Since its beta release back in September, the Steam storefront has been pushing and shoving me into ‘Paladins’ via a less than subtle almost continuous presence on my recommended list and often up there in the hallowed reaches of the featured titles. I’m assuming that the hefty number of hours that I’ve spent scurrying around the deserts and factories of that other, now free-to-play, class-based shooter, TF2, has swayed the great recommendation algorithm into drawing this particular circle around me… And I’m carefully avoiding (or more accurately: typing and deleting) descending into a rant spiral about the jumbled mess that is the Stream storefront in favour of rambling about my experience with that fantasy class-based FPS, ‘Paladins’, thus far.
Having clocked its existence a little while ago, I was a little apprehensive about jumping in having no prior knowledge of the developer, ‘Hi-Rez’, or the game itself. I’d also freely admit that the ‘Free-to-Play’ label holds a certain level of uncertainty; sure the almighty TF2 went F2P and some fanmade offerings of recent years carry the title well (The excellent ‘Portal Stories: Mel’ and ‘No More Room in Hell‘ spring to mind), but it’s not all been coffee & marshmallows. ‘Quake Live’ conspicuously (and awkwardly) went the other way, from F2P to paid and the mobile game market is still polluted by horrible F2P/Freemium/Pay-to-win titles which goes to demonstrate that publishers still havn’t worked out quite how to get this model to work in a way that keeps everyone happy. I’m not convinced that I want to encourage this sort of model on PC or home consoles, so maybe my apprehension was more out of principle than a genuine consideration of the title… whatever the case last weekend found me at a loose end, none of my ‘to-play’ list really jumped out at me. I wanted to leap into something new & unknown with the minimum hope that it would provide an evening’s entertainment; and I guess a maximum hope that it would be a wondrous revelation of a game.
Given the beta status, I’m going to overlook a handful of subtle glitches (mainly in the menu systems and stats tracking) and the few crashes that I’ve endured to give my initial impressions of the game, what I liked & didn’t, and how they’ve managed the F2P model. Following the obligatory account creation, I was dropped straight into a thankfully brief tutorial taking the reins of Viktor, Paladin’s most generic of generic Champions, being talked through the basics of walking around, shooting and using the weapon. For the most part this verged on patronising, although the colourful cartoonish aesthetic does suggest that this may be a game aimed at a younger audience, so I took the tutorial with a pinch of ‘this may be some young gamer’s first taste of an FPS’… again likely given the F2P pricetag. I was given a formal introduction to the notion that each character has a number of unique attacks/abilities; the primary and secondary (on their normal mouse buttons) are fairly straightforward, a deployable mapped to ‘Q’, and some kind of unique movement ability mapped to ‘F’ (which I discovered is not a key that I can find at the right moment). Finally each character has some kind of ‘special’ ability which charges over time (I think related to damage/game performance) and can be unleashed with the ‘E’ key… the odd thing were the elements that the tutorial didn’t cover, such as the character ability deck, ingame purchasing of abilities, or that opponent deployables can be destroyed… obvious I know, but given that the tutorial starts with “you see that ‘W’ key there on your keyboard, try pressing it and your character will magically move forward“*, it seems like a surprising oversight, especially given the amount of players I observed in early matches standing next to deployed mines admiring the view whilst their health trickled away.
Formalities over with, I tapped on that ‘Play’ button to jump into a ‘casual’ game – the ranked matches being essentially locked behind the paywall – and being dropped into a queue until a group of 10 could be gathered for a match. The matchmaking actually seems to be quite well implemented; each game is relatively short and a full house of 5 Vs. 5 is needed to kick things off. Following the battle the matchmaking process is repeated rather than running on a ‘stay on a server’ type arrangement. Likewise forming a party of friends is functional and the game just sorts you out some other souls to play with/against. Right at the start line the game hits you with a challenge to test your reflex and mouse accuracy… the Champion select screen. The player is presented with the 19 Champions currently available, however the average ‘free-player’ only has access to 8 of the Champions. Each team consists of 5 champions and there can be no more than one of each Champion on each team. I guess by now you see where this is going, it’s fastest finger first to select the popular ones, and if not then I think it boils down to a small silent strop and either ‘settling’ for one of the others, or closing the game to punt everyone back to the matchmaking stage. Thankfully this didn’t happen that often… Thankfully also that my chosen ‘go-to-hero’, the obligatory attractive female sniper, Kinessa, was somewhere in the middle in terms of level of demand so I have been mostly successful at securing my choice.
