I've had my eye on PvP arena battle game Bloodline Champions for months. A new, free-to-play, ultra polished e-sport? Colour me curious. I've spent the last week scratching and spitting my way out of noob status towards respectability, and feel as poised to tell you Wot I Think as I ever will be.
The match begins. Two teams of three sprint towards one another- between them, thirty six nervous fingers are hovering over thirty six unique abilities. In seconds both groups have reached the centre of the arena, and... and what? And nothing. Both groups stop a mere stone's throw away from one another. Because Bloodline Champions might be blood sport, and it might be wild, but it's not some wild, bloody, unthinking melee. You're better off thinking of it as fantasy dodgeball.
But let's take a step back. The core of Bloodline Champions is the same as Defense of the Ancients and its ilk, which is as follows: first you choose a hero from an impressively broad selection (21 in this case), and then the game itself takes place from a Diablo-like top-down perspective with you expected to make use of a small bank of skills unique to your hero.
Unlike a fighting game, the mechanic overseeing this action is that all of your skills, outside of your basic attack, operate on a cooldown of 7 seconds or so. Let's say you're a melee type. Speaking generally, in the first 7 seconds of a fight you'll be able to dash once, throw your weapon once, block once, and launch a really powerful attack once.
Now, let's go a little deeper. Let's say your fighter has a power that makes him invulnerable for 1.5 seconds. Do you use it when the fight starts, so you have a better chance of using it twice or three times in the fight? Do you use it when your opponent opens up with one of his more lethal powers, hoping you'll see it coming? Or do you keep it in reserve, in case you choose to flee the scene or if one of his friends shows up? That's the core of DotA. Now multiply that several times over to account for all your powers, and multiply that by all your team-mates, who you'll be fighting alongside. That's a match of DotA. It's a tactical experience, yet once you factor the sheer speed of the thing, it's also as rough and mad as clinging to a mechanical bull.
How Bloodline Champions differs from this is that almost every single power belonging to every single hero, or 'Bloodline', is skill-based. Translation: Every ability is something you can make a total hash of.
Let's say you're playing a healer. Your basic healing power will actually be a relatively slow projectile with a slight casting delay, meaning you need to be a safe location when you cast it, then you'll need to lead your target slightly with the mouse in order to actually hit him and heal him. Unlike the steep learning curve of most DotA-alikes, Bloodline Champions offers an immediate hook. A crap player is going to "miss", in one way or another, with most of his abilities. A great player will get the most out of every single one, all the time.
Outside of this, the developers of BC have simply torn DotA right down to its basics. Creeps, towers, respawns, levelling up, equipment and all the other elements that you don't need to know about are gone, crumpling a 20 minute war into three 40 second rounds. It is, essentially, the Counter-Strike to DotA's Battlefield. The developers have also done away with random damage. No longer will your charge attack do 12-18 damage, no, not here. The genre has received a hyphenectomy. Your axe will do 14 damage every single time.
The end result for Scandinavian developers Stunlock Studios is something that could happily be categorised as an e-sport. This game of theirs amounts to nothing but desperate displays of skill and panic, with design so tight that despite inarguable strength in numbers, a talented player can happily cut down two lesser ones every single time. At a higher level, displays of flawless teamwork are genuinely awe-inspiring. If you go running straight in to an opposing team that knows what they're doing, you'll get tossed around like a cat in a washing machine.
Not that higher level play is something you'll have to concern yourself with for a while. You'll just want to master your chosen Bloodline, and I can't think of a better way of illustrating how fun that is than to pick apart my own choice for you- the Guardian.
That's my girl.
As a tank, she's expected to deal damage and take damage in equal measure, but she also has some healing skills. She and I are more than a little concerned about her role on a team, but we work it out, don't we? Yes. We work it out.
Now, her powers-
This is her bog-standard left click axe attack. Sounds simple, right? No. No it's not. Because it deals more damage on consecutive hits, meaning there's a temptation for me to harry a single enemy for longer than is, perhaps, wise.
Axe of Zechs
Meanwhile, a right click causes my Guardian to throw her backup axe for a moderate amount of damage and have it return to her, wherever she is. The neat thing about this is that if I miss, I still have time to run into a place whereby the axe will hit my target on the return trip. Do I ever remember to do this? No, of course not. I'm busy weaving out of the way of area of effect attacks with all the grace of a junkie fending off an imaginary panther and using
I love this ability more than my own mother. Intervene is a charge attack that deals a bit of damage and inflicts the target with Armour Break (a status that increases any further damage taken) for 2 to 5 seconds. Ah! But I said Bloodline Champions did away with randomness, did I not? Have a little faith, man. The amount of time Armour Break lasts increases as I charge from further away, popping open a beautiful risk/reward mechanic. Charge sooner and you'll get into the fight quicker and deal more damage, but there's a bigger chance of your target sidestepping you like some hateful matador.
