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Premature Evaluation: Smite Tactics

Odin out for a hero

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Every Monday Brendan prays to the gods of early access for favour, power and a winning hand. This week, the collectible card game battler Smite Tactics [official site]

Being a fan of Duelyst’s card-based lunacy, I was more than happy to dip my toes into Smite Tactics at Pip’s suggestion. It’s a spin-off CCG from the makers of the same-named MOBA, using their collected gods and mythical figureheads to get you collecting cards instead of pushing mid. Sadly, it’s as skeletal as an argonaut’s worst nightmare, in dire need of some fleshing out.

As a tactical game, the basics are straightforward and recognisable to any Hearthstone dabbler. You get a handful of cards, some are spells and some are creatures that you can summon (or heroes or gods etc). Each creature has numbers denoting their attack strength and health. Every attack (or almost every attack) will prompt a counterattack from the targeted monster. It’s more or less a game of small numbers, random luck and tempo, getting into a position to do slightly more damage than your foe at critical moments. You’ve also got your principal God on the same battlefield. You need to kill the opposing God to win, chipping away at their larger health pool until one of you snuffs it.

The difference here is that you’re summoning things to a chess-like board of squares, meaning you can block off enemy attacks with careful positioning, or make use of weaker ranged units by putting them out of your enemies’ reach. You can corner the opposing God so that they have limited space, or fight for some goodies that spawn in the centre ground. It adds an extra dimension to the gurning arithmetic that goes on in your brain during these types of card games. Each turn has to be played in the ideal ordered, logical steps but also with an awareness of space.

There are only a few Gods to start, each bringing its own Pantheon to its deck. As well as a weak and basic attack, these Gods also have a special ability. For example, Zeus can spend a couple of mana (the magic dollars you spend to play the cards) to draw a fresh card from his deck. Odin can buff his summoned dirtbags with a similar mana tithe. The trade-off is that using an ability exhausts the God, so you can’t normally attack and use your special powers. It’s one or the other.

The important thing to know is that lesser gods – the kind you can spawn as units on the field – also have these secondary abilities. Aphrodite can put a shield on another unit and heal it. Bastet can summon three weak cats each with 1 attack and 1 health. Loki can teleport an enemy three tiles away and deal it 5 damage. This is an extra thing to keep in mind as you fight. It’s not always as simple as comparing red and green numbers.

There are a bunch of these lesser gods in each pantheon (about 7-9 in each) but only a couple are open to the beginner in the starter decks. To get new cards you earn ‘favour’ and spend it on new packs. These contain 5 random cards. But there’s also the obligatory free-to-play vom, which encourages you to spend real cash to get ‘runes’ that you can spend on packs. The shop full of runes is unsurprisingly tiered to make you spend more. 7 card packs would cost you 500 runes, for example. But the “BUY BUY BUY” page lists only 400 runes or 800 runes as a viable purchase, with no in-between option. It’s classic stuff from the big book of F2P monetary psychology – inventing a faux currency, randomising the results of a loot pack, implementing a slow grind – and there’s nothing here that other similar games don’t indulge in. But that doesn’t make it any less icky. Especially if you buy the founder’s pack and are already paying $20 to test the game for them.

And here’s the kicker. You really are testing this game. Placeholder art is one thing, but bugs and a positively malnourished user interface mean that even a short and steady match will have its “gurr?” moments. I’ll give you an example: I was playing as Zeus, facing down a player wielding a sturdy Ra. I was on the ropes, almost certainly going to lose. But that’s okay, I thought, with my last action this turn I can just splurdge 2 mana and draw a new card.

“NotEnoughManaForAbility,” said a banner at the top of the screen.

I checked my mana. I had three.

I checked the cost of the ability. “Spend 2 mana to draw a card,” it read.

Hm.

I lost that match, and I probably still would have lost whether the game let me draw a new card or not. But it was an eye-rolling reminder that I was playing a game that didn’t always function correctly.

