Hi-Rez Studios has already experienced great success with its MOBA, Smite, providing a well-received alternative to the big guns like League of Legends and Dota 2, and now they're back to provide another new kid on the block with Paladins: Champions of the Realm, but this time for the online team shooter category, and from the outset it's very clear who the competition is: Overwatch.
And as soon as you boot Paladins up it's hard not to compare it with Blizzard's brilliant shooter. From talking with Hi-Rez Studios' COO Todd Harris, we know that Paladins was in development before Overwatch's release, but still, the similarities are there nonetheless. Whether it's the cartoon art style, the individual heroes, or the inclusion of Ultimates, there are many ways in which Paladins and Overwatch cross over.
But this isn't a comparison piece, this is a preview, and we had a lot of fun with what's on offer in the Paladins beta, regardless of what it reminded us of. To talk a bit about the format, there are only two game modes on offer at the time of writing, those being Siege and Payload, and in every match you pick your champion (only one of each on a team and no swapping once the match has begun), and then you start in your team's spawn room. Then, before the doors open, you all get on horses to ride to where you need to be, at which point you get off, and get into the action.
Both game modes on offer were enjoyable and provided gripping action, revolving around controlling key areas and defending them. What this also means is that teamwork is encouraged - one player can't hold off a full enemy team on their own, no matter how good they are. In this way teamwork is the key to success in Paladins, as we found on many occasion. For example, you need to have different heroes use their strengths in combination with others, so Fernando could use his shield ability to protect the team while Victor provides heavy damage to enemies, and Mal'Damba heals the team.
In terms of the heroes on offer, the beta included a lot, and most of them had their own appeal. Whether you preference is attack, defence, healing, or whatever, there's something for everyone. However, some characters were clearly better than others. Ruckus, for example, appeared in almost every match we played because he is so powerful, making it very hard to attack against, and other characters were simply far less useful. Balancing is something that always needs tweaking in games like this, and we think there's still some work needed in Paladins as well.
This isn't to take away from the fact that almost all of the heroes are satisfying to use in-game. Using abilities in combination with each other is a great feeling, and once you learn a hero inside out you'll definitely find yourself pulling off some impressive moves, even if they involve supporting the team and not getting all the kills.
The Ultimates for each character are great fun, too, each having their own appeal. They can be used to great effect if utilised properly. Much like with other games of this calibre, you really have to be careful and make sure you utilise them properly, as wasting one can be the difference between success and failure, not only for yourself, but for the team.
In terms of the maps, there are a handful to choose from, all of which seem well-designed, offering a variety of spaces to bring the fight into and keep things interesting, while also being balanced so that neither end has an advantage. This means each hero has an ideal space they can make use of, such as close quarters or long distance, and an added layer of risk is added in Payload when death means having to traverse the whole map to get to the other end and escort the payload.
Visually, variety is the spice of Paladins, and that's especially evident in the heroes and maps. Each hero is not only varied in terms of abilities, but each looks the part as well, providing character and individuality so that each person will no doubt have a favourite. This is only increased by the voice acting for each which, while a little repetitive, adds a certain extra bit of personality to each. The maps have just as much visual appeal, with the bright colours and cartoon style suiting these just as well, providing detailed scenery to top it all off too.
On the technical side of things, it's clear that Paladins isn't finished yet, as there were minor bugs everywhere, from the jittery loading screens to audio problems. These weren't a huge issue and are easily forgiven considering it's in a beta, but it's still something we wouldn't like to see in the full game, especially the bug that gave us 'Deserter' penalties for leaving games, even when the leaving was due to the connection and not our fault.
Also, there seems to be a lot to take in, and we feel a tutorial might help new users or those who think that they know exactly what they're getting (i.e. Overwatch players), as there are some aspects that took us a while to figure out. For example, there's a card system that you can use to customise your character, affecting things like weapon reloads, but we didn't realise we could do this for ages. This could be explained with a tutorial mode, showing what each menu does, how to approach the game, and where to find everything.
Overall, though, there's a lot to be positive about regarding Paladins. It's a team shooter that provides not only a lot of variety but a lot of engrossing fun, and we found ourselves leaning forward with intense focus at some points as we either desperately clung on to avoid defeat or pushed forward in glorious victory. It's involving for all types of players, and a little polishing and balancing should produce an impressive online experience.