But wait! There's more! Because if I use Intervene to successfully charge into somebody /on my team/, it heals both of us for 10 health and resets the cooldown of Intervene completely, so I can use it again straight away. The only twist is that you can't use Intervene on the same person twice consecutively. Doesn't that just sound like the best thing? Yes, well, wait until you've tried to use it to heal somebody in the middle of a right, only to miss and go sprinting straight out of the arena.
Chains of Zechs
Hover the cursor over an area, activate this ability and one second later all enemies within a few metres of your cursor take a scrap of damage and can't move or act for 2.2 seconds. The possibilities are endless. By which I mean I'm not sure I've used this power effectively, ever.
Oh, Lord. Nothing tells me how far I have yet to come in Bloodline Champions like this ability. When you use it you can't move or act for 1 second, but the next hostile attack that hits you is negated, and all nearby enemies take damage and can't use any abilities for 1.2 seconds. Lots of classes have an ability like this- a kind of kung-fu block. One day I will get good with it. It is not today.
This, though? I can use this. I can. Chain Heal is simply a healing wave that, if you hit an ally with it, bounces between other allies automatically, healing less each time. It makes me feel like Mother Teresa, watching that little blue light travel from ally to ally and sometimes back to me. It makes me feel like a success. See also:
Every Bloodline has an Ultimate ability that charges slowly as you successfully use your other abilities. The purpose of this is so that you can get it fully charged and then die, allowing you to scream at the monitor and start chewing on your keyboard with rage. Sometimes you will get the chance to actually use it though, and those are good times. Cyclone Charge simply sends my Guardian spinning in a straight line, hacking open any enemies in her path for a total of 30 damage plus the Deep Wound status effect that has them bleeding all over the place. Gorgeous.
This isn't actually everything the Guardian can do- in a mechanic taken from Japanese fighting games, she has a couple of "EX" versions of her normal abilities which use up 40% of her ultimate bar, but I haven't gotten around to figuring those into my tactics yet. She also has a mechanic whereby she builds up Judgement and uses it to turn her default attack in a conical area-of-effect attack? Yeah, I don't know.
But I'm having fun. God, I'm having fun. I compared this game to dodgeball earlier, and that's what it feels like- it's all positioning, and struggling vainly to achieve a state of divine immaterialism where you only deal damage and never receive it. The first few seconds of a match where both teams run up to one another and just hover there is an awesome bit of choreography- nobody wants to end up on their own, everybody wants to stick together. And then some guy playing a Vanguard uses the Taunt ability that sends one member of the opposing team running towards him on autopilot and all Hell breaks loose.
Simply put, this is the most fun I've ever had with a free-to-play game. Not only are you getting an astonishingly polished product with great ideas behind it for no money whatsoever, everything that is available for you to buy for real money- new Bloodlines and skins, mostly- doesn't given anybody a tactical advantage, /and/ you can eventually unlock just buy playing the game anyway. Every match you play and achievement you unlock earns you Blood Coins, which are an inefficient yet valid means of unlocking almost anything.
Are there any problems? A couple, the more serious of which is the small cabal of players who join matches, then either only move enough to prevent their being auto-kicked for inactivity, or start doing so when your team loses the first round. While winners get more Blood Coins and are more likely to rank up, losers still get Blood Coins and are more likely to rank down, allowing these horrible people to get a kick out of dominating some noobs.
That said, nine out of ten matches I played didn't feature these freaks, so I'd say they're more than bearable.
There's also the issue of game modes outside of standard arena battles, which is to say Capture the Artifact and Conquest, being about as much fun to play at an intermediate level as sticking your hand in a ceiling fan (the game's design suffers terribly when death simply means respawning and running straight back into a chaotic brawl), but a ridiculous majority of matches you'll find are arena battles and those are more than capable of supporting the entire framework of the game.
If you're a budget-conscious gamer who likes to get competitive, you would be a frightening, gibbering fool were you not to check this out. It's fun, takes up no more of your time than is strictly necessarily and is moreish for all the right reasons- the thrill of stringing together your powers in new combos, or of dying only to watch your sole surviving team member defeat the entire opposing team with enough gall and cunning to have you laughing out loud.
That's Bloodline Champions, ladies and gents. It is tight like an obese man in a Formula 1 car. Check it out.