Other times there is no bug but the game has not explained itself in a reliable way. During another match, I used a ‘stun’ card on an enemy’s ranged minion. From everything I’d experienced thus far, this would stop an enemy minion from taking any action the next turn. I also poisoned her for good measure. That way, she would also die at the end of the next go. It was an expensive set of moves but, unless the enemy God had a purification spell (which removes status effects), the minion was certain to die.

I was very confused when she let off a shot and struck me for a nasty 4 damage on the next turn. Obviously, I have missed something here – but what? I looked at the battle log (a little menu to the left that shows previous cards played) but I couldn’t see anything that explained it. Can minions only suffer one status effect at a time? Was this minion immune to stunning? That can’t be it, I saw the little stars whizz around her head. Does ‘stun’ actually just mean a minion can’t move but can still attack? No, because, inspecting the card, it says that stun ‘exhausts’ a unit entirely. Unless ‘exhausts’ means something else? I still don’t know what happened here.

Of course, these moments of confusion were sometimes only a matter of me learning the vocabulary of the game, getting to know the exact effects of each brutish Ymir, or what ‘Pardon’ meant when a giant enemy Fury is storming down the middle of the board towards you (it means the unit can’t be counter-attacked when it strikes). At those moments when I’d misinterpreted something that ought to have been clear, I felt irritated – but only at myself.

There are many small differences between this and my usual stomping ground of Duelyst. Your deck is half the size for one thing, bringing only 20 cards to the battle grounds. This is because draw is much slower. You can’t replace a card once per turn, so there’s less ‘digging’ for a particular card to land the killing blow.

But this only makes the matches slower-paced and gives the victim of an opening hand of bad cards a sense that they’ve already lost. Sometimes I have gone two or three turns without even playing a card, simply because I couldn’t afford it in the early game. Normally, if this happened a lot I would consider re-making my deck – but this was with a starter deck, something that ought to be well-rounded. Duelyst’s solution of being able to shuffle a card back in and draw again once per turn dulls the pain of an unlucky draw. With its smaller deck and secondary abilities, I get the feeling that Smite Tactics wants to be a slower, more thoughtful game. But it only succeeds at being the former.

With card design, it simply felt like there was a lack of invention. And although each pantheon has its own tone, no god was radically different from another, no strategies seemed unique to any deck. Odin has some swarmy abilities, for example. One card lets him spawn two ranged archers at a time, another spawns two small soldier boys at a time. Then, he can unleash a cheap spell that does 1 damage at random for every friendly minion.

This is a better example of one God’s vibe but even here there is a fundamental design flaw. All those cards need to be played in succession to land the fullest, strongest blow. Spawn the creeps and wait until the next turn and you risk them all being killed by the time you get the chance to cast the cheap damage spell, nullifying it totally. But do what seems natural and correct – play all the cards one after the other – and you’ll find yourself with an empty hand and no way to draw up. This might be a interesting risk/reward mechanic for other players but to me the slow draw speed and low creature count feels like a stifling limitation on the game, a ball and chain that turns everything into a sluggish crawl toward an unsatisfying and non-creative KO.

There are other issues, like I said, mostly with the user interface. The matchmaking boots you back to a previous menu for a few seconds when it has found a match, leaving you wondering if it was successful or not. The campaigns promise to allow you to fight AI puzzles in exchange for rare cards, but this menu was totally empty when I clicked on it. Sometimes a match will end and claim you the victor, but there’s no indication if this was because the enemy conceded or disconnected or what. These are all problems that will likely be fixed but for now they make the whole experience feel a bit sloppy.

I feel like I haven’t seen enough of the cards to say for definite whether Smite Tactics has some clever plays and strange tricks embedded in its design. It may well have. But the glacial pace, old fashioned fantasy art (filled to the brim with gratuitous tits), sluggish grind and borked UI mean I can’t help but view it as a poor man’s Duelyst.

You can sign up for the Smite Tactics beta on the official website or buy your way to instant access with a $20 founder’s pack.

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Who am I?

Brendan Caldwell

Features Editor

Brendan likes all types of games. To him there is wisdom in Crusader Kings 2, valour in Dark Souls, and tragicomedy in Nidhogg.

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