First Impressions: Paladins Beta

Paladins has been in open beta on PC since 2015, but was only released to Xbox One and PS4 in May 2017. I initially had it confused with Paragon, so I completely ignored the game (I’m not a fan of MOBAs), but on recently discovering my love for competitive multiplayer first-person shooters (and on subsequently discovering that that’s what Paladins is), I decided to give it a shot.

Paladins is a free-to-play team-based shooter that’s very reminiscent of Overwatch, and was developed by Hi-Rez Studios. The studio has had a lot of success in the free-to-play area with the recent release of Smite on PC and console – with both the game itself and the free-to-play model both attracting a thriving community. Hi-Rez also has experience in the FPS genre, with the very popular Global Agenda, which was released in 2011 on the Steam platform, as well as Tribes: Ascend, released at the end of 2012.

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Why do I mention all of this? Well, it’s pretty important that I discuss their pedigree, as Paladins bears a LOT of similarity to Overwatch, and it is potentially overlooked as a result. The reality is, Global Agenda itself was already very much in the vein of Team Fortress 2 and similar team-based shooters, so Paladins is a logical extension of that. The fact it exists in a fantasy world with abilities similar to Overwatch is somewhat of a coincidence (to a degree – in the end, both games evolved from the popularity of TF2). Sure, I expect Hi-Rez has borrowed from Blizzard, but I’d suggest the same has likely happened in reverse. Most importantly, though, if you do actually give the game a chance and PLAY it, there is a lot it does differently to Overwatch, and in my opinion, it has a feel that is very much its own, which is what prompted me to write this article. While I will refer to Overwatch from time to time in this article, it will be for reference only. I’d prefer not to compare the games, and try to let Paladins stand on its own.

Paladins is a 5v5 team-based shooter. Each player chooses one of 29 Champions, each with their own specific pros/cons and abilities. Like Overwatch, Champions are divided into one of four classes based on their utility –  Front Line, Damage, Support, and Flank. As this is a free-to-play game, players start with access to only 8 of these characters, but unlock more by playing through the game (or purchasing the Founder’s Pack).

At present, there are 3 game modes (as well as training) – Siege, where players fight over a central capture point and the winning team escorts a payload into the opposing team’s base; Payload, in which an attacking team tries to push a payload as far as possible while a defending team tries to prevent that; and Onslaught, where teams battle to control a central control point. There’s also Competitive mode, where players are ranked based on their skill, and plays out only in the Siege game mode. Sound a lot like Overwatch? Sure, at face value, but there are quite a few differences.

Matches

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Unlike Overwatch, players lock in a Champion for the duration of a match, so it’s important to choose carefully. There are ways to slightly change how your player influences the match during its progress (such as Items, which I’ll discuss later), but for the most part, you’re locked in to your decision. This puts more of an emphasis on team composition upfront.

On starting a match (and on re-entering after death), players enter the playfield on a horse, which rides them into battle faster than on foot. This is due to the large size of maps and allows players to get back to the action faster, as there is only one spawn point for each team per map.

Scoring

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Game modes are won when a team reaches a certain score – for example, on siege, the winner is the first to score 4 points. A point is scored for winning the capture point, and then for successfully delivering the payload. Alternatively, the opposing team can win the second point by preventing the delivery of the payload. In this way, a dominating team can win in two rounds, or a game can stretch out to 4 rounds, with the winner being decided by who captures the capture point in the fourth round. Onslaught awards points for capturing the point, but also for kills (making the mode a cross between King of the Hill and Deathmatch), with the winner being the first to 400 points.

Cards

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Paladins utilises a card system, which players use to augment their Champion on a per match basis. There are three Legendary cards that are assigned to each character and selected prior to each match, as well as Common, Rare, and Epic cards, which can be built into a deck of five cards (referred to as loadouts), with multiple loadouts available to build per character. A loadout is also selected at the start of a match, and the effect of each card remains in place for the duration. Players can craft their own decks as they build their card collection, which means that – on a per Champion basis – they can craft card decks to augment a Champion’s abilities to better suit their playstyle. Of course, in order to prevent high-level players crafting decks that would make them overpowered, the deck builder employs a points system, with higher powered cards taking up more points than lowered powered cards. I’m still learning the deck building process, but it seems pretty straightforward, as there aren’t too many cards available to each character.

Items

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Items are essentially an extension of the card system, but they are accessed via the in-match “store”. They used to be known as “Burn Cards” but I guess this naming got confusing. I personally feel that “Items” also doesn’t clear things up, but I’m a n00b, so what do I know? Essentially, players have access to four buffs across four groups – defence , utility, healing, and attack. These buffs can be purchased within a match using credits gained by completing tasks, such as dealing damage or escorting the payload, but only one buff can be purchased per match from each group. This buff can then be enhanced up to two more times during a match (at increasing cost) to increase its efficacy. This provides an additional way to augment your Champion during the match – if you are a damage dealer, for example, and your team composition doesn’t support you enough in terms of healing, you might choose to selecting the buff that provides additional healing upon each elimination. It’s not a perfect system, but the effect is noticeable.

