Crucible is Amazon’s first go at a free-to-play competitive multiplayer game, and so I had no idea what to expect. Amazon Games is a rare beast: a brand new publisher muscling into the game industry at the triple-A level. Outside of mobile and Facebook games, and last year’s Grand Tour, it is yet to show us what it can do. In theory it has the money and the talent to become a major player, so when I sit down to try Relentless Studios’ Crucible, I’m as curious as I am excited.
Crucible introduces plenty of new ideas, but the best way to set the scene is through concepts you’re familiar with. It’s essentially a hero shooter crossed with a MOBA – you pick a character with a set of abilities and a preferred weapon, known here as a ‘hunter’, and battle it out to control the map. This, naturally, means eliminating the other players.
There’s a strong whiff of Apex Legends and a touch of Overwatch, and while skills honed in those games will certainly stand you in good stead in Crucible, MOBA mechanics seep between the hero shooter layers to shake things up.
When entering a match, you don’t just pick your hunter – you also pick an ability set, each of which offers different skills that will unlock at levels one, three, and five. You may be playing the robotic hunter Bugg, for example, but you’re not restricted to just one version of Bugg.
I find myself gravitating to Ajonah, a sniper who reminds me of my bae Widowmaker from Overwatch – she even has Widow’s grappling hook and a little spider mine, but unlike Blizzard’s purple assassin, you can improve those gadgets. You might choose the ability set that lets you use your grappling hook more often, bolstering your mobility, or that reduces the cooldown of your spider mine, making your sniper nest more secure. It’s a neat twist on the hero shooter genre that causes your character to play slightly differently as you gain levels, depending on the ability set you pick at the start.
Crucible cribs from popular multiplayer genres but adds a few twists, like variable ability sets and team leveling
Your choice also throws up a few surprises when you interact with enemies. You’ll know which hunter your opponent is playing, but you’ll have no idea which level five ability they’ve chosen, and that’s an important piece of information that’ll affect how you and your team responds. I can imagine competitive games in which teams may bait each other into revealing their builds, frantically calling them out as they’re discovered. As smoke bombs, stealth abilities, flanking moves, and so on in other shooters prove, the information war is a constant rhythm in high-level play, and Crucible is opening a new front in that theatre. For the rest of us, this front at least means you can still be surprised by what an otherwise familiar opponent can do.
As with MOBAs, you’ll level up by killing enemies – both human hunters and AI-controlled monsters. Crucible adds another source of XP, though: control points on the map called harvesters. It’s very like League of Legends and Dota 2 in that levelling quickly is essential to stay ahead of your opponents, but unlike those games you level as a team. Sending someone off to go jungle benefits you all, but also leaves them very vulnerable to attack. It’s an interesting approach which might offset some of the toxicity that’s common to competitive MOBAs – perhaps that’s naive, but it’s worth a shot and this reinforcement of cooperative play deserves praise.
You may be noticing a pattern by now: Crucible cribs the staple ideas from popular multiplayer genres but adds a few twists of its own, whether that’s ability sets or harvesters. Another example of this is the random events which will occur throughout the game. Announced at the beginning of the match, every few minutes an objective will pop up which grants a damage multiplier, or reveals your opponents’ locations on the map. This adds another dynamic that you’ll need to stay on top of, independent of the main objective: if either team can eke out an edge in levelling or in securing these smaller objectives, their opponents can end up losing very quickly.
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Where Crucible parts company with MOBAs, however, is in its approach to classes. Rather than traditional MOBA roles like jungler, support, or ADC, each hunter can do a bit of anything. This is strangely refreshing. No one’s about to yell at you to switch to a healer or a tank, because they don’t really exist. Instead, you can rely on your abilities, various healing mechanisms around the map, or health packs to keep you in play.
So how about all those big team fights? Similarly to MOBAs your hunters are going to become more powerful as the match goes on, which means every encounter with the opposite team gets more deadly. Shots you’d survive at the beginning of the match will put you down by the end of it and new or amped-up abilities will enter play, changing the feel of these team fights from simple and cautious to explosive and hectic. This adds a real sense of escalating drama that’s missing in your average hero shooter, because every death really matters. Dying means waiting to respawn on the edge of the map and then making the journey back to the rest of your team, which can take a minute or two.
There but for the grace...
Crucible's basic blend of genres isn't *entirely* original. Back in 2016, Gearbox's ill-fated Battleborn launched with a range of 25 heroes who earned XP by killing enemies, including AI creeps, and progressed through ten levels with a choice of skills at each. It was the original triple-A hero shooter/MOBA mashup, but its relative failure - helped by stiff competition from Overwatch - perhaps explains why no one else has tried the same idea since.
Crucible also features a battle royale-type mode in which yourself and one other teammate are dropped into the map and must fight off the other pairs. It plays much like Apex Legends, but there’s a twist: if your teammate is eliminated, and you come across another lone player, you can pair up and form a new team – if they accept your request. But be warned: as soon as the battlefield is whittled to only three players, these teams are disbanded, and your friend becomes (or returns to being) an enemy. Last person standing wins, which also counts as a win for their original partner. I don’t play battle royales regularly, but I had a blast with this mode in particular. Perhaps it was my insane skills with a sniper rifle, or maybe it was down to getting carried by one of the Crucible devs – who can say – but after winning twice, I was addicted to victory.
MOBAs and hero shooters haven’t crossed worlds in quite the same way that they do in Crucible – it does a number of things differently to Battleborn, one of the few other attempts at something similar – and, somewhat to my surprise, it really works. I have a great time charging into battle with a team, screaming and running away from another hunter who countered Ajonah well, or working on levelling my team while they play the objective.
To hear that Amazon, whose forays into gaming to date have been on mobile, is making a free-to-play game with battle passes might lead some to think that this corporate giant is jumping on a bandwagon, or that Crucible’s devs are about business rather than making an original contribution to the genre that can stand on its own as a well-crafted, distinct game. This isn’t the case.
As it happens, Crucible was in development before the surprise announcement of Apex Legends. The team were shocked and panicked: here was another hero shooter with a team-based battle royale mode, and it was already out and already impressing. The team feared their intended audience would think they were simply making a copycat to cash in, especially as Amazon could likely do exactly that with the resources we all know it has. But having played both games I can say this is inaccurate.
And more like the other bit: Which is the best MOBA for you?
Crucible really doesn’t play like Apex Legends, or Overwatch, or League of Legends, though it certainly borrows freely from each to make something new that straddles all their genres. I’m excited to see what Relentless Studios can achieve with Crucible, and as it’s free-to-play, there’s no harm in trying it out yourself.