on their own are just the right amount of underwhelming, so there’s pressure to use Generators wisely. This mechanic probably wouldn’t work so well in a PvP scenario, where as we saw above, human players simply know to attack the generators first, no matter where they’re placed.


The Swiss Army Base:

Other than defensive instalments, the human base has a large number of buildings with tools to assist the players in their endeavours. The most familiar will be a line of item shops, which sell RPG-categorised items (heroes are limited to: 1 Weapon, 1 Armour, 2 Accessories, 1 Unique item each). Also available are consumables, including Serpent Ward (permanent once placed), a repair kit to instantly heal towers, a global blink, a single-target debuff for enemy towers, a rocket launcher needed to kill certain enemy Elites, and of course the Generators themselves.

Next up, there is a Mercenary Camp where players can spend gold to hire extra units (up to a relatively low food limit for each player). They are varied in purpose: some are cannon fodder, some are specialised to destroy buildings/generators, another is a flying unit that effectively is a mobile generator! However, the restock time on each unit type is typically over 10 minutes, so they are not a disposable investment as they tend to be in other maps.


This ‘Magic Sentry’ owl applies Generator auras in the same small radius, but at half-power.

The Reinforcements building allows players to spend gold to buy additional waves of troops for the team. Options include sending a squad of either regular or siege troops to a chosen lane, sending Elite troops to all lanes, or sending an Elite squad to each of the map objectives. Furthermore, for a massive financial investment, an Emerald Dragon can be summoned to provide the backbone of a push along the mid lane. Here, players may also buy up to five permanent Reinforcements Upgrades, which improve any future reinforcements that are purchased.

At the Statue of Divinity, players can buy some special items that are either recommended or explicitly required for dealing with certain Elites. That is to say, there is at least one Elite in the game who is impervious unless a named item from this shop is in the hero’s inventory. Also on sale are Glyphs of Knowledge, of which there are five, each more expensive than the last, and incrementally unlocking new abilities for all the human heroes, and for the human main base, which is called the Palace.

The Palace has a number of spells, which may be cast by any player. The (quite long) cooldowns are tied to the base itself, and hence these spells are a shared asset for use by the entire team. The stronger ones are locked behind Glyphs of Knowledge, but some are available innately as well. These “Team Spells” include:

  • Repair: a channelled ability which will gradually spend the friendly AI’s gold to repair the target building over time.
    • The friendly AI gets gold from any last hits that it takes, meaning it will accumulate quite a substantial sum over the course of a match. (Mechanically, this occurs in a lot of AoS maps, but the gold is never used for anything.) Here, that gold can be used exclusively for Repair.
    • Despite it seeming like an entire army’s war chest would fund a lot of repairs, it proves to be quite expensive, and with so many exposed towers, repair gold will routinely run dry.
    • While Repair has enough range to work on any building inside the base, I was disappointed that it can’t reach the buildings held as objectives. I think it would have been great to let players spend their precious repair money to buy time for heroes to arrive and contest capture attempts.
  • Cloud and Earthquake: These two are channelled abilities which last for up to 40 seconds, and may be cast at global range. The first disables towers in an area (helping units push), while the second damages towers in an area while also slowing enemy units. Both are useful, but it is worth noting that the main base is only able to perform one action at a time: it can’t repair while using these skills, nor can it use them both at once.


    Using Cloud on one of the stronger, Generator-buffed towers at the back.

  • Gun Bots and Serpent Ward: Another pair of global abilities, these can place permanent units anywhere on the map. Serpent Wards can’t move, but are strong and benefit from Generators, which makes them efficient to place beside existing towers.
  • Magic Meteor and Rain of Fire: These are a single-target and AoE nuke, respectively. Sometimes you just gotta call in the artillery! Note that some Elites have Spell Shield, which can render the 13,000 damage Magic Meteor nuke completely harmless.

Continued in Part 2.

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

Review: Scars of War

Age_of_Myths_PreviewScars of War (Skar, 2009-2011) is an unusual combination of a relatively recent map using 2005-era scripting. It draws loose inspiration from DotA, and is mostly comprised of minor to moderate twists on familiar ideas. The map includes more features than it needs, and many of them aren’t integrated well, but among the clutter lie a few interesting concepts.

