Coming to PC early 2016
Has Epic finally cracked it, or is Paragon another console MOBA near miss? For years the genre started by DOTA has been the biggest thing in PC gaming, with the likes of League of Legends and DOTA2 cutting a bloody swathe through other genres and growing to dominate the world’s e-Sports scene. But on the consoles? Well, Smite has built a sizable following on Xbox One, but all other pretenders, including big licensed efforts like Guardians of Middle Earth, have struggled to gain any traction. Will Epic’s first MOBA share their fate?
It’s hard to tell from a few hours in the early access version on PS4, but there are definitely some encouraging signs. Despite clear indications that this is pre-release code, including missing tutorials, the odd placeholder graphic and some character abilities that don’t quite seem to work, you can see the potential. Paragon could become brilliant, and it faces a lot less competition on Sony’s console than it does on the MOBA-stuffed PC.
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One thing’s already clear. While the visual style and Epic’s development history might prepare you for some kind of MOBA/shooter hybrid, Paragon actually plays the genre fairly straight. Lanes, minions, towers and core objectives are still very much in evidence, while the general flow of gameplay – work your lane, grow your powers, take on heroes from the opposing side – wouldn’t be unfamiliar to your average DOTA2 addict.
Unlike other accessible, casual-friendly MOBAs like Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm, Paragon maintains traditional MOBA mechanics like individual levels and last-hitting to earn XP, while the progression systems aren’t dumbed down for the console crowd. And though Paragon’s lower, Gears of War-ish perspective and third-person aiming lend it something of a shooter feel, the way range and damage work in the game keep it very much in MOBA territory. Just because you can see something, that doesn’t mean that you can shoot it. Sniping from safe distance is not an option here.
PC gamers with experience of MOBAs will get this stuff straight away. Those coming to Paragon from an Uncharted or a Gears of War may feel differently and even wonder what on Earth is going on. It’s not that Paragon’s controls are unwieldy, with basic attacks mapped to the right trigger and the face and R1 buttons handling character-specific attacks and abilities, but they are complex, and even the quick selection of upgrades, squeezing the L2 button then tapping the relevant button, takes a little getting used to. It’s one area where good character-specific tutorials could really help. Movement and targeting, meanwhile, is slow by FPS standards. While there is a sort-of sprint move it isn’t particularly fast, and some of the bulkier characters seem to take an age to cross the map. Titanfall this ain’t.
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Without those character-specific tutorials for now, we’re left with some solid video tutorials and an easy on-ramp, with single-player vs CPU matches leading to co-op vs CPU matches before you even get to the PvP meat of the experience. In fact, I’d be tempted to stick with the co-op matches even once the PvP unlocks, just because you get all the camaraderie and teamwork of a good MMO without much of the grief. You can get used to the fundamentals while trying characters and capabilities on for size. Matches can be slow moving at first, but as the heroes develop in power and capabilities and the minions start rushing the defensive towers, the pace picks up nicely. Paragon also seems to avoid the usual deadlock or whitewash scenarios of lesser MOBA games, with dramatic final phases where triumph can still be rescued from disaster or a sure victory transformed into defeat. That last rush for glory might be tempting, but should you really leave your base lying so defenceless?
It’s not all good news. At the moment, the heroes come across as being slightly generic, without the personality of the key DOTA2 and League of Legends stalwarts or the star quality of Heroes of the Storm’s well-established cast. That might change with time, though, and Epic has been smart in making some of them, like bulky tank Steel, damage dealer Howitzer and the guardian angel Muriel, both identifiable and easier to grasp. While the more advanced heroes might be more challenging, it shouldn’t take noobs long to work out the basics of the powers and cooldowns or get a feel for the rhythm of the game, while the full cast gives plenty of scope to adopt a range of different play styles.
I suspect that a lot of Paragon’s real depth lies in its card system, with 4 active slots and 2 passive slots ready to be filled with cards purchased using amber – the loot substance dropped by minions and enemies in the game. Ranging from weapon and armour upgrades to potions, buffs, cooldown reductions and miscellaneous other perks, these enable you to customise your character as each match progresses, with plenty of room to develop different builds.
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What’s more, this is easily the most visually-arresting MOBA in town. Though it’s not the be-all-and-end-all for PC gamers, in the console world, eye-candy counts. Here Paragon comes up trumps, the initial map showing off a gleaming sci-fi fantasy world of rock, glowing trees and rushing water, plus heroes and minions kitted out with some of the shiniest armour in town. There’s room for a little more life in the world and detail, but Paragon has a high-class shooter’s looks even if it doesn’t have the feel.
Will this be enough? The console MOBA space is beginning to heat up, with the less good-looking but well-balanced Smite hoping to transfer its Xbox One success to PS4, and the likes of Battleborn (itself more of a hybrid shooter/MOBA) and Gigantic launching in the next few months. Of course, only Smite and Battleborn will be available on both console platforms, but if we’ve learnt anything from the PC MOBA experience, it’s that there’s only room for a few hit games, and that the cost of failure is a quick demise. Epic’s effort has the looks and some rock-solid MOBA gameplay to succeed, and while there’s a risk that rivals will bring something newer and moe exciting to the table, I suspect that Paragon has plenty more to reveal before the full release.