Paladins [official site] is a sci-fi-fantasy first-person shooter in which two teams of five do battle, with each player controlling a 'champion' who has a customisable hot bar of skills and who can be upgraded across the course of a round. It's colourful and popular, but it's also been accused of being overly similar to Blizzard's Overwatch. Adam, Brendan, Graham and Pip gathered to play it for an afternoon, and now gather again to discuss those similarities, whether the free-to-play model helps or hurts it, and whether they'd want to play it more.
Adam: I still feel pretty bad about some of the things I said while we were playing Paladins last week. I’ve never been so angry at a turtle in my life. I hated that turtle so much. I hated the robot thing too.
Paladins has this whole gang of characters and I think I hate all of them, even the archer lady that I was playing as most of the time. I hate her because her special super power is to release her bird, which I’d hoped was a bird of prey that would retrieve my enemy’s eyes. It just squawks like an idiot and scouts out enemy positions. It didn’t bring me a single eye.
Graham: I like Basic Pip. AND IN THE--
Pip: Yes, yes... It was nice playing with you lot though, because I usually end up playing Grover – he's the big, tanky, healer tree thingummy – and having a whole team of us let me branch out. THAT WAS A PUN. You're not the only one who can make jokes, Graham!
But seriously, I've played Paladins at various points in early access and I ended up in that situation of having something I was comfy playing and not feeling free to choose anything I was less comfy with because I was playing with strangers. It's that fear of flaming you get in multiplayer.
This time I was free to be a butthead turtle or a flamethrowing lothario or the super-vulnerable snake healer guy. Me playing Pip is too confusing, though.
Graham: I kind of agree with Adam in that I mostly hated all the characters, but for me it was because they don't look likeable. They all seem like try-hards to me. They look like that person you see coming towards you from across the room at a party and think, "Oh no, here he comes." Probably this person would be wearing a hat or outlandish shirt, and within a few minutes you know they're going to get out a deck of cards and start trying to do close-up magic tricks for you.
Or at least, that's how I felt in terms of their visual design. I actually had fun playing as almost every character I picked, mostly because I always felt pretty useful when we were fighting or trying to capture points. I think that's in part because being new to the game meant I was limited in what kinds of characters I could pick, I'm guessing to those which are most straightforward to play, and because it does a good job at giving you satisfying feedback when you're doing damage to enemies even if you're not personally getting the kills.
Adam: See, I hated the characters because they were killing me quite a lot, but I agree that the designs are a bit annoying as well. I’m going to say they look like mascots from a theme park that is probably going to get closed down because the Bort Stimpson character being a slightly different shade of yellow, and with one giant eye, really isn’t going to cut the mustard.
Because we were limited in our picks - new ones unlock as you play, I gather - and I’m a coward, I only went with two. Pip, who is like the off-brand offspring of Ratchet and Rocket Raccoon, and Cassie, the archer lady I mentioned earlier. I really enjoyed playing as both of them and I have to defend Pip’s design now because when he rides a horse, he stands on it and balances as if he’s on a surfboard. And his ultra-attack turns enemies into chickens. What’s not to like? Pip is great. Isn’t that right, Pip?
Pip: Pip is definitely great. Pip is so great that Pip deserves a pay rise.
I think where I'm at with the characters in general is that their aesthetic design is pretty derivative for the most part and doesn't reflect the fact that they can be interesting to play, so it's not doing a great job of making the mechanical design seem interesting. I think Brendy, you phrased it well when you were talking about Pixar and Dreamworks movies.
Brendan: Some of the heroes are eerily similar between this and Overwatch though. A dwarf with a deployable turret, a man from Call of Duty with a sprint, a mech-piloting gremlin. It reminds me of when Pixar and Dreamworks both release a kid’s movie with a strangely similar theme. If Overwatch is A Bug’s Life, then Paladins is Antz. Or maybe Overwatch is Finding Nemo and Paladins is Shark Tale. I don’t know anymore.
Pip: I remember when I first played the game ages ago and I think the first character I saw was Cassie. I mean, how many redhaired archers with green wardrobes do I have room for in my life?