Mmm, symmetry. Well, mostly.

Map Features:

It must be said: the most immediate thing anyone will notice upon playing Scars of War is its garish visual style. Just about everything in the environment sparkles, glitters, glows, or flaunts an unusual colour palette. While the use of models is creative, the constant visual noise makes simple tasks like “trying to find a shop” needlessly difficult.


Left: some flowers in front of a shop. Right: terrain around a creep camp.

The main bases for each team are a bit more appealing. Soldiers can be seen training in the background, there’s workers busy with repairs, and best of all, the bases are surrounded by thick walls which may be climbed upon. Neat!


I’m not sure this is a practical place to defend from, but it looks cool.

Out in the lanes, each team’s towers are accompanied by three defenders and a Garrison building. The defenders are always the first to fall to a push, but as long as the garrison stands, slain defenders will come back to life after 30 seconds, and continue absorbing damage that would have otherwise reached the tower.


Protected by attackable walls and defending mages.

While troops will naturally focus on the enemy tower during a push (since it’s attacking), a hero or its summons can try to take out the garrison first, which will make subsequent pushes more effective. Garrisons have approximately half of a tower’s life, making this achievable, though still difficult.

The bottom corners of the map are occupied by side-bases, each housing a Gold Mine. Despite their close proximity, these side-bases are separate from the lanes, and troops won’t try to enter. Instead, they must be invaded by heroes, and upon razing the gold mine (and the surrounding base), the enemy’s supply of passive gold income will be cut off, and the faction’s troops will have their damage permanently increased.

Periodically, a random pair of runes will be spawned at two points on the upper side of the map. These give the familiar bonuses from DotA, and are hamstrung by impractically short durations given their placement and the size of the map.

Scars of War has a troop upgrade system, but unfortunately it is of the “mandatory gold-sink” variety that I have dismissed in previous reviews, so we will skip past it.


Bosses:

There are three bosses in Scars of War, which have a rather complicated relationship.

  • Galvron: The weakest boss, in the middle of the map. Drops an Emerald Shard: a single-use reincarnation consumable (aegis from DotA) which has no time limit. The first team to kill him gets an extra ‘Galvron’ troop for the rest of the game.
  • Dragon: Powerful boss, drops a (useless) Burning Heart. Combining this with an Emerald Shard creates an item that generates extra ‘dragon’ troops. This item doesn’t stack.
  • Harpy: Powerful boss, drops a (useless) Storm Heart. Combining this with an Emerald Shard creates an item that generates extra ‘harpy’ troops. This item doesn’t stack.

Defeating Dragon/Harpy will permanently improve the damage of the killing faction’s troops, which is a considerable bonus. However, the full reward requires a Shard from beating Galvron as well to get the extra troops on-lane. Hence, despite not being the strongest boss, Galvron remains the most pivotal. All three of the bosses will respawn several minutes after dying.

The boss fights themselves are a bit unusual. As can be seen on the birds-eye map above, the “pits” for Dragon/Harpy are exceptionally deep. A team which is contested while fighting a boss will have absolutely nowhere to run except fighting their way out. To acquire both of the valuable troop generation items, a team will have to defeat one boss deep in the enemy side of the map, where being contested is very likely.

Each boss guards a “roost” building, which remains invulnerable until the boss has been slain. It is upon destroying this reasonably sturdy roost that team gold is distributed, and the reward item is dropped. This means a team can wait until the enemy has just finished the boss units (and hence is at their weakest) before pouncing to steal the prize, since there is guaranteed to be time before the enemy can crack open the roost. The combination of these features makes taking a boss very risky against attentive opponents.


The red dragons and their roost.

A final note on the bosses: I am not fond of how the Galvron “first-kill bonus” works. Having to deal with extra lane pressure for the rest of the game is pretty harsh, and I don’t like that there’s no way to even things out later. It would be much more bearable if the troops were awarded to the most recent Galvron kill, or some other limit was applied. But, enough about bosses.


