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Paragon cherry-picks MOBAs for their best bits

Paragon hands-on

Paragon is, unquestionably, a MOBA. In an age where MOBA-like class-based hybrids threaten to oust roguelike as the meaningless quasi-genre du jour, it’s refreshing for a game to wear its roots on its sleeve. There are lanes. There are creeps. There are two bases and a bunch of diverse humanoid characters to choose from who want to destroy the other team’s precious gem structure.

Like the sound of MOBAs, eh? But which MOBA is right for you?

Unlike the plethora of other shooters inspired by MOBA elements scheduled for this season, Paragon appears to be committed to the subject material rather than intent on revolutionising it. So what is there to keep a new entry to a genre so well-played from feeling trite and predictable? Well, combining all the nuanced systems from its competitors and forebears into one game, obviously.

There are also plenty of original ideas that keep the action in Agora feeling fresh – but, the best bits of its cousins keep it familiar, and immediately playable. And having now played it ourselves, here are those best bits…

Dota’s item-based complexity

Often hailed (or derided, given your particular MOBA-ffiliation) as the chess of action-strategy games, Dota 2 prides itself more on the insanely complex interaction of metasystems than pure skillshots. Much of this complexity comes about from the item system, where players can tailor their hero to better suit the needs of their team, or counter their opponents. In Paragon, Epic takes the vast market of swords, lances and amulets and slips it an extra layer of personalisation.

In short, you create your own, from a modular system of items and socketed improvements to those items. Everything is purchased using CXP (Card XP, which we’ll move onto in just a moment) for around the same price per main item, and varying smaller prices per socket, depending on the size of the buff it imbues. Wound and Greater Wound offer critical strike chances, great for fast physical attackers, while equivalent Health options provide larger HP pools.

Paragon hands-on

These store items appear as a result of you building your own deck prior to entering the game, meaning not all items are available once you’ve dropped into a match. The openness, and seemingly endless permutations of items and sockets available might be insanely complicated at first, but could result in builds that diversify the currently small character pool into a much broader set of roles.

As characters go, there are a cast of usual suspects: heavy tanks, like the shield-dropping Steel, and front-line fighters like staff-wielding Feng Mao. Straight-up attack-damage carries like Twinblast or Murdock, and squishy mages like Dekker or Gadget who deal damage through spells but are mainly for crowd control. But with the card-based item system, many of the support casters can be turned into fearsome ability-damage cannons making for some bizarre builds.

Paragon hands-on

Paladins’ card collecting system

A look at another game on the MOBA spectrum with a similar card-based system gives an idea of how Paragon might work in practice. Paladins, Hi-Rez Studios’ in-beta attempt to go further down the FPS route than their mythology-based MOBA Smite, replaced the item shop entirely with ability-buffing cards which unlock at each level you gain. Cards themselves are earned through pack drops, similar to Hearthstone, which also offers a monetisation strategy – prudent considering Epic have remained tight-lipped on the retail model Paragon will be employing.

While not quite willing to do away with the shop entirely and leave your fate up to the pseudo-random way Paladins presents your deck, Paragon does tie your purchases directly to your levels. Card XP, as mentioned earlier, is the main currency of Paragon and doubles as the traditional XP which increases your character’s level. CXP drops as Amber orbs from slain minions, which can be picked up by anyone on the team who killed the minion or strategically denied by opponents harassing anyone attempting to pick them up. If your lane happens to be extra hostile towards you, however, Amber can be found in other places hidden away in the Jungle, which also evokes another giant of the genre…

Paragon hands-on

League of Legends’ jungle

The jungle offers huge variety in League of Legends, from camps that offer a very specific buff to one of your resource pools, to others that provide an aura or team-wide advantage. In Paragon, there are also Harvesters – minion-less structures that drill Amber out of the ground if captured by a team, and contestable by opponents – on top of the usual buff-granting NPC mini-bosses. A red buff, to increase damage, and a blue buff to improve mana for casters, are par for the course. However, a black buff also imbues one player on the team with a ridiculous siege advantage, I was able to take down towers in a trivial number of hits as the ranger Murdock who specialises in attack damage.

There is also a Baron-like raid boss somewhere near the middle of the map, which no team managed to take on during my time with the game. Speaking to developers, however, the Prime Helix’s current alpha incarnation drops an orb on death, which must then be transported by the team to a shrine of sorts on the other side of the map. This high-risk play can be interrupted at any point by the enemy, effectively stealing the ball without having to take the boss fight and gaining a team-wide buff to damage and health for themselves.

The benefits provided by neutral creeps chilling out in their jungle nooks creates a layer of strategy beneath the otherwise repetitive laning stages, and in Paragon we mean literally beneath. Agora’s dense and labyrinthine forests provide bountiful options for a team looking for an extra edge under a canopy between the three lanes, making height and verticality a major part of Paragon’s gameplay.

Paragon hands-on

Smite’s claustrophobic point of view

Hi-Rez’s predecessor for Paladins was the first to reimagine a MOBA played from third-person view and, as a result, offers the closest match of core gameplay and mechanics. Controlling a game’s flow from the locked point of view behind a character makes many of the higher strategy decisions required in team-based magic warfare more difficult. As might be expected when you can’t see over a wall you’d otherwise have a camera flying above, everything feels a lot scarier on the battlefield, forcing you to constantly check behind you.

Paragon takes that paranoia to another level (pun entirely intended) by adding movement in the third dimension. Ramps, stairs and clifftops all offer new ways to engage or flank your foes, as well as the jungle canopy which allows you to fall off the internal edge of all lanes and disappear into a maze of covered corridors. Action becomes far more frantic without wards spotting enemies as they circle you from above, waiting for the right time to jump in with a game-changing ultimate ability.

While every second, third and fourth word out of designers’ and playtesters’ mouths was “work in progress”, the base framework of Paragon felt solid for anyone with a MOBA background. Each of the elements at play felt supported and reinforced by the others around it, though not always entirely fleshed out. The item system in particular seems a tad restrictive after you get over the initial overload of possibilities. Choosing your potential items before entering a game gives little options if you come up against one of the stranger opponents who has decided to deck out their support healer with increased ability damage items and sockets. Still, Epic Games has found some innovative ways to make the familiar feel fresh.

Paragon hands-on

The cues it takes from big hitters in the genre combine to make Paragon feel like something different enough to challenge long-standing MOBA veterans, without a brick wall learning curve. However, the relative popularity of Smite compared to Dota 2 and League of Legends suggests that perhaps strategy aficionados aren’t in the market for more Action in their ARTS. Whether the audience is there or not, the game itself provides a tense experience for competitive players. One that feels equal to, though no greater than, the sum of its parts.