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Hands On: Warhammer: Wrath Of Heroes

Why can't hammers ever just talk things through?

You may remember that snuck into EA's Gamescom presentation was the news that there was to be a spin-off from their MMO, Warhammer Online, called Wrath Of Heroes. Focusing on three-sided arena battles, it's a free-to-play idea with its own look and feel. Needing to know more, we sent raving reporter, Dan Gril, to go take a look.

“In the grim darkness of the far future...” No, that’s not it. “Blood for the blood...” Nope. “Seven Rings for the...” No! “It was a bright cold day in April and...” Hum. “No-one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century...” Why doesn’t Warhammer have a slogan as cool as 40K? “The game of Fantasy Battles” is extremely informative, but I’d question the use of the definite article and it hardly thrills you about the world. Moving to the video games side, despite our endless, well-documented affection for the Warhammer universe, we have to admit there were fundamental problems with the construction of Warhammer Online; not with the characterisation or the art or the world or the gameplay or the PvP, but with the distribution of players. Rarely has a game felt more empty from the start, rarely has our the sweetness of our optimism turned so rapidly to sour squig in our mouths.

Wrath of Heroes is an attempt to turn the big flailing MMO into a F2P arena battler, like the top-end PvP of Guild Wars, drawing on WAR’s pretty good arena PvP. You choose from a limited range of characters (I’m betting some form of EA Coin will unlock these, as well as hats), who you can swap between at any stage of the game. Most of the more interesting characters from the MMO are there; a huge Black Orc, a Bright Wizard (fireball-tastic, for those not in the know), a Night Goblin sorceror, a nippy Vampire lass, a Witch Elf, a Elven archer, and a Dwarf Trollslayer. The single twist is that it’s three team PvP, with just six players on each team. Due to a bizarre timing screw-up on EA’s part (1-3PM and 1-3AM are sooo different), we only got a very short hands-on time with this, so these are very limited first impressions.

I hopped into a single map with three-way rotational symmetry, which consisted of three flag locations to capture, mixed with a central domination ‘artifact’ point. Each team gets points from kills, from the various locations and from the artifact. Once a team had captured a flag location (each conveniently located next to their spawn point), they could capture the central point and proceed to dominate, building up their points to an eventual victory.

The combat was very similar to that of WAR PvP, with the tanking characters’ physical presence supposedly playing an important role in denying access to the ranged characters, though the extra faction and open level layout made it so much more chaotic that I never saw effective team play during my short time in the game. Like all MMO PvP, winning a tough one-on-one fight, by injuring, pinning and then killing a player, is hugely rewarding, but the larger melees were too messy to get anything from, especially with three teams and the staccato respawning.

Bizarrely, for this kind of game, there seemed to be little in the way of long-term progression. There are passive abilities you unlock for your main account, which you equip before a match, but in-game I started with all my spells and didn’t improve or develop at all. Bloodline Champions or Guild Wars is the closest model rather than any of the standard DOTA games. If like those games, or Counter-Strike, this game were predominantly skill-based, that lack of progression would make sense to make this a competitive, balanced game. But like most MMO multiplayer the combat currently feels too loose and multi-dimensional to reward skill.

The other thing that was strange was how ugly it was at this stage, compared to how enjoyably rich Warhammer Online is in my memory. Perhaps there was a bottleneck somewhere in my rig, perhaps they’ve deliberately cut back the looks to accentuate the action, or perhaps I’ve just had a mild stroke, but I couldn’t honestly say the game attracted me. (Having just checked with another beta-tester, I’m told that they’ve changed the art style to cel-shaded - I honestly didn’t notice when playing, but considering my reaction I’d say that it was a mistake.)

So overall, for me at least, there’s work to do here. The looks, combat, and progression all need a second pass. The first thing they need to do though is come up with a really good slogan. “In the glum twilight of the fantasy past, there is only squig,” doesn’t really cut it.

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Dan Grill