With Smite firmly established in the eSports world, Georgia-based Hi-Rez studios has moved on to its next big title. Paladins enters the growing field of character-based, first-person action games (like Overwatch and Battleborn). Just like with Smite, Hi-Rez is tweaking the approach just enough to balance accessibility with depth.
Paladins' collection of systems is a blend of first-person shooting, objective capture, lane pushing found in MOBAs, and collectible card games. Players build a collection of cards for each of their heroes, assembling a deck that rolls out during play. Since decks can only have one copy of each card, your builds aren't going to be the same from match to match.
Cards fit one of three categories: armor, weapon, and abilities. Each has five different levels of potency dependent on when you add it to your loadout during the game. Every time you level up, three cards from your deck are randomly selected as options. You'll choose one to augment your skills. At level one, you get the lowest version of that ability. The next card you pick will be the a notch stronger, with the original's buff remains the same.
You can only have five cards in play on your way to the match level cap of nine. At level six, your original card pick jumps from its lowest potency to its strongest buff. At seven, the second card gets boosted from the second-lowest augment to the top, and so on. Should you die, your cards go on cooldown. The higher the card level, the longer it takes for a card to reactivate when you respawn.
Cards can add debuffs to your attacks like slow and poison, increase your attack speed the lower your health, or give you a health bonus for each enemy kill. Health automatically regenerates out of combat, and there is a meter overlaying your health bar that shows when you will start recovering. Fire a shot though, and you reset the countdown.
Each character has a basic ranged attack, two abilities, and a movement skill. My archer's triggered abilities were an area-of-effect arrow blast and a hawk that made enemies visible even out of sight for my entire team. Movement skills include rolls, dashes, and hovering.
Paladins can be played with mouse and keyboard or controller on PC (current-gen console releases are planned, also). You'd think that a controller player would be at a severe disadvantage in a mixed match, but somehow Hi-Rez has found a way to level the playing field.
I held my own with an Xbox One controller in-hand, pulling in kills and assists throughout the match. Hi-Rez has tuned the experience such that controls automatically swap depending on whether the last button you've pressed is on the controller or keyboard (similar to Lionhead's work on Fable Legends). The goal is to fill up your team's objective meter by holding the randomly selected capture point uncontested. Unlike most games with objective points, a team's control doesn't wind down when the other team is holding the zone. Instead, it's a race to 100 percent, which in turn spawns a siege engine.
Once one of those enters the fray, gameplay changes dramatically. The engine makes a beeline for the outermost enemy gate, and it's the only thing that can take one down (though players can augment the damage when the huge vehicle is in play). The team in control of the engine must defend it while it does its work, while those on the receiving end should work to destroy it as quickly as possible. Once destroyed, a countdown begins until the next capture point is randomly selected and the process begins again.
Players can ride mounts to speed around the battlefield (and, yes, this is a free-to-play game, so you can expect both character skins and mounts for sale). The objective points and siege engine spawning creates localized, frantic loci of combat amid the open maps. Careful use of cover, smart card selection during the match, and (of course) communication are crucial.
Hi-Rez is balancing the card cooldown with a catch-up feature for teams that are drastically behind. At a certain point (which is still being tweaked), the losing team will start to respawn and capture points faster. This should help keep games from feeling like foregone conclusions too early in the match.
Much of what Paladins does is seen in other games, but the blend of those elements and the unique, brilliant card system have me eager for the beta launch. That should happen later this year, with nine heroes available to start.