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Brainwaves From Beta: Heroes of Newerth

Heroes of Newerth has been in Open Beta for a while now and the opinion-blocking NDA has now been dropped at last. As such, a perfect time for Beta-Boy Phill Cameron to SHARE BRAIN THOUGHTS via WORDS.

Man, I'm really impressively bad at Heroes of Newerth.

Outside of evil influences of sinister powers beyond our ken, I can't really explain it. Sure, I was never great at strategy games, but I'm normally quite good at RPGs; figuring out the min-max, getting some pretty buffed out heroes and empathising with the problems of a half-elf sorceress in a society that just doesn't understand her. So, in theory, a deathmatch type situation where I've got to be a towering dude with some sort of special attack, slowly leveling up and becoming more and more powerful, should appeal. Admittedly, not much use for my finely honed Half-Elf-empathising skills, but you can't have everything. It's just far enough away from RTS to appeal, while still remaining comfortably familiar. It should work fine.

Should being the operative word. It all goes to hell, and I go to hell, getting killed over, and over, and over, and over.

It's essentially the spiritual successor to the enormously popular Defence of the Ancients mod for Warcraft III, as S2 recruited the current-”caretaker” of the mod – the mysterious Icefrog - to the team. [IceFrog says not, actually Phill - RPS.] It allows you select from a frankly astonishingly large selection of heroes, each with their own set of 3 different skills, and one ultimate attack. Some of these are passive, and just make your hero better, and others have a range from being Area-of-Effect damage attacks, heals, stuns - everything you've come to expect from a post-World-of-Warcraft online RPG of late. Once selected, you take your hero onto the battlefield, and attempt to fight your way to the opponent's base, to decimate, pillage, and claim victory. A simple concept.

Before I go further, it's worth pointing out the really impressive job S2 Games have done with the lobby system, giving everyone a public rating that dwindles with every defeat, and grows with each victory. Not only that, but you can see the breakdown of exactly why they have that rating, which lead to the embarrassing analysis of my perfomance from one of my teammates: '17 deaths in one match? How is that even possible?" Needless to say, we lost that game too. 

Not only this, but there's an autobalance built into the lobby, so you can create the theoretically most even match up, with the game placing better players with the weaker ones, and then giving you a percentage of victory. Connectivity, famously an issue with Demigod in its earlier days, seems to have nary a worry, with even the option to reconnect to a match in progress if you disconnect unexpectedly, preserving your precious status of having never quit a match before it's through - because if you're recorded as having done so, you can be blocked from joining some servers.

The problems arise just before you get into the game. With no obvious breakdown, there's little indication of which heroes are easier for new players, and which have a slightly more specific play style in mind. And with such a huge number of choices (it seems to number well over 30), it's hard not to get the impression that balance suffers, and that some guys are better than others. Over the games I played, I definitely saw a definite lean towards certain characters. 

Things simplify when you're actually in game; there are three main alleys of attack, and down each run your side's troops, desperate to reach the opponent's towers and hammer their tiny fists against them, and eventually reach the enemy base. Problem is, the other side has just as many little men, and, left to their own devices, they'll wipe each other out. So you step in, dispensing your godly power to push your troops forward, and earning experience to grow ever stronger. The desperate thirst for experience is the main reason the game lost its charm for me. Because it's so pivotal to victory, leveling up takes precedence over all other things, to the extent where deviating from any of the alleys, or running back to base to heal, can place you on the back foot, losing the edge you need for victory. Dying, on the other hand, is not an option, as both the monetary bonus and experience rewarded from them killing you is far too great to ever be considered.

So you end up in a sort of pansy game of slaps, tentatively taking out their troops, all the while desperately looking for an opening to exploit - but, even if you do find one, the instant you start hurting them they run away as fast as they can. You do the same, and so the game becomes all about seeing who can run away fastest, until one of them sneaks around behind you and you get killed. As, indeed, I got killed. Over and over.

The real frustration sets in when you realise that they've got a few levels on you all of a sudden, and from then on it's an uphill battle that you can't possibly win. While it's nice to have a concede vote so easily accessible, at the same time it's treating a symptom, rather than the cause. It's obvious that the game suddenly becomes unwinnable, and it's easier to just throw up your hands and surrender, but really, it shouldn't come to that. The moment I feel like I can't win a game is the moment I stop playing it.

While I find it hard to say that I enjoyed Heroes of Newerth, at the same time it's not a bad game. There's obviously a genuine level of depth and interest there that, once mastered, can create a really intense and interesting type of tactical play. I mock the running away that runs rife in the battles, but at the same time it's indicative of the way fencers feel each other out before going in for the kill. You're testing your opponents, not actually trying to kill them. It's just that, in my experience, I ended up getting killed by that test. Like I said, I'm really quite bad at the game. 

After playing Demigod, in all its streamlined glory, it's hard to play Heroes of Newerth without comparing the two. Even with only 8 Demigods, there was a balance issue present, with some characters ignored almost wholesale. With 40, things get that much more complicated, and overwhelming for the newcomer. It seems that it's a real improvement from Defence of the Ancients, and all those I played with seemed to have played both. The problem being, for all its success, not everyone has played Defence of the Ancients. I came to Heroes fresh, interested in the concept behind it, and it just deteriorated into an unfathomable mess of dos and don'ts that I was never told about. I ended up feeling bad for whoever played with me, because it quickly seemed like I was dooming them to failure, merely by being experience fodder for the other team. It simply doesn't introduce itself well to newcomers. It's not a team based game like World in Conflict where a player can sit towards the edge while learning how to contribute, effectively just not helping much – it's a game where an inferior player contributes negatively. You don't just not help the team win. You actively help your team to lose. That's tricky.

The balance issues present in the wide array of characters are only going to get ironed out, and the fact there was only one map present in the game in this state obviously limits the options on how to play it, as everyone gets used to its paths and secrets. All the same, I can't find the will to actually spend the time learning the intricacies.

That said, it does have a splendid Kraken, that oft-neglected by gaming mythological creature. So there's always that.

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