The emerging world of multiplayer online battle arenas (or MOBAs) is starting to get interesting. There's been a few large players that have dominated the market -- League of Legends, Dota and Heroes of Newerth are the most notable. You only need to look at the Steam stats page to see that Dota 2 is is a big deal -- at the time of writing its had a peak daily player count of 270,882.
So it's clear that people are getting into MOBAs in a big way -- despite many of the horror stories about how steep the learning curve is and how unforgiving the community is. So it comes as no surprise to see word of many new entrants in this space.
What was a little surprising (to me, at least) was the news that Warner Bros was making one in conjunction with Turbine and DC Comics -- and had been working on it in secret for a couple of years. Announced recently, Infinite Crisis promises all the MOBA gameplay you'd expect in a DC Universe jam-packed with all the comic book superheroes you'd love to see in there.
Except it's not even really the DC Universe -- it's more like the DC Multiverse. Characters from Infinite Crisis come from three separate universes -- the regular DC one which everyone is already familiar with, Nightmare, and Gaslight. The two alternate universes feature the same characters but with unique twists. Nightmare characters are freakishly twisted mirror images of their original -- for example, Batman becomes a vampire-esque creature with different skills and abilities to the traditional one. Gaslight characters have a steampunk vibe (which looks very cool).
This is all great from the creative side as it has meant the designers and artists have been able to go nuts visually to create these awesome new flavours of your favourite characters. However, the practical upshot of all this from a MOBA perspective is that there are three teams made up of the standard stuff from the DC Comics stable with different takes.
We were invited to get some hands-on time with the game at GDC in San Francisco recently and dove at the opportunity. I've spent most of the last six months doing nothing but trying to find more time to play Dota 2 (something which sadly does not seemed to have materially improved my skill at the game) and was keen to check out a different take on the series.
First up, a disclaimer: I think every MOBA player would probably agree that it's really hard to gauge a game of this genre in only a short hands-on experience. The huge amount of content (in terms of characters, their abilities, and the items) means the learning curve for the typical MOBA game is huge. We only had the chance to check out two back-to-back games, so just keep in mind that this is only scratching the surface.
In terms of the core stuff, I found Infinite Crisis extremely comfortable to just dive into immediately -- it's very familiar to anyone that has spent time in Dota 2, certainly. Five players per team, characters have both health and mana, are ranged or melee, can buy items and level up skills. It's clearly heavily inspired by the current gameplay model of existing MOBA games -- so I'll focus on what's different.
There are some cool fresh gameplay tweaks -- catastrophic events, like a meteor thudding into the ground causing mass havoc and damaging players not only keeps players on their toes for the opportunities those events create but also adds volumes to the atmosphere. Destructible items in the environment also play a big role in the game -- being able to pick up a car and throw it at the enemy team is a lot of fun. They're also planning to have three levels -- we played in a circle point-capture one, but there'll also be a three laner and what they described as a "custom" map (no other details yet).
One small UI feature I did like was a basic bar graph system that gave you an instant summary view of how the builds of your teammates were progressing -- each player has a simple three-pronged bar graph which gives you at-a-glance information about their core stats, so you can complement what they're doing with your own behaviour. This would certainly be more useful in games where you're playing with a lot of randoms and the communication is not really happening -- it'll save you having to painstakingly go through each character on your team to find out what they're doing (or worse, having to actually engage them in dialogue -- always a risky business online).
Having seen the truly excellent support for serious competitive gaming in Dota 2, I was interested to see how far Turbine was taking it. Features like replay recording and spectating are fairly basic requirements for a game to become truly eligible in the pro scene. While the build we played didn't support it directly, I had conversations with Turbine staff that made it clear that they understood that these features are important -- so it sounds like they're at least on the radar if not features that will be in at launch.
We also asked about local server support -- again, something important not only for competitive gaming but also for anyone that takes their multiplayer gaming seriously. At this stage they're not disclosing their infrastructure plans, but rest assured we made sure they understand that Australians don't like playing games with a lot of latency and we'll be following this up with them at every opportunity.
The big draw of Infinite Crisis, of course, is the DC Universe and the characters. The version we played felt pretty feature complete but only had a handful of the full range of "dozens and dozens" that you can expect to see in the final version. Playing the characters like Joker and Batman is great -- especially with their alternative universe equivalents in the mix -- and the game feels like a solid MOBA and ticks a lot of the boxes gamers will expect to see.
The game will be free-to-play on PC and as is the norm with F2P titles, you'll have plenty of opportunity to spend your money. The exact model is still being nailed down, but we learnt that it's likely that you'll be paying to unlock characters to play -- so think more League of Legends than Dota.
I was surprised with how far along the game felt to play -- there's still a long way to go in terms of UI and assets but they've nailed a lot of the core MOBA feel and features. It's clearly heavily inspired by existing titles like League of Legends and Dota, though with a few unique tweaks to differentiate it. It's great to see the popular DC world coming into a more traditionally hardcore PC environment and comic fans will no doubt relish the opportunity to play their favourite characters in an entirely new play-space. The big question is whether it will have the longevity required to really keep the serious gamers involved -- something which will come down to the attention to detail in areas like competitive functionality, good infrastructure to provide a solid worldwide network, and a clear focus on balance and gameplay. Stay tuned.