S2 Games has learned a lot of lessons from Heroes of Newerth, and I spoke with creative designer Doug Houserman about what the team is bringing to the table to make Strife a better game.
"We wanted to keep the really fast-paced gameplay from HoN," Doug told me as I began the game's story mode. "However, we wanted to move away from set-in-stone roles and teammates fighting each other rather than the enemy. We wanted to remove people fighting over kills and creeps," he explained. "And we wanted to remove the dedicated support role especially, the one who takes a hit for the team so that other characters can get more gold."
Strife does this in an interesting way. Each minion has a base gold value, and in a solo lane, scoring a last-hit gives half the value to the killer and distributes the rest to his teammates. In any other situation, the minion gold will be evenly distributed among all allies present. Thus, if both players in a duo lane go for a last-hit, both players will get the same rewards as long as one of them gets the killing blow. "We didn't want to remove last-hitting entirely, but we feel this changes things up a lot."
Jungle creeps are done differently; the first person to deal damage to the creep "claims" it. After that, no ally can steal the jungle creeps, but enemies still can with the same restrictions: The first enemy to deal damage will claim it, and then he will get the rewards if he or his allies get the killing blow.
I continued through the story mode, which is basically a tutorial. The story covered attacking, skills, buying items, leveling up, using brush to hide from enemies, observation points (they replace wards; they're similar to watchtowers in StarCraft II), and of course, pushing towers, killing creeps, and fighting near towers. It was a neat way of introducing the game's mechanics without beating a player's head in with them, and I was promised that there will be more campaigns in the future to tell more story and deepen the understanding of game concepts.
"We wanted to help people really learn the game," Doug explained. "There are so many things in MOBAs that are hard to teach, so we have lots of help everywhere to introduce these skills to people."
It felt a bit too much like a tutorial, unfortunately, but I got to play only the first part of the story. I think it might be better spread-out with the lessons over more missions, as that first chapter covered a lot of topics.
Strife will make all gameplay options free-to-play and will sell character models and model color sets as cash shop items. There will also be player progression (similar to summoner levels in LoL) that unlock familiar/minipet abilities and different tiers of the item store.
Speaking of familiars, I learned that each player will have a familiar with a set of special abilities. These familiars can be leveled and evolved, and players can unlock new ones as they progress in the game. Gotta catch 'em all, indeed. When I played the normal "difficult" bots match, I chose a ranged auto-attack type hero and a familiar with lifesteal.
I can't really comment too much on the match because it played out very similarly to other MOBAs. It had lanes and creeps and ganking (the bots actually ganked too!) and jungle monsters and grouping up for teamfights. The bots were fairly smart and went after some objectives while I was split pushing. Still, they behaved like typical bots in a MOBA, meaning they made lots of mistakes and I won the match without dying at all (though I did have one situation where I got caught in the jungle and should have died).
However, one unique feature of Strife was that players no longer have to return to base to shop. You can open the buy menu, buy the items you want, and press G, and they'll be delivered to you right on the battlefield. Your delivery panda takes a little while to get to you and has some time before he can be called again, but it was very convenient. This, in addition to faster out-of-combat health and mana regeneration, encourages players to stay in the fight and contribute.
I'm not sure how much I like either of these features personally, since I like the idea of forcing someone out of lane without killing him. I also think that the delivery panda encourages snowballing in lane, which I'm also ambivalent about. The panda is really cute, though, and both choices do one thing that the S2 guys really want: keep people involved in the match constantly.
I suppose it's worth mentioning that I have a certain set of beliefs about how a MOBA should play, and I do think that all the features that set Strife apart are all features that make the game better for new players. In the end, I think that is much more important. Will Strife be able to break into the crowded MOBA world? I certainly hope so.
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