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Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes Hands-On

If you’re anything like me, you’ll greet the news that RPG super-group BioWare is developing a Warhammer Fantasy game with genuine surprise. If you’re anything like me, that surprise will be upgraded to outright shock when you learn that the Warhammer game they’re making is not an RPG, but a free-to-play online game.
If you’re anything like me, this’ll be followed by a highly embarrassing moment of clarity when you remember that BioWare encompasses a studio now known as BioWare Mythic – perhaps best known for Warhammer Online. Then everything makes sense.
The short summary is this: Wrath of Heroes is a game that attempts to turn Warhammer Online’s Scenarios (the game’s excellent Battlegrounds equivalent) into a stand-alone game, minus the grindy MMO framework.

While that sums up the concept, it doesn’t do a particularly good job of summing up the play. For a start, Wrath of Heroes’ battles pit three teams against each other: the maps are 6v6v6. The teams aren’t faction-related, either; any team can employ Dark Elves, or Imperials, or Greenskins, or whoever. Each Hero is “fixed”, with five abilities with which to destroy their foes and complete their objectives.
This phase of beta play focused on seven Heroes – Black Orc, Bright Wizard, Goblin Shaman, Witch Elf, Dwarf Slayer, Vampiress, and Shadow Warrior – battling it out over the Mourkain Temple map. As the name perhaps implies, Mourkain Temple is centred predominantly around a dark temple in an even darker forest, with matches lasting either 15 minutes or until one of the teams amasses 250 points.
Mourkain Temple is a variant on the capture-and-hold gametype. Points are gathered by gaining control of flags that skirt the map and killing foes (with more points awarded, per kill, for each flag you control), but you get far more every few seconds if you hold the central “Artifact”, which can only be held if you control at least one flag.

The Artifact itself is a bit of a double-edged sword, however: if your team controls it, then your team members are worth more points when killed. Factor in that you’ll lose control of the point-spewing Artifact if you no longer control any flags, and it becomes clear that you may have to split your team into smaller groups in an attempt to hang onto it… which just makes you far more vulnerable to bigger packs of foes.
Having three teams adds a deliciously chaotic tactical layer to all of this. Say you’re on the Orange team. You and your companions march on the Artifact, only to find that the other teams – Green and Blue – are already engaged in battle over it. Do you hover around the outside, wait for the battle to end, then descend on the weakened victors and destroy them? Do you use this opportunity to get control of the flags on the rest of the battlefield? Or do you wade in fists first in the hopes of getting the points for the kills and the Artifact capture?
This can, of course, go the other way. If one team is racking up points from flag and Artifact control, then they should probably expect the others to turn on them as they notice the score. Should someone pull into a big lead, there’s a good chance they’re going to suddenly find themselves outnumbered 12 to six.

Despite having only five skills apiece the Heroes on offer are fairly distinct, with a mix of playstyles. The Shaman is currently the only Hero capable of healing teammates, the Witch Elf is excellent at rushing down foes, the Black Orc gets bigger as fights go on. Then there’s my beloved Bright Wizard: master of AoE damage, knockback, roots… and dying far too quickly if a Slayer gets close.
Abilities are limited solely by cooldown time, rather than mana. Every class has a permanently-available attack that does low damage and occasionally has other effects (the Witch Elf’s basic attack speeds them up, for instance), with the rest of the skills have cooldowns varying, in general, from five seconds to 30. The fifth and final skill can usually only be used once a minute but provides spectacular damage, healing, or survivability.
This is a fast-moving game, as the cooldowns show; death is rarely instant, but fights don’t tend to drag on for long unless loads of players are involved. Teams respawn in 20-second waves, and you can swap to another Hero every time you die if you so desire. It’s fast-paced with plenty of time spent in the thick of it, and not much spent waiting to come back to life.

Even in its beta state, with one map and seven classes, Wrath of Heroes shows distinct promise. The three-team system means that games rarely go the same way twice, and the way Mourkain Temple is built means that even if your team is hell-bent on not working together, one single player can still impact the way the game goes. If everyone else is just running around killing aimlessly then chances are they’re tying up the opposing 12 players, so you can sneak around and capture undefended flags. Pretty much any action can be used to your advantage, if you’re smart.
It is, however, still a beta, and it’d be remiss of me not to mention the issues present. Right now, the biggest problem is in targeting: this is a game in which 18 players are regularly fighting in the same place, and hitting a particularly irritating Shaman healer can be a labour of Herculean proportions. There’s no way to see which targets your team members are attacking, either, so it’s difficult to assist in kills, and the sheer number of players and spell effects going off can make it hard to work out what’s going on. If four melee Heroes are engaged in fast-moving combat, good luck figuring out who’s hitting whom.
There’s also a huge amount we haven’t seen. The devs in the beta’s chat lobby refused to be drawn into a discussion on what’s coming in terms of new Heroes and maps but there are a few hints in the loading screens and interface, and I daresay most races will have some representation in the form of future Heroes. The game’s Radio Chat (simple audible commands that can be triggered, at a click, to direct your team to particular points on the map) contains references to “Bomb Carriers”, which may well indicate a Bombing Run gametype, a la Warhammer Online’s Howling Gorge scenario. One loading screen noted that certain Heroes will be free every week, hinting that we’ll see a Heroes of Newerth-style Hero-rotation system for those who don’t want to pony up cash, while another made mention of alternate character skins available in the game store.

There’s also a layer of progression to the game that’s yet to be implemented. Your account “levels up”, but so far this has no effect. It looks like this’ll link into a screen devoted to Tactics, which appears to provide a set of unlockable buffs that you can affix to your Heroes as you gain levels. As with the monetary aspects, how well this is implemented and how much it bends the game in favour of long-term or paying players is an aspect that’s going to require some careful tweaking.
But Wrath of Heroes looks to be shaping up well. The three-team combat feels unique and enjoyable, and I’m eager to see how well it refreshes other gametypes as new maps roll out. There’s plenty of work to be done and plenty of ways in which monetisation can make or break the title on the whole, but the actual “game” aspect is currently enjoyable enough that I’ll be keeping a close eye on this as more beta phases roll out. If you’re a fan of Warhammer, MMO-style battlegrounds, or fast-paced tactical multiplayer games in general, you might want to do the same.

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