By Philippa Warr on March 25th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.
“Oh God, it’s like playing League of Legends crossed with Jumanji,” was my initial verdict on Smite. I stand by that assessment but I probably ought to flesh it out a bit in this here Wot I Think piece. Here goes:
Smite is Hi-Rez’s god-themed MOBA. Hang on, are we calling them MOBAs at the moment? ARTS? Lane pushing game? Lords management? Wizard-em-up? Magi-brawler? Five-a-side farming simulator? Whatever your preferred label, it’s Hi-Rez’s take on that genre. You play as one of a pantheon of characters based on the gods of various religions and mythological figures and proceed to do battle across a number of different game modes.
The appeal of games like Dota 2 and League of Legends to me is their ability to exhilarate and the feeling of intense satisfaction when a match goes well. Your goal is simply to understand and while you’re trying to achieve it there are constant opportunities to show off your skills (the omnipresent threat of failing utterly and spectacularly is less appealing, I’ll admit).
As you spend dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of hours in the game, you learn to unpick the intertwining systems, manipulating them with greater and greater precision. It’s a complexity which can repel but it’s part of the reason I stay. The reward of a game well played or a character well understood is strong enough for me that it overrides the memory of bursting into tears after an evening of failing to adequately shoot other internet wizards in the head.
Conquest was the mode I headed into first. It’s Smite’s 5v5 three-lane map and will feel familiar to anyone used to other MOBA/ARTS/STRATEGIC SPELL-SPLOSION games. You’re trying to work with your teammates to shove your way into the opposition’s base and slay their Titan before they do the same to you. You can play as the gods who are available on free rotation, purchasing new ones for real money or using favour which accumulates as you play, or you can buy the game outright and have access to all of them immediately.
A major point of distinction between Smite and other games I’ve played in the genre is the camera angle. Rather than a top down view of the map you get third-person over-the-shoulder. Perhaps the idea of a human player controlling the gods while perched somewhere in the heavens created too much of a theological quandary, or perhaps Hi-Rez just fancied doing something different. Regardless, it affects the experience of playing, sometimes positively, sometimes problematically.
Being on the map rather than above it alters sight. Where a top-down game would allow you omnidirectional line of sight around your character, Smite only lets you see enemies in your character’s field of vision. The result is that you’ll need to keep checking behind you to make sure you’re not about to get smacked in the back of the head with a barrage of spells.
Verticality is also a bigger part of the game as some characters have abilities which let them vault over obstacles and walls, appearing out of nowhere to land a stun or a wave of damage. The different viewpoint is also where the Jumanji comparison comes in. Having grown so used to top-down, Smite feels like my toys have come to life and I’m scampering around on the game board with them.
Adding to that sensation is the fact that, with the exception of some special abilities, all shots are skill shots. Arrows need to be aimed precisely, taking distance and enemy movement into account. Melee swipes mean you need to keep track of exactly where you’re pointing your hero. It’s an interesting consequence of having the camera put you so close to the fight and introduces an enjoyably physical type of skill to combat.
But the camera can also be an utter pain in the butt. When you back up against a wall it suddenly switches to first person meaning your god is no longer visible on the screen. The only other time that happens is on death and several times fellow players or I assumed we’d been killed during fights while backed into a corner, costing us vital seconds and sometimes leading to death. There are also moments where you have line of sight on an enemy as evidenced by the fact you can see them right there in front of you but that information doesn’t show up on the minimap until they move closer.
The game feels relatively simple. By ‘simple’ I don’t mean it’s easy to win, but there’s not as much to master as in other similar games. For example, your six main inventory slots are all for items which offer passive effects while another two are reserved for active items. You’ll still need to choose the items with care and build your god in response to the match, but there’s less reliance on managing the effects of items.
If you’re coming from a game like Dota 2 this might feel like coddling. Then again, having started on Dota 2 over eighteen months back, any form of basic in-game instruction can feel like coddling. It’s also welcoming. You can develop an understanding of how stats and skills work but you’re not quite so likely to be hamstrung by clumsy button pressing or overwhelmed when you’re first starting out.
It would have been good if the tendency towards simplification had been applied to the user interface. At present it often seems unwieldy, taking a few experimental clicks and mouseovers to find the function you’re looking for. It’s not incomprehensible, just a bit unintuitive and would benefit from some tweaking in future patches. The pre-match loading in screen could do with some attention too as it’s oddly static compared to the rest of the display. On first encountering it you’ll likely wonder whether the game has frozen and crashed before realising you’re just waiting for loaders. I also encountered some minor server issues. No game outages but I did find myself booted out of the client mid-match several times which is never ideal.
