The second episode of The Free Agent forays into the battleground of the gods
Welcome back to the Free Agent, ZAM's bi-weekly column that investigates the question, "can gaming really be free?" If you missed Episode 1 it's not too late to catch up on the Free Agent's first impressions of TERA Rising, a free-to-play action/RPG MMO. But as we move on to Episode 2 we're shifting gears over to the free-to-play MOBA market, making our way onto the battleground of the gods with SMITE.
Hi-Rez Studios may have made its way in the world as an FPS developer with the Tribes franchise, but that didn't exclude it from throwing its hat into the every expanding roster of MOBA games we're seeing on the market. For those that aren't entirely clear what a MOBA is, it stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, a fast paced PvP experience best known for games like League of Legends and DOTA2.
But unlike the hordes of MOBA clones slated for release or currently in beta testing, SMITE offers a different perspective on the MOBA genre, quite literally in fact.
In a daring covert data gathering operation the Free Agent has compiled a detailed intelligence report that proves that SMITE is just like every other game in the MOBA genre:
• Two opposing teams attempting to push their way past their opponent's defensive structures in order to destroy each other's base
• A mixture of hordes of weak AI minions and several powerful heroes/champions, each separately controlled by a single player
• Ever expanding rosters of heroes/champions, each with a small set of unique abilities, made available in a free-to-play business model
• In-game accumulation of levels via experience gained from defeating enemies and neutral monsters
• In-game accumulation of items via gold gained from defeating enemies and neutral monsters
• A series of different game-modes, each with its own pre-set battlefield layout
• Battlefields with restricted or limited vision based on the players team and laid out in an isometric or aerial view
But wait! What's this then?
There you have it. While SMITE may possess all of the staple elements that make the MOBA genre what it is, it also offers something unique, a 3rd person perspective. It is in fact this simple yet ingenious design element that drew the attention of the Free Agent in the first place. As such it seems as good a place as any to start.
You might be thinking to yourself, can a simple change in battlefield perspective really make that big a difference? Well in the Free Agent’s opinion it makes all the difference in the world. By placing you in the lane, instead of above it, SMITE takes the pulse-pounding, nervous-tick inducing action to a whole new level. Forget stealth champions, while you're farming away in your own lane anyone from the other team could be sneaking up behind you. Over commit in a team fight, and you could suddenly find yourself surrounded by enemies with no idea which way is out.
This singular feature leads me to believe that whether you are a grizzled veteran of the MOBA genre or just seeking to dip your foot in the pool for the first time, SMITE is absolutely worth a try. What do you have to lose, it's free after all, so you might as well download it and see if you like the 3rd person play style in a MOBA.
Okay that's pretty cool, but what about the rest?
While the intrigue of a MOBA with 3rd person perspective might be enough to draw many players, there are of course other elements to consider. Due to the repetitive nature of matches in most MOBAs it is essential to have a robust roster of champions to pick from. This ensures that, while every match might be fought on the same battlefield, no two games are ever truly the same.
In this respect SMITE is certainly off to a good start, boasting a healthy selection of gods to fill a variety of battlefield roles. With more gods added as SMITE continues through its open beta phase, this game has huge potential for growth as it provides players with interesting and compelling champion choices. I mean really, who doesn't want to play as Thor, god of thunder?
And why settle for just one pantheon of gods when you can tap into the near limitless options of mythologies and religious figures from throughout the history of the world. Currently gods are drawn from Greek, Roman, Norse, Hindu, Chinese, Egyptian and even Mayan pantheons, but there is no reason this couldn't grow to include other pantheons from history as well. It's a brilliant blending of fantasy and the familiar.
Only time will tell if Hi-Rez can improve some of the existing balance issues and provide enough substance in the game play mechanics of each new god they release. With so many well known gods still waiting in the wings I'm excited to keep watching the roster grow. One thing's for sure though, their lore department certainly has it easy; no need to make up unique back stories here.
A Map for Any Occasion
It's not just the size of the champion roster that keeps a MOBA fresh, it's also the different game-modes and associated maps that lend a hand in this regard. MOBAs are most commonly known for the traditional 5v5, destroy the other team’s base on a three-lane map, game-mode. SMITE of course attempts to offer its own take on this with the Conquest game mode. I particularly enjoyed the almost 'boss-fight' feel when you move to destroy your opponent’s base structure to secure final victory, as in this case a colossal minotaur who can quite handily take of himself.
But it can be difficult to compete with the traditional 3 lane game-modes when other MOBAs have had such a large head start in perfecting it. For the most part I avoided the conquest game mode, partially because I'm just too used to playing other MOBAs in this mode and, as a result, couldn't quite seem to find my stride. But also because SMITE had so much more to offer.