Free to Play

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FTP models can be hit and miss – get the pricing wrong, and nothing will sell. Get it VERY wrong, and nobody will even play your game out of spite. Even more importantly, though, is how much of your game that can be played WITHOUT paying. The good news is that players can play Paladins and never pay a single dollar. You start out with 8 playable characters, and can unlock more during the course of the game by spending Gold, which is earned simply by playing. Of course, this means it will take you time to unlock everyone, but it does provide some impetus to play, and in some ways even provides a reason to give every character a shot. If this is NOT appealing, players can choose to purchase the Founder’s Pack, which unlocks all current and future Champions, and only costs AUD$30. Players can also choose to purchase Crystals, a premium currency that can be used to purchase in-game cosmetic items such as skins (essentially, anything that can be purchased with Gold can also be purchased with Crystals). There are also packs that allow players to purchase various chests – essentially loot boxes that provide cards or cosmetic items. In my opinion, you can look at Paladins in one of two ways – completely free-to-play, with the option to purchase currency, or as a $30 premium game, with the option to purchase currency. Depending on my progress, I’m leaning towards the latter. It’s a good game, so I feel $30 is more than reasonable to throw their way.

Design

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Paladins is set in a fantasy world – this is not a future or past timeline, this is an alternate reality, with fairy creatures and anthropomorphised turtle-like creatures making up Champions, alongside more “human” Champions. Magic plays a big part in this world, and character design has a very “renaissance” feel, with characters resembling witches and knights (not to mention riding their faithful steed into battle). All of this is played out in a very colourful, cartoony style – inviting, yet a little childish at times.

The play screen itself is quite busy, with enemies highlighted red, damage numbers, and other notifications popping up on a regular basis (such as modifiers and credits earned). That said, it doesn’t take too long to understand what all of it means, and focus on what is important at the time.

Issues

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Overall, Paladins is simply not as polished as other similar titles. Transitions seems rough at times, and the layout of certain features is quite simplified. Of course, this is still in beta, but given the quality and depth of the game itself, it’s hard to understand why more time hasn’t been put into presentation above adding more characters. It’s also hard to understand exactly why the game is still in beta (considering it’s been that way since 2015). Of course, I’m not a game developer, and I expect there is a good reason for this, but given they are about to launch a Paladins World Cup (eSports event), I would have thought the game is ready for full release.

Then again, on several occasions I’ve had trouble even logging into my profile. Whether this was a server issue that was occurring at the time or not is unknown, but I have encountered several such issues, which make me think that maybe the game isn’t as ready for the primetime as I had thought…

Realistically, the biggest issue I have at present is with the complexity of the free-to-play model and the various currencies. There are in-game credits that are used to buy items in matches. There is essence, earned by completing quests or awarded for duplicates found in chests, and this is used to unlock cards. There is gold that is earned in play and used to unlock Champions and cosmetics. There are Crystals that are earned… somehow or can also be purchased using real-life dollars. There are chests… of different varieties. Some earned on levelling up, others earned… somehow? Then there’s the Founder’s Pack, which unlocks all the Champions, plus other packs… which provide chests and… other stuff? It’s all a bit too much. I think the only one that really matters is the Founder’s Pack. The rest is optional, but still quite confusing.

The menus themselves are also quite complex. There’s so much you can change or play with or create, and each on a Champion level, it does cause a bit of a headache. I guess with more playtime I’ll have a good understanding as to what does what, and more importantly – what’s important.

When it comes to the Champions themselves, I can’t really comment on balance just yet. For one, I just haven’t played enough. Further, I currently only have access to 8 characters. Still, nothing has felt overly unfair – yet, anyhow.

What did I like?

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Paladins is a fun game – in exactly the same way as Overwatch. In fact, I would suggest that Paladins is perhaps a little simpler than Overwatch in terms of how the matches play out, and characters all feel, in many ways, more capable to deal damage (at least the few that I’ve played with, across Front Line, Damage, and Flank).

The initial progression is also more inviting to new players. Instead of immediately throwing players into matches against other online players, new players are matched with/against AI until they reach Account Level 5 (as players can also rank up individual Champions, referred to as “Mastery”). This enables new players to get a good feel for matches before being thrown in the deep end. That said, the way that games play out against AI is VERY different to games played against human competitors, but still, it’s a good approach.

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The Champions I’ve played have all played really well. Two of them bear extremely close resemblance to Heroes from Overwatch, but they play quite differently and in turn have a slightly different utility. The simplicity of the map layout, with a central capture point and two opposing team bases (with a single spawn point for each) feels very fresh, and matches play out in a very straightforward manner.

The progression system, while perhaps overly complex, is interesting enough to drive me to want to improve and progress, and I do see myself putting enough hours into Paladins to justify the purchase of the Founder’s Pack (although I haven’t done so yet).

To summarise all of this, the idea behind Paladins is nothing new – we’ve seen it before, and I’m sure we’ll see it again (with the Lawbreakers beta on this weekend, let’s see what I have to say on that note next week). However, it’s really well implemented, and it has obviously been built by a team that knows what it’s doing. If you have any interest in these kinds of games, and you have room for another timesink, I strongly recommend that you download and install the beta client. After all, it’s free. In fact, scratch that – I recommend everyone gives Paladins a try. It’s fun, the price is right, and all it will cost to try it out is a little time…. And download data.

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