Paragon

This is cross-posted from my coverage over at Trusted Reviews, but with a few more details and changes from that initial post.

“It’s a MOBA, but it’s a third person shooter!” That was the echoing announcement ringing in my head as I made my way through the freezing streets of London to the Paragon event. I was worried; I’d seen bigger companies try their hand at MOBAs before, trying to “sex it up” a bit, but losing sight of what it is that makes them so popular in the first place.

As I descended the stairs into the event room my fears were greater than ever, until the team spoke; “So who here has played more than 500 hours of MOBAs?” a few of us, sheepishly, put our hands up, hoping he wouldn’t go higher than 500 hours. We were quickly grouped together and given a brief run-down of how Paragon was going to work; three lanes, 5 a side, items, kills, assists – the language became quickly familiar. Was this all lip service though? Surely the PR guys at Epic were deliberately tickling our MOBA senses with the evocative language of the team fight, surely the game wasn’t that much like a MOBA.

I was wrong.

The flow of a MOBA tends to follow a similar set of rules from title to title; spawn, buy your items, head out to your lane and accumulate experience and gold until you’re in a position to buy better items and engage in killing the enemy team. That flow is realised spectacularly here. It’s tempting to compare Paragon to DOTA 2 (the king of MOBAs) but doing so would be a disservice to both games; Paragon feels like a slow burning MOBA in the vein of DOTA 2, but borrows aspects from some of the quicker, short form games like Heroes of the Storm.

Veteran players will be glad to see the inclusion of ‘last hitting’ in Paragon; a system whereby getting the killing blow on a minion in lane offers up more experience and gold than normal. Where Paragon’s system differs ever so slightly to DOTA 2’s, though, is that when an enemy minion, or ‘creep’, is killed it shares 100% of the experience between the team (a la Heroes of the Storm.) It’s not a direct copy of HOTS either, though, last hitting one of these creeps means your team gets more experience and gold - an intelligent combination of the two systems, one that rewards skill but is also a little more inclusive to new players.

The inclusion of last hitting is good in another way as well; there is no auto attacking here. Every shot you fire is a left click of the mouse, and you won’t hit by aiming in the general direction. For all my talk about how Paragon is a MOBA at heart, it’s also a shooting game. To hit a minion, or even an enemy, you will have to aim at them. Several skills require precise aim, rewarding those among us with the reflexes and steady aim of the veteran Counter Strike player.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. For the uninitiated, for those who see DOTA or League of Legends as an impenetrable object and who hoped Paragon would ease them into the genre, there’s a lot to admire here. It keeps the same simple set up as typical MOBA games; there’s 3 lanes to focus the majority of the game into, with two “jungle” regions in between the lanes that are used to launch surprise attacks or kill neutral minions for extra experience and gold.

So let’s talk about levelling up. As you accrue experience and amber you’ll level up in two areas; firstly your player level. This will be instantly recognisable to MOBA players - you level up and pick which skill you’d like to improve. As you collect amber, the game’s equivalent of gold, you’ll increase your card level. This system represents one of my primary concerns with Paragon for two very different reasons.

One thing that makes DOTA 2 so popular is how reactive matches are. Depending on the flow and situation of the game you might see players completely abandoning an item build and going for something else entirely. You won’t be able to do that in Paragon. In Paragon your “deck” of cards (or items) is chosen before the game starts. You might opt for a high damage carry build, or a tanky support playstyle. This cannot be changed in the game.

For people familiar with MOBAs this system might be jarring, but the card system represents something else that is potentially problematic.

Bare in mind that this is something I have reached out for comment on, so take this with a pinch of salt. The cards that we could select are, basically, items. Ones that improve your cast time, your attack speed etc and you can open card “packs” to increase your options and variety in the decks you build outside of matches. As of right now there’s no word on how you get these packs, or how much they might cost if they are gained through purchases. It raises potentially difficult questions, again ones that I am waiting for comment on, about how heroes or maps might be acquired later in the game’s life.

But let’s focus on what we do know and that is that in game, away from those external systems, Paragon has heaps of potential. I went into the event with a number of worries scribbled down into my notepad and crossed them off one by one as they were alleviated over the course of my playtime. In its stead I began writing a list of things that I was surprised about; the biggest of which is just how much of a MOBA this is.

I’ve already mentioned one way in which Paragon is looking to soften the blow of playing a MOBA for newcomers and the second is another extremely smart decision. ‘Inhibitors’ are the ‘Barracks’ of this game. At the end of each lane, after a couple of towers, is the inhibitor where your waves of minions spawn. If that building is destroyed then the enemy team’s minions become much stronger; so far so MOBA. The difference here is that Inhibitors respawn after a few minutes - meaning that teams have to push hard  to finish a game, or that the defending team can rally to keep themselves alive while their Inhibitor respawns. Purists might not like it, but in my experience it makes for much more unpredictable games with the ebb and flow allowing for a much more exciting game than a 15 minute DOTA 2 stomp.

The thing that is most exciting, having sat with a few developers, the QA team and one or two PR guys, is that Epic seem to understand what makes MOBAs so popular. They aren’t bashing down the down and brazenly claiming Paragon is the next big thing in eSports; they’re far too clever for that. They’ve taken an existing, and very successful formula, made a couple of changes and put it in the hands of players. The shift to third person is a welcome change of perspective and adds a little  more dynamism in the moment to moment gameplay, but removes none of the tension.

I played 4 games in my afternoon with Paragon and lost none. Two half an hour games were considered “stomps” by the QA team and our band of 500+ hour MOBA players were quickly split up. The next two games, one against players and the second against QA, were close to (and in one case over) 60 minutes. I didn’t know Paragon had that capacity; I didn’t know if the game would cater to those sweaty palm, adrenaline pumping, breath holding contests where one mistake can end the game.

It does. That’s the biggest compliment I can pay Paragon - this is a MOBA to the core, and an excellent one at that.

The game is currently in closed alpha, with an early access program planned for later in the year, with a full open beta to follow that. The game will also be cross platform play between PC and PS4 but there are no details about how that launch window will effect the PS4 just yet.