I shuffle in my chair, watching the timer tick up as I queue for SMITE’s Shadows Over Hercopolis mode.
I find it strange that I’ve managed to mostly avoid playing MOBA games. As if some gatekeeper is going to come crashing into my bedroom and demand I tell them who the current DotA 2 champion team is or to know why I haven’t entrenched myself in Heroes of the Storm yet. The reality is that I don’t really enjoy MOBA games all that often. They seem built out of the parts I don’t particularly like from role-playing games and the parts of real-time strategy games I’m bad at, so they were already a poor fit for me. With that as the foundation, the toxic community was enough to make me want to avoid the genre altogether. So, largely, I did.
A metallic drum beat alerts me that I’ve found a game I can join and muse briefly on the oddity of this experience. My only experience with the MOBA genre prior to hopping into SMITE comes in the form of two games of League of Legends, both of which were played with friends. I hated them both. Friends with whom I’d been decently cordial for years turned into freshly-salted fury whenever I would fail to jungle (with characters I genuinely had no idea how to use, since I was forced to use the rotations available and both were my first games with said character), or end up dying pointlessly to a charge I didn’t have enough spatial and situational awareness to avoid.
With my friends against me and my opponents jeering in text chat, I found each experience frustrating enough to just want to abandon; so abandon I did. These memories linger in my head as my temporary allies select their heroes. I wonder if they would be furious at me for all the things I would, inevitably, do wrong. I hope my experience with action-RPGs like Diablo or Torchlight would at least help me make average decisions.
Some cursory wiki-reading had taught me which of SMITE’s heroes had healing abilities, and I convinced myself that healer is a decent role to get my feet wet since I could hopefully undo the worst of my mistakes with a well-timed heal or two. I settle into my first choice, and I load into an adventure. While waiting for the queue to drop me in, I’d read that Adventures mode didn’t offer players a shop. Instead, items were unlocked over the course of the adventure, so I wouldn’t have the opportunity to personalize my hero beyond what skills they normally have access to.
With a Little Help from my Friends
The run could be charitably said to be going well, in no small part thanks to the teammates. They offer me advice on how to keep out of combat with quick, terse comments over voice, and give me even quicker tips like “stay” or “go” on avoiding the stage-based hazards. Together, we reach the boss of the first section of the adventure, a fight we summarily lose. I offer only a quick thank you before the game separates us, and I feel bad that I don’t have the chance to thank them more at length.
Anyway, that hero was a dud, so I go to the next on my list.
Queue, tick, tock, game, join. This run is worse. This hero, though apparently a decent solo healer, can’t seem to keep both teammates up to a good quality of health. We die. The next two runs go similarly, but at least I find a hero that gels with me. Repeat trips are doing me well.
The fifth run is brief and explosive. A teammate charges all of the enemies in the beginning area, gathering hordes of enemies into tight packs of fangs, claws, and swords, and promptly dies. My other teammate and I shortly follow. This is a very formative object lesson: Do not aggro anything extraneous; it ends badly.
I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This
My thoughts crystallize decently over the next few runs. Coming at this mode as neither a SMITE or MOBA fan, but with more experience in typical action-RPGs and other online games, I find Shadows over Hercopolis kind of underwhelming. The enemies don’t feel particularly interesting or inspired, and the game feels a lot more like the field combat of an older-style MMO. The animations feel stiff and disconnected from what’s happening on screen. Stuns happen and damage ticks, but it doesn’t quite match up with the timing of skills or the flashy attack animations of the opponents. The health bars just sink, without any sort of visual flourish of a sense of motion. Health just cuts away, and enemies continue attacking unabated. Everything feels a little weightless.
Likewise, there’s nothing really spatially compelling. I find myself wanting to at least get the same weighty clubbing I felt from the first Diablo, where animations were clearly canned, but at least impacts stagger the enemies with each swing. It had a bit of weight, even though it was all sluggish—an underwater fight is still visually recognizable as a fight. Shadows over Hercopolis really doesn’t, it just feels like a repetitive, overly complicated game of chess. Pieces move, but they interact only in the most mechanical sense. The presence of the pieces and how they’re at war is too abstracted.
