Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes Beta [Preview] – Goblin’ it up?

26 Feb 2012  by   Paul Younger
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This is one of those tougher assignments. Ok, yes, stop rolling your eyes at the prospect of a games writer having an assignment that’s in any way ‘tough’. I appreciate I’m not being sent to cover the violence in Syria here. But Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes is the sticky Player-vs-Player treat of Warhammer Online (a game I didn’t play, in a genre I don’t particularly have much experience with), squished inside the concept of the ‘Moba’ (or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena); another sub-genre I’m not exactly a devotee of.

In this piece I’ll be playing the role of the outsider, poking around in uncharted territory with a tentative stick of investigation and giving a saucy wink to what, by now, must surely be classed as the established traditions of MMO combat. Luckily, I do have some love for Warhammer and its universe, so I’m already familiar with the background.

Except Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes (I’m going to call it WoWoH from now on, because it’s the sound a Looney Tunes character might make while teetering on a steep ledge) does quite unexpected things with the license. In fact, I’m a little surprised Games Workshop has given its blessing, because they’re normally rather iron-fisted about what you can do with their properties (barring Chaos Dwarves from the recent Blood Bowl videogame because that team was no longer ‘canon’ for example).

Here, you’ve got Dark Elves and High Elves operating on the same team. This is a long way beyond dogs and cats living together, this is cats having waged a ceaseless race-war against dogs for hundreds of years with the express purpose of wiping them out and dogs still being all chill about working together. As a long-time player of Warhammer in its tabletop incarnation, seeing a six person squad made up of a Dwarf, two Goblins, a High Elf, and two Dark Elves is very, very bizarre. To make things even odder, racial divides still persist in passive abilities (for example, High Elf characters still get damage bonuses against Dark Elves).

It’s nice that Games Workshop is happy to embrace this pseudo-tolerance between mortal enemies, but it makes it difficult to get too attached to any of the characters. Decoupled from the lore that provides much of their substance the heroes now exist in a void, giving the game a rather throw-away feel. They are just pawns, utterly detached from any significance except their class role (though arguably freed from their racial roles, at least). Narrow skill-trees and limited customisation just compounds the problem further.

This is the sixth beta weekend for this title, but the fundamentals haven’t changed a huge amount since Tim did his write-up in September 2011. Matches are still a three-way team tussle, with six members on each squad. Likewise, the Mourkain Temple map Tim described in that piece (where holding one of three flags will enable you to claim a central artifact for extra points) appears to be the same. I briefly managed to get some play on Black Fire Pass where teams had to raid each other’s bases to retrieve runes, but the matchmaking seems to heavily favour Mourkain Temple because 90% of my games were on that one.

For a decent impression of how a match goes down, point your eyes at the narrated videos below in which I play as Glowgob, the Goblin shaman.

There may turn out to be more depth to the combat in this game, but in my experience so far it only extends to prioritising when to use certain character abilities. All abilities are auto-aim, so timing is only a factor when watching your cooldowns and knowing when, say, is a good time to heal and when is a useful time to buff your fellow teammates. There is some talent to this, but the lack of abilities in general (each character currently only has five, with a couple more unlockable on their skill trees), surely means casting-orders will be mastered fairly rapidly. That doesn’t seem ideal for fostering long-term appeal.

So, as the combat learning curve recedes at speed, that leaves the tactical aspects of the three-team matches. This part seems relatively solid. Each map (that I was able to sample) has a handful of feasible tactical plans and it’s crucial to work together as a team to succeed. Mostly this involves all being in the right place at the right time (so you can support one another’s abilities), but as veterans of online games will know, getting a team to stick together can sometimes be no mean feat. Of course, clans (or warbands) who work together regularly will find success much easier to come by.

It’s not entirely clear how WoWoH’s free-to-play model will function at launch. The currencies involved appear to be gems and gold, with gold being given out like supermarket coupons in this particular beta. Characters and skins could be unlocked with either (gems, I presume, will be the stand-in for ‘real’ money, with gold being earned through play), but whether characters bought with gold will be permanent or somehow time-limited is unknown at this time. Likewise, the ‘free’ characters present in this beta could not be upgraded (whereas purchased ones could) and I don’t know if this will carry over to the final release version. There’s also no indication in the current store how much permanent characters will cost with real money.

I’ve found WoWoH to be an odd beast, and one which seems unsure about how best to utilise its enviable license. Matches are messy and chaotic, with dubious camera positioning and scenery (or spell effects) often getting in the way of the action. It’s not yet clear to me whether the combat has genuine hidden depths, or really is restricted to getting the best out of the narrow ability trees and figuring out ideal spell-casting orders. If it’s the latter, I don’t think the laudable teamwork aspect will be enough to sustain competitive player interest. Even with my limited brush with the genre I know WoWoH isn’t looking like the best real-time arena combat-strategy title out there, but the Warhammer license (no matter how clumsily it’s being applied) might have enough draw to give it a committed audience.

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