The battling in Smite is fun. Being able to land a combo is satisfying and some of the skill interactions lead to impressive individual moments – backflipping over a magical dragon which had been about to smash into my god was a particular highlight. It’s for this reason that I found myself preferring the modes which prioritised battle.
A personal favourite was arena mode where you’re competing to notch up kills and deliver minions to an enemy portal in a battle arena. Also enjoyable was the Match of The Day themed mode. It might offer all bird or winged gods one day (Birds of a Feather) and restrict you to magic-based gods the next (Mage Battle).
Assault is an all random, all mid option – i.e. a single lane with no jungle and constant pushing – while Joust, a 3v3 single lane-plus-jungle affair, works well enough if you’ve scraped a three-player party together and would prefer not to team up with strangers (although I should note that I didn’t see much in the way of vitriol or ass-hattery from the general Smite community in any of the modes).
Something which did overshadow matches was the game’s surrender option. If you’re coming from a League of Legends background you might disagree utterly but for me it spoils the flow of the game. If you get a decent start, the enemy team might well just leave. If you have a rocky beginning your own teammates might repeatedly instigate a surrender vote and give up playing rather than attempt to fight.
The games where this happens feel dull and unsatisfying. When it happens repeatedly that feeling is magnified. I get that no-one wants to spend forty-five minutes enduring a miserable defeat, but surrendering can also rob the games of equivalent high-points and of dramatic reversals of fortune. It also makes it harder to invest in individual matches, knowing the experience might just end abruptly.
The majority of the gods included in the game are drawn from ancient cultures. Egyptian gods like Ra and Anubis rub shoulders with Artemis and Aphrodite from Greek mythology. But there are also gods from contemporary religion and traditions. The inclusion of deities from Hinduism raised specific complaints.
Faith is a personal matter and responses to the game’s choice of gods as digital playthings will vary according to beliefs of the individual. I mention it here, though, because it’s something which may affect your opinion or enjoyment of the game and also because the response Hi-Rez offered to the complaints in 2012 came across as facetious, confrontational and patronising. As per COO Todd Harris:
“Smite includes deities inspired from a diverse and ever expanding set of pantheons including Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, and Norse. Hinduism, being one of the world’s oldest, largest and most diverse traditions, also provides inspiration toward deities in our game. In fact, given Hinduism’s concept of a single truth with multiple physical manifestations one could validly interpret ALL the gods within Smite to be Hindu. And all gods outside of Smite as well. Ponder that for a minute. Anyway, going forward Smite will include even more deities, not fewer.”
The choice of gods from different pantheons also leads to a lack of depth in terms of their interactions. The barks become repetitive quickly anyway, but they don’t appear to change in relation to the characters involved in a particular match. It may be it’s a matter of resources or because there’s no unified lore upon which to build individualised interaction voicelines but it makes the gods feel less connected with one another.
Speaking of individual gods, Hi-Rez has created some pretty badass female characters, Neith being one of my current favourites. She’s a ranged carry-type character capable of vaulting backwards out of trouble (or into it), able to root foes to the spot and with an ultimate that lets her pick off low-health enemies from the other side of the map. She’s the first character the game lets you play as at the moment and she’s heaps of fun.
But when she’s plopped onto the screen in front of you all of that seemed to disappear in the face of jiggle physics. The problem isn’t Neith’s breasts, nor that they’ve been animated per se. It’s that having watched the character shooting, leaping and running in the tutorial videos, the repeated exaggerated chest bounces feel jarring — as if I was spending time with a new acquaintance while someone from Hi-Rez stood next to us shouting “TITS” every few seconds.
Looking through the rest of the character models and the skins available to customise each one, there was less variety when it came to the female gods generally. I like playing as monstrous creatures because I like that their different body shapes and movement can change how a match feels. But the most adventurous female form here is maybe Scylla (a little girl with snakes sprouting from her petticoat) or Arachne (a very busty spider). Male characters include a leaping monkey, an articulated boulder creature, a frost giant, a floating Chinese dragon and a chap with a huge gut. Simply put, the male characters felt more appealing and better differentiated.
Smite is an enjoyable experience and fun to dip into. It was also useful when I wanted to scratch a MOBA itch (which sounds like some horrible ailment) and didn’t have the level of concentration I still need for Dota. There’s a refreshing exhilaration which comes from being down on the board instead of up in the sky and it might catch an audience who bounced off other MOBAs or found them dull or frustratingly complex.
However Smite’s shortcomings leave it feeling a little light. There’s not the finesse and depth of other games in the same category. Additionally, it doesn’t feel like Hi-Rez has any desire to sidestep the less interesting cliches of the genre. As a result that obsessive affection and desire for mastery that you get with the likes of League of Legends or Dota 2 seems less likely when it comes to Smite.