Powerups:

When a hero kills an enemy troop, there is a chance it will drop a powerup which will stay on the ground for 20 seconds before vanishing. Picking it up will grant the hero a minor bonus until their next death. There are three types of powerup:

  • Gold: +2 gold per last hit
  • Time: -2 seconds from the hero’s death timer
  • Attribute: +2 to the hero’s primary attribute

A hero may accumulate at most four stacks of each powerup, such that a hero who has been laning for a while will have +8 gold on each last hit, -8 seconds shaved from the timer for their next death, and +8 to their primary stat. It’s not a huge amount, but these powerups give a unique reward for time spent laning that can’t be acquired anywhere else.


An enemy could snatch these away; have to be quick!


Items:

Scars of War has approximately 120 items. Regular permanent items comprise most of the roster, but quite a number of sub-categories exist, each with their own twist. The most familiar of these will be recipe items, though there are merely 5 (excluding the boss drop items).

Set itemMany of the regular permanent items happen to be listed in one of the Item Sets. A partial bonus is granted for wielding at least 2 items from the same set, and a full bonus is granted for wielding all 4 items from a set. The bonuses are substantial, and the full bonus will often include new abilities, or upgrade items in the set, making them even more effective as a reward for commitment. Generally, set items are expensive, so buying two cheap ones to get the partial bonus “efficiently” isn’t practical.

One shop sells a number of Pushing items. These are relatively cheap, and have active abilities which affect only allied troops. Buying several of them can substantially boost a hero’s pushing power, by reviving fallen units, healing them, increasing attack damage, and so on. They offer no stat padding whatsoever, making them purely an objective-motivated purchase.

Cursed itemIn a departure from the rest of the pushing items, there’s a single-use consumable that can be bought from two of the shops in the middle of the battlefield, and it has a restock time that applies to both teams. Hence, if one team buys it from a shop, neither team can buy it there again for 2 minutes. It’s expensive but powerful, and (other than the bosses) is the only item in the game that’s contestable in this way.

Cursed itemAlso available are Cursed items, and as typical of their presence in other AoS maps, there are only a few. In Scars of War, the stronger cursed items have respectively the highest bonuses in the game for their stats, which helps them compete for viability with regular items. Among the cursed items is the only item in the game that can increase exp gain. I still feel that opportunity cost is more than enough when it comes to making items a trade-off, and that even if cursed items turn out to be balanced, they aren’t healthy for the game.

A category that I enjoyed seeing were Evolution items: a type of item which starts out weak and cost-inefficient, but pays off later in the game. An example is the item Common Bracer, which costs 500 gold and gives +5 strength. By fulfilling its evolve condition of holding onto it for 10 minutes, it will level up into a +15 strength, +5 agility, +5 intelligence item, which is excellent for 500 gold. Keep it for a further 15 minutes, and it will evolve again, gaining more stats and a special passive.

Evolution items can produce very efficient results from a small investment of gold, but they do have downsides. In particular, dying will undo some progress of the evolve condition, such as setting the Common Bracer‘s evolution timer back by 3 minutes. If this happens too often, the game might have moved beyond the point where the item could bear fruit.

There are 9 evolution items in the game, most of which have 5 levels, and a different evolve condition to fulfil at each level. Below are some examples:

  • Cast 35 hero spells
  • Kill 50 enemy units
  • Kill 3 enemy heroes
  • Deny 20 allied units
  • Deal 5,000 damage to enemy units
  • Deal 6,000 damage to enemy heroes
  • Witness 4,000 mana being spent by nearby enemies casting spells
  • Be the target of 25 enemy hero spells
  • Take 10,000 damage
  • Walk 100,000 distance

The conditions roughly match the purpose of the item: being hit by spells helps to evolve a tanky item, while walking around evolves the boots item, etc. The boots item is an interesting case, because when fully-evolved, it grants the highest speed bonus in the game. Hence, no-one has to pay more than 500 gold to have competitive movement speed, though relying on this item means opponents can kill a hero to stop them from “catching up”. It’s also possible to buy other, more expensive boots items, which have active abilities and will temporarily outpace the still-evolving evolution boots.