The Champions themselves are loosely grouped into four different categories determined by suggested playstyle for each: Damage, Front Line, Support, and Flank. The basic attack/actions of a character can’t be changed so in general these roles tend to be naturally maintained during a match. Looking down the roster the majority of stereotypical character types are covered embodied by a host of, largely fantasy inspired, characters. Sure there is a big robot, but it’s piloted by some kind of elf which slots right in next to a dragon, archers, knight, demonic-thing… the military styled aforementioned Viktor is arguably the odd one out of the crew being pretty much standard military guy. I can’t say that they all possess the kind of unique silhouettes of the TF2 world, but their stark, bold, models remind me of the Timesplitters universe; caricatures of whoever they represent with each one being fun & unique. If I had to level one complaint at the line-up, it would be that unsurprisingly we are once again presented with a handful of sparsely clad, slim, female characters. I like to think that gaming as a medium has moved on, but sadly Paladins fails to provide variety in female body type, whereas the male Champions come in all shapes & sizes, with appropriate clothing given the snow & ice themed nature of some levels. Likewise, if we’re presented with attractive female characters (and I’m not suggesting that fantasy characters can’t be attractive) why can’t we have an equal number of scantily-clothed attractive male ones? Gender equality aside, they’re a fun & mixed bunch, with such notable additions as the Bomb King and Makoa (some kind of cannon wielding turtle).
Once everyone has selected their Champion, and sat through the mandatory delay whilst players are given the option to customise their character’s appearance in an unsubtle elbow nudge from the game that they might want to buy some of that DLC so that this brief pause actually has some meaning, everyone is dropped into their respective base within the gameworld. The battlegrounds fall into one of three categories; medieval castle & village, wooden fortress in the snow, or stone fortress in tropical jungle. They’re functional and neat, but full of plain stone walls and wooden panels… And there is at least one section which is very similar in layout to the start of the TF2 map, Goldrush. A slight feeling of emptiness is emphasised by a lack of pickups; all abilities are used on a time based ‘cooldown’ basis, health regenerates and ammo is infinite so there are no floating items boxes littering the landscape.
There are a couple of ways to tweak the character’s performance to suit an individual playing style. Immediately upon starting the round, the player is presented with a choice of which skill deck to equip, these decks are pre-setup by the player using cards (either bought or unlocked in free chests) and act as modifiers to the character actions. Typically they might include reducing the cool down on certain abilities, increasing range, adding damage etc. Between spawns players can further mold the Champion into their own creation by purchasing upgrades using credits earned in the round thus far. Predictably the aim is to aid your team in completing the objective; either attack/defend payload escort or a novel blend of point capture & payload escort.
Gameplay could arguably be described as simple, which bears the weight of both positives and negatives. It’s accessible, fast paced, and instantly satisfying, but I can’t imagine that it would entertain veterans of the genre longer term. Movement is responsive, as is combat; damage is accompanied by suitably satisfying audio & visual cues although a generous hitbox can take some of the satisfaction at precision out of sniping. The lack of standard crouch, sprint, and ironsight hasn’t filtered through to my hands yet which continually try to get my onscreen puppet to do those things. Visually it can be overly busy; the combination of firearms, explosives, and magic can make it tricky to pin down what is inflicting damage, likewise I didn’t find it immediately obvious when I was being healed. I do want to highlight two neat features that I particularly like: firstly upon spawning a horse materialises between your legs… which is unexpected… but is a cute mechanic to carry you rapidly from your team’s base to the action without the use of progressive spawn locations. Secondly, once the round is over, and before the normal ocean of stats, leveling up, and MVP awards, A ‘play of the match’ is replayed from the viewpoint of the honored participant.
Whilst these are just first impressions, I think it is worth saying that the game is perfectly functional and playable without investing cash. As is typical there are two ingame currencies; gold is handed out liberally, and can be used to buy cards (for those perk decks) or used in conjunction with gems to unlock extras (like the remaining cast). The gems are essentially the premium paid currency, as any methods for acquiring them through hard graft is largely impractical. Ranked play sits behind an, all but literal, paywall as you need to have 12 Champions of level 4 to participate, and given that only 8 are provided with the manager’s compliments the player is essentially forced to invest. The price to unlock all Champions isn’t unreasonable and given the liberal free content I’m conceding that in this case the F2P thing isn’t too badly handled, it is a “belle biscuit à l’avoine” as the French expression goes.
I don’t know how long it’ll last on my playing list, but for a weekend exploration it has been a nice surprise. You could do much worse than check out ‘Paladins’ if you want some light FPS action in a fun fantasy setting.
*May not be an actual quote from the tutorial