WAAAGH!: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Linked Into the Great Green

So I got myself into the weekend beta program for Bioware's upcoming F2P arena game, Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes. Though not made by the guys and gals at Edmonton, WOH represents the Bioware Group's entry into the MOBA/MOBA-ish scene and looks to offer furious and fun gameplay

Now that Bioware has engulfed Mythic - makers of Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning - like a Creeping Terror, the next game based on Game Workshop's historic IP is Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes. Stripping down to the bare elements, Wrath of Heroes disregards the persistent world and massively multiplayer gameplay of Mythic's previous works for quick and brutal arena battles. WOH offers a skeletal presentation - consisting of 6v6v6 warfronts and nothing but a lobby to connect them with.

Queue Up

Bioware Mystic is currently running a Closed Beta program. These test sessions run for a few hours at a time, and another will be coming along shortly.

The lobby has a Spartan selection of features - you can queue for either a pre-made or random warband, chat with other players, spend from the two game currencies and play around with tactics sets. The final two options were not activated in the most recent beta, so it's hard to say how these will pan out.

When diving into a battle, players can select from an assortment of pre-made champions to control, each with their own strengths and weaknesses and definitive roles to play. Revealed champions have so far fill standard archetypes in MMO and party-based games - including melee and range fighters, damage absorbers, and healers. These toons bring their own spin on the roles, however. The Goblin Shaman, for instance, supports with area heals and nature-based damaging spells. There is, of course, an elf archer, because it wouldn't be a fantasy game without one.

Incoming "Legolas" derivative screennames.

The Meat

Fights in the game focus mostly on objective-based gameplay, though kills factor into the equation as well. Each champion has five active abilities, while some also have stack-based buffs that play into damage-dealing as well. On-the-fly class changes help with keeping balanced teams. If your PUG teammates all insist on playing the Elf archer, you can switch toons at death and play a Black Orc to keep your foes off them, or a Shaman to keep them up and dancing around your enemies a little longer.

Or if a Shadow Warrior turns your Slayer into a pin cushion, you can switch to a Witch Queen and dice him into Elven bits.

The sole selling point of this game is the combat, and here the game shows strong potential. Matches are quick and brutal - battles are limited to 15 minutes, requiring a smaller investment than similar F2P arena games. The gameplay is based on the tried-and-true hotkey MMO style, but simplified. As champions are limited to five skills and non-customizable equipment, success comes not from number-crunching or gear grinding, but learning how the toon plays. Compared to similar arena games, which require close to an hour per match and play more like RPS-style click fests, WOH brings a unique perspective on the genre. Fans of PVP MMOs will feel right at home in Wrath of Heroes.

Level design further adds to the nature of the fights. Though only one arena appeared in the demo, it featured relatively close quarters for battle. The map istelf focuses on tactical approaches - with flat areas and pillars around objectives while filling the extra real estate with ridges and obstructions. Bioware Mythic knows that, to win these sorts of matches, you need to fight on the flag, and the design lends itself to this philosophy by encouraging brawls to take place where the momentum of the battle can shift. Combine that with 3 teams vying for the same objectives, and you can find yourself quickly amidst a three-way brouhaha. These close and chaotic battles provide a succulent flavor to the standard MMO battles WOH is based on.

The Giblets

I'm rather gunshy on publicizing criticisms of the game, because we're looking at an early stage of beta development. I'll point out that, graphically, WOH doesn't progress far beyond Age of Reckoning, including the animation oddity with characters running in the distance. Music and sound are subpar - consisting of the occasional metal-ish rift and an announcer who sounds like the parody of his kind in Duty Calls.

Also, there hasn't been any mention of an spectator mode in the game. Of course, the development team has said that they are still working on features. However, the lack of any inkling of this is a glaring ommission. MOBA-style games are surging ahead in popularity thanks to the e-sports scene, in which Mythic Entertainment has dabbled with DAoC. With League of Legends and DOTA 2 featuring these modes, WOH will need one to be seen as a serious contender for the arena and e-sports scene.

And I don't know if I'd call this a negative, but I feel this is worth a mention - particularly with the Bioware logo on the title screen. While Warhammer has nearly 30 years of history and enough novels to call for its own Dewey Decimal number, the setting in this game seems to serve only as wrapping - to segue the license into a Plan B for profit. With such a copious amount of lore, and the various stories told through past games with the IP, it seems odd that there's no effort to make so much as a premise for the game. Hell, even the notion of a Black Orc and a Bright Wizard fighting side-by-side is enough to raise an eyebrow. For what it's worth, however, Games Workshop is working closely with the team to keep the art and the feel loyal to the franchise, and based on the dev panel at PAX, they're on board with the game's directions, too.

Get scrappin'

In short, you shouldn't let the name on the cover fool you - despite Bioware's logo displayed prominently on the splash screen, this won't be a harrowing tale of the Empire of Man's survival. No moral choices, no branching dialogue trees, no kinky High Elf sex. However, Wrath of Heroes is shaping up to be a lean, intense, and brutally fun arena game. And it's free-to-play. So, go ahead and sign up for the beta and keep your eyes on this one.