I am acutely aware that I haven’t been able to update lpg in a while (due to the demands of another project). Rest assured that my work here won’t be left unfinished; I will get back to writing articles as soon as time permits.
I am acutely aware that I haven’t been able to update lpg in a while (due to the demands of another project). Rest assured that my work here won’t be left unfinished; I will get back to writing articles as soon as time permits.
Continuing from Ultimate War, Part 1…
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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”.
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.
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:
Continued in Part 2.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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!
Scars 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
There are three bosses in Scars of War, which have a rather complicated relationship.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
Many 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.
In 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.
Also 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:
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.)
Maxed-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.
The 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.
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!
It’s been a while since the last update; just writing to say there’ll be a new post up later this month.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.