The Arena game-mode was a personal favorite, providing fast and frantic games in small coliseum style arena. Domination also proved to be enjoyable when my mood was suited for objective based combat. Ahead of even some of its competitors, the Assault game mode will be a favorite for those who enjoy the chaos and randomness of the growing ARAM movement (All Random All Mid).
But for those who are as impatient as I am, the queuing system is a little tiresome. In some cases you have to wait upwards of 4 or 5 minutes to join the game-mode you are interested in. The upside of this is you will find yourself trying alternate game-modes simply because they start sooner. I can only assume that, as their player base increases and they move from open beta into full release, this system will improve.
It's the Little Things
It may be true that it’s little foxes that spoil the vine so to speak, but it's also true that it's the little things that can make a game shine. SMITE draws from both sides of this coin.
On one hand the art style seems underdeveloped at times, particularly when it comes to splash art, icons, and god models. This really is a small thing, and even MOBA giants such as League of Legends started from humbler art beginnings, but all the same it left me wanting more.
At early levels I let the AI auto-buy my items for me, a feature I appreciated when I first starting playing and one that should be highlighted as a little thing that makes the game shine. But once I felt confident enough to make my own item choices I was left feeling that my choices were not really consequential to my game play, and therein lies the little fox.
Admittedly there was a general lack of understanding of item builds and synergies on my part, but I found it difficult to move beyond that due to what I felt was a rather clunky store layout. Most of the time I fell into an almost mechanical buy, upgrade, upgrade pattern that left me wondering if I shouldn't just turn the AI back on.
Flipping back to the other side of the coin again, a simple yet profound joy I discovered with SMITE was a pop up that let me know my match was ready. It's a particularly useful feature when you have a wait time of 4 1/2 minutes to get into a match and so of course alt-tab out of the game client to go peruse your favorite gaming news site (cough cough shameless ZAM plug). It seems like such an inconsequential thing, yet I found myself praising it repeatedly to anyone who would listen.
Okay already, just answer the question!
Is SMITE really free-to-play? The obvious answer, just like pretty much every other MOBA out there, is yes. The real answer is, maybe... depending on how much self control you have.
The SMITE store is more than happy to sell you gems in exchange for real money, and you can use those gems to purchase things like new gods or custom skins. Nothing earth shatteringly different there. As an example, for the equivalent of $5.99 (USD) you could pick up the Blood Eagle skin for Thor. Custom skins are cool, and win 3% more games, but for the sake of freedom I could resist buying them, I suppose.
That's not the problem.
Yes you could play SMITE for free, for all eternity, but similar to other MOBAs you would be restricted to either the small pool of always-available gods or the random rotation of free-to-play gods. In my experience this rotation did not change nearly fast enough for my tastes and I found that there was only one or two gods available to me that I really enjoyed playing. Of course this is the price you pay for not paying a price.
No big deal right, just win a bunch of games and save up the awarded in-game currency, called Favor, and buy the gods that you want to play. They're even kind enough to allow you to play practice games with any god you'd like, another little thing I appreciate to be sure. But unfortunately, I didn't have enough favor saved up to purchase my first god until level 9. Suddenly the road to purchasing a viable roster of gods for myself seemed to get really long.
That said, my overall experience with SMITE was a positive one, and there are some gods that look like they would be extremely fun to play. Once again for the sake of freedom maybe I could be patient and hold out paying any real money.
Enter the Ultimate God Pack, the utter ruination of my resolve to play SMITE for free.
For $30 you can unlock not just all of the current gods, but every new god released as well. Honestly, with that kind of value, how could you resist? I know I can't. If I continue playing SMITE there is no way I won't buy the Ultimate God Pack.
SMITE is a breath of fresh air in the increasingly stale MOBA genre. It's a great game really, perhaps a little rough around the edges, but what in BETA isn't. At the very least I'd recommend checking it out. But as the Free Agent I would be remiss if I didn't warn you, if you fall in love with SMITE, you're probably going to end up spending money on it. Maybe think of it as free-to-try.
On the Next Episode of the Free Agent
If we dwell here, we will die. And so in order to remain free, the Free Agent must move on to another title. Lucky for you, I think it might be a good one.
In two weeks time the Free Agent will return from deep undercover to report if the crazy sci-fi ninja 3rd person shooter action of Warframe really is free-to-play.
Until then stay tuned to ZAM.com and feel free to discuss SMITE, or any game covered by the Free Agent, by posting a comment below. Better yet, follow me on twitter and send your suggestions for free-to-play games that you'd like the Free Agent to investigate.
See you next time, on The Free Agent.
Robert "Caergan" Gray, The Free Agent