Likewise, my best understanding of how and why the MOBA genre works is because it’s a very intricate dance. Timing out attacks when enemies overextend, or setting up clever ambushes when players jungle too deep and ganking retreating opponents before they can cower under the safety of teammates or towers. Instead, this feels a little pre-planned. Can the three-person squad out-DPS the enemies they’re faced with, or will they come up short compared to the damage coming there way? I feel like I’m serving as a slow and awkward Microsoft Excel, with the skills I’m using being less important than simply having the equipment or team support to survive. My inclusion here, though significant as a full third of the fighting force on my team, feels less meaningful than if I were a bot.
In part because the sense of progression is so tied to arbitrary checkpoints. Reach this far, chest containing a healing potion and some currency. This far, more currency. Further, currency. Further, currency and a low-level item. Further, currency. Finally, boss. Survive the boss, currency and a medium-level item. New map, more DPS.
Surviving the first boss is easily twice as hard as the level leading up to it, and the play mechanics don’t feel like they’re rewarding my input so much as they’re crunching numbers. There’s almost never a reason to not use a skill, so just spam skills, hit as many enemies as possible, hope you kill before you die. After enough runs, even failed ones, currency accrues enough to buy items (or the low-level items add up), and players can consistently perform well in the first stage. The first boss is really the only instance where the player’s positioning and communication is tested, but at least six item-bearing runs will be necessary before the player can be reasonably expected to get there (without the help of better-equipped teammates).
Like a Snowball Downhill
Really, it doesn’t feel right. Everything is too floaty, my randomly acquired equipment is doing more for my team than I am, and the challenges spike furiously when things happen. I heal, I fight, I click, but if this were Left4Dead, I think I could set my character on AI mode and go make myself a sandwich. My team contribution would remain relatively equivalent. I don’t feel like I’m important here. Bosses come close to being something special, but the sudden difficulty spike feels more statistical than strategic, even if there is a strategy and pattern at play.
With enough currency, the town between queues can sell me low, medium, and high-level items. The high level items may require 20 failed runs to gather up enough gold to buy something nice, and 2-3 high-level items might be enough to push stronger characters over the boss to get to the next stage. And that stage will require 4-6 high-level items. Most runs, though, will end in failures. Death is pretty unforgiving, respawns are only available if no players are in combat, and the runs before the first significant item milestone will start to become repetitive, much less by the time the player pockets enough to start genuinely expecting to survive. Once the player starts surviving, though, money accrues much more quickly, and the higher level items come faster. Inertia takes over.
But, tragically, that’s the best that can be said for Shadows Over Hercopolis. It’s not a bad game mode, really, and it gives a nice sense of progression and accomplishment. However, it feels like it’s a pale effort to jam other action-RPG mechanics into a MOBA. The scenery becomes repetitive, combat feels largely uninspired, and the mechanics don’t really offer much respite. The siren’s call of this mode is almost exclusively on the incremental upgrades, the promise of some new shiny loot after just ten more runs. New items make next few runs easier and faster. Just twenty more runs. Money comes faster, new items, stronger chances, fifteen more runs.
But beyond the promise of something new, shiny, and powerful around the next corner, it’s hard to look at Shadow of Hercopolis as anything other than a mini-game tacked on. It really doesn’t do much that other RPGs or action games don’t already do better, more interestingly, and probably with better personalization options.
Pull the Lever, Kronk
As I queue in, familiar characters now like a second skin, it all feels a little rote. Repetitive. I’m not longer thinking about what I’m doing, I’m just doing it. This enemy will spawn a trio of mobs. Area of effect here, line-attack there. Minions go down, switch, heal allies, switch back, area of effect. This isn’t particularly mindful play, but I have enough equipment now that the damage feels significant. A part of me wishes I felt like I was doing enough, but the numbers are still making more decisions than I am. Boss goes well, thanks in large part to my contributions this time, but we die fairly early in the second stage. DPS is still too low. I’m not really having fun, but I find myself mousing over to the “Play Again” button. I could be playing anything else right now, so why am I about to press Play Again? My mind wanders briefly over to Dark Souls, perhaps.
I am in queue again, though. I didn’t mean to be, but I’m so close to another item. Maybe this is the one that will make me an unstoppable healer-dreadnaught. Maybe being powerful enough will make the moments feel weighted, and my personal input worthwhile. Probably not, but it’ll only take another 21 runs until I have another shot. Perhaps that one will give me unlimited power.
I shuffle in my chair, and the timer ticks up second by second.Related: Hi-rez Studios, MOBA, Shadows over Hercopolis, SMITE