Adam: If my sister plays an RPG and it doesn’t let her make a red-haired archer/rogue as her main character, I think she just uninstalls it. Maybe she’s secretly behind all of these things. I think I’ve mentioned before that she has terrible taste in games [LINK IF I CAN FIND IT]
I loved playing as Cassie though. I found it quite hurtful that Pip kept swearing about the snipers on other teams because I thought I was playing as a sniper because apparently I think bows have a longer range than guns. Cassie is very good at picking people off though because she can launch them into the air using an alt-attack, and then they’re all disorientated and you can stick ‘em full of arrows.
More than anything else, I liked how quickly rounds went by. It takes about four seconds to meet the enemy and there’s not a lot of waiting around or sprinting across the map. Instant gratification.
Graham: I enjoyed that about it a lot, too. That ties back to what I was saying before about it giving you good feedback. I normally play games with a relatively low time-to-kill. For example, I've been playing Rainbow Six Siege this week and often I'm dead the second a few pixels of an enemy appear on screen. That leads to a lot of waiting around to live again. But the reason I normally prefer those kinds of games is that fighting bullet-sponges is also normally a lot less satisfying than a single-shot takedown.
In Smite, despite only playing it very briefly in beta, I felt like I was being gratified instantly and constantly. I don't fully understand all the numbers that were racking up on the scoreboard but I enjoyed increasing them, and watching enemy health bars tick down, and all the splooshy explosion effects, and pushing the cart, and so on. Even if the things that you can spend some of those accrued points on, the character upgrade stuff, seem rubbish to me.
Brendan: The free-to-play element was one big downside to me. That you have to grind to unlock all the characters won’t irritate everyone, but I’d far rather just pay 35 quid to get the lot and have the whole community on an even footing. Blizzard’s business model of cosmetics-only loot drops is far better than Hi-Rez’ myriad of wacky currencies and cards.
And yeah, I agree – the cards, skills and on-the-fly upgrades are full of percentage jargon. 5% more damage, 10% more resistance. I did like the process of upgrading your character as you fight, investing down a single line to specialise and bump your strengths – like making your tanky flamethrower man even tankier. But part of me wishes the upgrades were both simpler and more inventive. Not just another 10% better health sucking. But something larger, more game-changing.
Pip: To be fair, you can do the thing you just said – there's a Founder's Pack where you essentially pay the price of a game ($19.99) and get all the characters unlocked, current and future, as well as a few other bits and pieces. It's not everything, but it's the full roster which is the big thing.
It's weird, though. Because of MOBAs I'm surrounded by percentage increases to stats; they're just part and parcel of so many games I like. It feels like a guilty secret to say here "I SORT OF AGREE IN A LIMITED WAY!" I mean, I can pick out things I think will make a meaningful difference to the game from within the options. They just aren't glamorous-sounding a lot of the time.
Adam: I didn’t mind the upgrades, but I was as boring in my choices there as I was when picking characters. There’s an upgrade that gives you a bit of health back when you kill someone so I got that every single time because I figured I’d be killing lots of people and that they’d be shooting me, so I’d need to heal at some point. I was glad I didn’t have to think about it too much and could just get something that had an immediate obvious effect when it worked.
And I quite like unlocking characters as well. Not that I have unlocked any in Paladins yet, but I think the way I tend to approach these kind of games is to find a character I like and stick with it for a long time. I want to be as good as I can be before moving on, so having something new to play with every once in a while rather than a big group to pick from that might give me choice-paralysis is actually the way I’d want things to be.
Here’s the thing though; I’ve never played Overwatch and now I really want to because it turns out I actually quite like team shooty things with colourful graphics, but there’s no way I’m going to make room for two of them in my life because I’ve barely got room for one.
Graham: I don't mind unlocking characters in theory, but it can quickly become frustrating as I get to know a game if it feels like I'm coming up against counters to my current character that I don't personally have unlocked.
As Brendan says, Overwatch doesn't risk that issue because it just gives you all the characters upfront. How do the two compare more generally, Brendy?
Brendan: I enjoyed Paladins more than I expected, but I adore Overwatch and have been playing it at least once every week since it came out, sometimes much more often. They’re enormously similar games. The first thing I did was to swap the controls for my abilities to match Overwatch’s controls. It all came to me fairly quickly after that, apart from having to learn each hero's (sorry, "Champion's") skills.
