Patrick does head to head battle with three different betas. Who will win?
Not unlike Hollywood, the video game industry attempts to respond to consumer opinions in an often excessive manner. One need only look at the fighting game glut of the nineties, or the rhythm game oversaturation of the early two-thousands to recognize the clear patterns of industry growth and contraction. In recent years, the staggering success of DotA (Defense of the Ancients), League of Legends and DotA2 has led to a number of would-be successors attempting to capitalize on the nearly unprecedented popularity of the “MOBA” (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre and its “freemium” marketplaces. Few have made any meaningful impact, perhaps indicating that consumers simply can’t handle too many game choices in a genre with such a steep learning curve.
In response to these realities, several developers are attempting to modify the formula enough to differentiate themselves from the seemingly unstoppable League of Legends (LoL) and DotA2 juggernauts.
Three of these attempts offer disparate but similar experiences from some extremely reputable names in the video game industry. Most notably, each title offers a faster-paced gameplay with more instant gratification and a generally more digestible experience than these MOBA heavyweights.
Coming from Gearbox Software, the developers of the hilariously over-the-top cooperative shooter franchise, Borderlands, Battleborn is a first-person MOBA-inspired shooter that combines the irreverent humor of Borderlands with MOBA elements like a roster of playable characters that have entirely unique sets of abilities and playstyles. As of the beta, adversarial multiplayer offered two game modes, both featuring waves of non-player controlled minions battling it out in a tug-of-war for map control while players scurry and skirmish – battling one another and tough monsters alike. Fans of LoL or DotA will feel right at home with this aspect of the gameplay.
Battleborn’s primary innovation comes in its skill system – each hero has two separate upgrade paths that will lead them into two different playstyle roles. For example, a healer might specialize in keeping his team alive, or might add additional offensive capabilities, helping augment his team’s damage output. A third variation is available as well, but not until one has played a considerable number of games with that particular character. This factors into one of Battleborn’s greatest strengths and weaknesses – Battleborn is a full-priced release at $59.99. This is in contrast to the free-to-play models often seen in the genre. Most MOBAs will require unlocking additional characters with real currency purchases or with points earned by consistent play – Battleborn does a bit of both. Upon purchasing the game, players will be able to unlock its full roster of characters, but not without fairly significant playtime. Characters will unlock as the account levels up (which occurs in every game mode, with any character) or as a specific challenge is completed – winning five games with a hero from a specific faction, for example. The number of potential unlocks is astounding, which should give fans of Battleborn’s gameplay plenty to work towards. Admittedly, it is strange to require such a large time investment for playable characters in a full-price release, but the rapid cadence of unlocks should be enough to keep most players hooked.
Battleborn does offer one thing that the others in this list do not, in that it will have cooperative story-driven missions to be played solo, or with others. The missions are fairly generic FPS fare, but Gearbox’s trademark humor will definitely encourage players to play through them all at least once. Battleborn will likely struggle with the power-creep and balance issues that plague other games in the genre, but its fun, fast gameplay will certainly make it a worthwhile choice for those looking for a lighter take on the often heavy MOBA style.
While Battleborn is trying to invent a unique variant of the MOBA genre, Paragon seeks to perfect the existing formula in the drop-dead gorgeous Unreal Engine 4. Paragon plays nearly identically to the existing third-person high speed MOBA, Smite, but eschews playable mythological figures for a hodge-podge smattering of futuristic and fantasy characters, including a generic space Marine, a female archer (a necessary trope in this genre, apparently), and a misshapen goblin creature hurling Molotovs from the back of a tiny dragon. It’s an eclectic bunch, to say the least.
Paragon’s purchase model appears to be most similar to Valve’s DotA2 – completely free to play, with all of the characters unlocked (although in Paragon, some harder-to-play members of the roster will be locked until a user has played a few matches and leveled up a bit) and cosmetics gated behind microtransactions. It’s a model with proven success in the genre, and does a good job of keeping new players from feeling like they are at a disadvantage not having access to those “overpowered” purchasable characters. Paragon does, in a strange decision, restrict major gameplay advantages behind a card-based item system. Most item-focused MOBAs, like LoL, DotA, and Smite offer every player the same collection of items to purchase in-game (with currency earned by scoring in that match) giving players who build their items intelligently a significant advantage. Paragon changes the formula a bit here – players build “decks” of item cards before a match that determines which items will be purchasable that game by that character. The deck, however, can only consist of cards the player owns, which are gotten randomly from card packs that are awarded for leveling up and can be purchased with the non-money currency in-game. This does introduce a luck element otherwise absent in the genre, as two players of equal skill might end up at varying power levels at the end of a game due to one player’s luck at receiving higher quality, and more powerful, cards. Time will tell whether this luck element is so pervasive as to discourage new players from playing, or prevent Paragon from being played at competitive level – a common goal for MOBAs.
Finally, Overwatch - the first truly new IP from legendary studio Blizzard Entertainment in over a decade. Overwatch shares fewer MOBA elements than the others on the list, but offers a similar enough experience that it will certainly be competing for fans with Battleborn and Paragon. In truth, Overwatch shares more in common with Valve’s Team Fortress 2 – with players competing for objectives that vary by map in a rapid first-person bloodbath. Like a MOBA, however, each playable character offers considerable personality and background lore, and each has a number of abilities gated by cooldown periods to prevent them from being overused and imbalanced in gameplay. Like Paragon, Overwatch’s characters are extremely varied, but do have a more cohesive art style and feel that makes Overwatch look and feel like an adult-oriented Pixar movie. And on a PC with significant hardware, it has visuals that match even the prettiest Disney or Pixar films.
Given its pacing and graphic quality, however, Overwatch will probably never have a roster of characters of a size to match those in DotA2 or LoL (which each boast over one hundred different playable characters), or likely even Battleborn or Paragon a few months after their release. In the current state of each title in this list, however, Overwatch is definitely the most polished and impressive.
To be frank, gamers can’t go wrong with any of the titles on this list. Want something funny, with cooperative missions to decompress after a demoralizing loss? Check out Battleborn. Want a traditional MOBA experience with gorgeous visuals and lots of room to grow? Download Paragon. Want a polished, competitive shooter with a memorable cast of characters? Pick up Overwatch. Got lots of free time? Play ‘em all!
(Please note that these titles will also be available on consoles, but all three were played on the PC for this list.)
-Patrick B. McDonald