It seems that eSports is getting bigger with every passing day, and one of the most popular genres within competitive gaming is the MOBA. The big three - League of Legends, Dota 2, and Heroes of Newerth (we'll also likely be adding Heroes of the Storm to that lineup soon enough) - all have similar maps, use similar rules and have similar classes and characters. An unwritten rule is that these games have to be played from an isometric view - and it's this rule that Hi-Rez Studios have taken upon themselves to challenge.
Smite features a more traditional third-person camera. A seemingly harmless tweak, but one that makes a dramatic difference to both pace and the conditions of the game. Your overview of the action and the tactical depth we've grown used to has to take a backseat to close-quarters combat and hide and seek bouts that happen at a frenetic pace.
But perhaps we shouldn't assume everyone who reads this is familiar with the genre, so here's a quick run through of the basic rules.
Two teams made up of five players have a base on each side of a map, and these two points are connected by three lanes. In these lanes the computer-controlled creeps rush forward, offering the hero characters (players) a chance to kill them in order to farm gold (the currency that lets you buy upgrades) and XP (that unlocks abilities). The objective is simply for your team to push through a series of defensive towers along the way to the enemy base and finally take down the Titan for the victory. Defending your own towers is naturally equally important to success.
Similar rules found in Dota 2 were described as a mix between football, chess and poker in Valve's recent documentary Free to Play. The description also applies to the similar rule set of Smite, with the difference being that the chess component has been toned down as a result of the frantic pace, and the football part is given more weight.
At times it's amazingly fast-paced, for better and worse. After close to 400 hours with League of Legends and a quarter of that on Dota 2, it's quite an adjustment to not be able to gain an overview of the battlefield. Instead we're forced to settle for a representation of the map in the top right corner that shows other players (depending on their visibility). Our own character is controlled with the WASD keys and mouse, the latter letting us aim our ranged attacks.
The theme is well thought out and revolves around Gods of all religions waging war on each other according to the previous mentioned rules. Hades - the Greek God of the Underworld, is a mage with scorching ranged attacks, Freya - the Norse Goddess of Fertility, is a mage that prefers close-quarters, and Bakasura - a great devourer from Indian mythology, is best adapted to the no-man's land in-between lanes called the Jungle, where he can grow fat on monsters before taking on stray enemies.
The roles, much like the characters that take them on, are very similar to those in League of Legends and, as a LoL veteran, it's easy to simply make your usual choice of character, position and items based on experience earned in Riot Games' monster hit. And what's perhaps most surprising is that these tactics work, for the most part.
We counter our opponents with items that negate their attacks, slaughter creeps and kill players much like we've done for hundreds of hours. We're left with the impression, playing by ourselves, that we're not really given a challenge. Sure, the argument that the game has just recently launched can be made, but the fact remains that the game has been available in a glorified beta version for quite some time and there's already been tournaments with pro teams. This leaves us to believe something is up with the matchmaking. Not only is it unreliable and clumsy, it doesn't seem to match us up with the right level of players.
The optimal experience is doubtless when you share a game with four friends using voice chat and play against an equally coordinated opposing team. Sadly there are still issues with the matchmaking and balance between our team and the opposition is never achieved. After nearly 40 matches played, the fights tend to be very binary - we either completely trash the opposition or end up on the losing end of a one-sided beating. The snowball effect that's put in motion when one team is off to a great start is very difficult to deal with for the losing side, and games are often decided in less than 20 minutes.
As if this wasn't enough there is a notable imbalance with the characters. Some work well in all imaginable scenarios with good options to flee the scene during unfavourable confrontations. Yet we and many of our co-players found it difficult to come up with appropriate play-styles for other characters, who we simply put to the side and never played with again.
The free-to-play model used here gives players a weekly rotation of free characters to try out, and you can them buy these either through in-game currency or real money. There are also costumes and boosters to buy, all pretty much standard fare in today's free-to-play market. It should be commended that they're doing free-to-play in a fair and ungreedy manner. A non-paying player has the same chance to be successful as a player with all the coolest costumes and all Gods unlocked - even if it will take slightly longer to reach the max level and the ranked matchmaking.
With its focus on accessibility and eSports, the ideas found in Smite appear made for success, but the developers seem to have relied too heavily on the shift of perspective, without really doing anything else different to stand out from the competition. Obviously the game will be updated continuously with new Gods, new maps and balance updates, but in its current condition we're not convinced that Smite has what it takes to stay for the long haul, what with the fierce competition it has.
Sure, the Gods at war theme makes for a nice setting and offers an interesting glimpse into various mythologies, but the balance issues, the clumsy matchmaking and the fact fact that it feels like we're playing a modified version of League of Legends with a different camera perspective, just presents too much of a hindrance for us to truly enjoy Smite. We want to love Smite for what it is, and when played with a team of friends we found it very entertaining (most of the time), but there are enduring issues that mean we're heading back to League of Legends sooner than we really ought to be.