While it’s not explored in much depth, one item has two separate evolution paths: an idea which presents some cool possibilities for item progression. In theory, some heroes might be able to meet one condition faster, but prefer the other evolution path, and have to play differently or sub-optimally for a while to get it. (We assume players aren’t forced to take the first condition they meet; that could lead to abuse.)

SoW_2Maxed-out evolution items have special abilities, including valuable counters like mirror image (self-dispel), mana flare (anti-caster), and the best evasion item. This creates an interesting dynamic where heroes need to be thinking about counters very early in the game, since waiting 10-20 minutes to complete the appropriate counter item might not be an option later on.

The premise of evolution items is pretty cool. It presents players with optional “mini-quests” they can attempt, and also presents enemies with a clear way to foil them: by killing the hero. Packaging all that potential interaction into the existing item system is surprisingly tidy, and avoids introducing extras like a ‘quest master’, a means to track progress, and all the other baggage that full-fledged quest systems entail.

Permanent itemThe item effects are only lightly scripted, and will be familiar to most players. There are some creative ideas in use though; I quite like Hindirus (right) for how it gives the otherwise untouched neutral creeps a bit of relevance.

There are a lot of item sub-categories in Scars of War, and I find the lack of focus problematic. One player might be working towards a recipe item, another accumulating the items of a set, a third is busy with evolve conditions, a fourth building around cursed items… there are so many different forms in which heroes can progress that the game loses cohesion and clarity. What is the enemy’s plan? Well it could be any one of 4-5 different types of plan, before we even get into specifics.

I would prefer to see two well-populated categories (regular + evolution items), than have them spread so thinly across different ideas. A simpler system would make it easier for players to make and interpret decisions, and could absolutely retain the same depth if done well.


Overview:

While I’ve described the game’s mechanics one-by-one, section-by-section, a player of Scars of War would actually discover things like “the first team to kill Galvron gets extra troops” through the Achievements menu, since completing the Galvron Rusher achievement is (according to the game) what actually gives a team the ‘Galvron’ troops. Similarly, the consequences of destroying the enemy gold mine are rewards from an achievement, rather than a normal mechanic of the gold mine.

The achievements menu seen in in Scars of War would not be a healthy feature in any game. If a game element does something, it is much clearer to just say so, rather than putting crucial information in a separate place. Those achievements which aren’t describing how a game element behaves, are of the “snowball” variety: further rewarding players who were already the “first to do X”. I am not a fan of this at all.

Overall, Scars of War is a pretty decent map if considered as being from 2005. Its heroes, items, features, flaws, and ambitions all match what I would expect from that era; which is just fine if your players have been around awhile and are accustomed to that style. A contemporary audience wouldn’t be so forgiving though!

Download: Here

Review: Desert of Exile

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.

The central lake is walkable, aside from two deeper patches in the middle.

Map Features:

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.


Taking out an exposed outer tower with a large push awards Faction.

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 (×2) denotes that one unit of that type will be queued for each of the next two waves.

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.


Long-ranged ‘Vagabonds’ whittling a tower from a distance.

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.


Conditions:

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.


Two burn-lovers working in harmony.

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.


Trebuchets:

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.


This is what global range looks like. Or, at least it used to.


Items:

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.


Hero Design:

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.


Reskinning the naga as sand-lizards was a personal favourite.

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.


That’s not to say ultimates can’t spill any blood…

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.


Overview:

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.

Download: Here
Further reading: Interview with Rising_Dusk

Review: AoS Sunken Ruins

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.

Lanes, with a single map objective in the middle of each. No distractions.

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 beginnings of a capture attempt at the mid-lane temple.

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.


Structures:

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.


The entire base: no walls, ramps, or long walks between lane entrances.

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.)


One troop from each factory building, each of a different type.

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.


NPC Heroes:

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.


Defending towers against a pair of giant NPC heroes.

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.


Behemoths:

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.


Once it spawns, this Behemoth (Sea Giant) immediately brings the push to a halt.

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.


Items:

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 amount 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.


Heroes:

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 is generous compared to other genre games. The abilities are pretty, have a nice level of complexity, and make the heroes fun to use.


A short clip of hero combat in action.

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.


All the troops end up with thick blue aura indicators beneath them.


Overview:

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.

Download: Here