It’s the little differences that I found interesting. I really liked some of the abilities that don’t exist in Overwatch – the AK-47 lady’s area-of-effect petrol bomb was fun, and, I like the ultimate ability of Ratchet from Ratchet & Clank that Adam mentioned earlier - it turns all stricken enemies into chickens with a set amount of lowish health. Differences in character weapons also felt pretty good. I enjoyed that the shield man, Fernando, has a flamethrower in place of the Reinhardt’s trusty hammer. Tasting all of these was fun as a Reinhardt/Junkrat/Symmetra man. It was kind of like eating at Pizza Hut when you normally go to Dominoes, and enjoying what they do with their sauce. That’s a bad analogy, because both those pizza places are rubbish, but you get the idea.
Graham: I'm not sure I can get motivated in the whole Paladins-borrowing-from-Overwatch debate when both are already taking a lot from Team Fortress 2. And I don't care about that at all because Valve take from other games all the time.
Adam: Yeah, it doesn’t bother me. But there’s no way I’m going to spend any more hours getting good at Paladins if more of the people I know are playing Overwatch. Or even still playing Team Fortress 2 for that matter. While we were playing, I think I enjoyed shouting and swearing and occasionally trying to heal someone more than I enjoyed actually trying to win the game. An obvious thing to say, I know, but I enjoy multiplayer games for the players more than for the actual game. I couldn’t do the whole playing with random people thing; I don’t have the patience, and what if they didn’t laugh at my jokes? I’d be mortified.
What I really want to know - and this question is for Pip because she has the most experience with Paladins - is whether we were any good or not? We didn’t do too badly, though we were playing against low-ranked teams (once we’d levelled up enough by killing bots to actually play against people at all), but I secretly think we’re probably garbage. But that’s partly because I think Pip is much better at this sort of thing than me and is quietly shaking her head whenever I die or get turned into a chicken.
Pip: Actually, no. I think we did pretty well as a team. I mean, there was a lot of the smaller stuff that I didn't realise I'd internalised about positioning on the levels as well as how to make meaningful choices in the game, so when to go with upgrades which counter shielded characters and when to go with things that disrupted healing – that kind of stuff. But you can only do that when you're more familiar with the way the characters work or with the map layouts and so on.
Same with card builds going into the games. I have a few custom decks that I use which let me play to my own strengths as well as those of the champions. If you've only just started the game you'll likely be using the basic decks which are solid but not specialised.
But there were human matches where we got stomped and human matches where we absolutely crushed other people as well as the more even face-offs.
Adam: I think this marks another day in which I have successfully fished - nay, trawled - for a compliment. I’ll take it. One thing that didn’t really work for me was the maps. I’ve already mentioned that I liked how compact everything is, but I only really remember one map that came in slightly different colours. They’re probably more varied than I remember them being, but only one sticks in my head, and I can’t even remember which one it is!
Graham: The maps didn't leave a strong impression on me either, aesthetically or in how they shaped the way I played. That's maybe one difference from Overwatch for me, where quite quickly I felt like I was learning how to control spaces and make use of chokepoints and so on with different character abilities. Paladins felt much more like the maps were corridors. That might change if I played more and discovered champions with movement abilities that let them utilize those spaces in new ways though, as for example Hanzo does in Overwatch.
I enjoy my time with Paladins a lot, but I agree with Adam in that I'm unlikely to devote time to two of these kinds of games. And between this and Overwatch, I choose... Rainbow Six Siege.
Brendan: I did like my time in Paladins and I *miiiiight* go back to play some more. But if I was in a cinema and I had to chose between the two, I’m sticking with Pixar. Does that make sense to anybody?
Pip: I think Paladins offers something I like which I miss in Overwatch and that's character progression over the course of a match, because it feels like you're able to upgrade and tweak them to fit the match or to fit you. Overwatch relies on character switching to solve problems and I've never really been able to enjoy that. It's just not a playstyle that appeals to me, plus it seems to just lead to a bunch of arguments where the most stubborn people just play a sniper forever and shouts at other people for not swapping.
Paladins isn't immune from that stuff – people still instapick shooty characters, but there's something I find far more fundamentally aggravating about an entire match spent with someone trying to force you into swapping because they won't. I'm more likely to play Paladins for my own enjoyment, but I go through long stretches of not being in the mood for either.
Adam: I didn’t know about this character-swapping element in Overwatch and it sounds like I might become the stubborn sniper who shouts at everyone else for not swapping, and I would hate to become that person. I’ll stick with my strategy games. Though I would definitely like to play Paladins again. In fact, I kind of want to play it right now.
Pip: INVITE TO GROUP.