In a return to the roots of the genre, Ultimate War presents a co-op 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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
- 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.
The fun continues in Part 2.