Version tested: PC
I'm so stupid. With my review account for Bloodline Champions, Funcom included some in-game cash so I could see what spending money in the game was like. With all the restraint of a Casablancan libertine, I wisely invested it in sex-change outfits, a character portrait and some weapons with faces on. Now they've released a frog suit for the Ranid Assassin. It's Kermit with knives and it's 3000 Funcom coins, 30,000 in-game coins, 18 Euros or one kidney to you and me.
I really want that frog. I lust for it. I finally understand what it must be like to be Miss Piggy.
Bloodline Champions, as you'll know from Quintin's preview, is a free-to-play team arena title. It eschews, with great justice, the title of MMO, but throws up the same large variety of classes; there are currently 20, following the four standard team archetypes of tank, melee, healer and ranged, each with a huge range of twists and individual powers.
The Bloodlines, as they're called, range from the cannibalistic Glutton, a mound of tribal flesh specialising in melee and healing, to the Psychopomp, a healer specialising in buffs, debuffs and crowd control. There is a backstory, but it's less relevant than a revenant elephant.
What's unusual about Bloodline Champions is that its origins are in the hugely popular Warcraft III map and mod Defense of the Ancients, which provided the inspiration for this, League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth and Demigod. Essentially, these are stripped-down real-time strategy games – like the tower defence genre that also emerged from DOTA – with players selecting from a range of heroes and then controlling them in the more hands-off fashion of an RTS: an action-oriented game from a strategic viewpoint.
What differentiates Bloodline Champions from Demigod? It doesn't have the towers or automated NPC spawns which made that game slow and somewhat turgid, and the focus here is on fast team-based multiplayer rather lumbering advances. What differentiates it from League of Legends? This game is completely egalitarian; all veterans get is in-game currency and unlocked titles and icons, none of which affect gameplay. And from Heroes of Newerth? There isn't any in-game levelling – your hero starts and ends every game exactly the same (normally, in my case, dead).
On that basis, Bloodline Champions is closer to Counter-Strike or Team Fortress Classic. It's all about choosing your weapon, learning your abilities and working with your team-mates. Solitary players are unlikely to succeed; being even slightly outnumbered makes your chances of victory drop down to Monster Raving Loony levels. Watching high-end battles through the universal Observer mode is an excellent way of learning the game, and you'll see players feinting and dodging, attempting to divide their opponents and pin them, much like professional StarCraft and Warcraft battles.
Playing Bloodline Champions the first time is slightly awkward. The control system is somewhat alien, combining WASD movement with a variety of shortcut keys that prove difficult to access whilst moving. Though many ranged abilities pin you while you're casting, the game is so fluid that there's not an obvious moment to move your left hand away from WASD to stretch all the way to "1".
Meanwhile, your right hand controls direction of facing, important for when you release your spells. Left-mouse is your primary attack, right a secondary skill, the buttons Q,E and R depend on the class, 1 and 2 are "Ex"s – high-powered versions of certain skills – and the space bar is normally a travel power. F is a superpower, built up by contributing to combat through healing, defending or attacking.
Almost every power has a secondary or even tertiary effect. For example, the Engineer's tractor beam (the Ex version of the Flamethrower) drags enemies towards the Engineer, slows them and their attack speed, and damages them. Remembering all the side-effects for one character's seven abilities is hard enough; you'll have to play for a long time to know all twenty.
Once your hand crabs up sufficiently and you practise enough on the bot-populated single-player training arenas, you will get used to the system. It's best to play all the classes you can first, to get to know their abilities, then pick one or two and stick to them so you can learn them for the Ranked matches. These take three forms (solo, team and the yet-to-be-implemented Tournaments), but are fundamentally the same simple maps you see elsewhere, with simple Capture The Artefact, Team Deathmatch and Conquest game types providing a little variety. They're not complicated and there's not a huge variety. They're just arenas for you to demonstrate your skill.
The skill lies in the fact that most abilities are ranged and on cooldown timers – and you and your targets are always moving. Combining with an ally, knowing when to attack and when to retreat and working out good class combinations with your friends become second nature quickly. As you play, you'll level up, but this is more a reflection of how much time you've 'invested' than a source of any tangible benefits. You'll also rank up by playing well in matches; this is much more significant, and allows the game to balance matches more effectively.
There's more polish on show here than Poland. It's easy to find, join and start games, even with the relatively small current population. The game is mostly lag-free but deals with it efficiently when it's present, and it copes well with unstable internet connections; players who quit games regularly get tagged as "leavers" and find it harder to get games. If someone does leave in your game, you're unlikely to win – but don't worry, it will all be over quickly.
Meanwhile, it's carried over a lot of that cartoon love from Warcraft III, so characters are cutely drawn, with easily-identifiable animations and distinct postures. They're even different sizes, which affects how much they block movement and how big a target they are. The interface is perfectly user-friendly and, at all the resolutions we tried, it never intruded. The designers have obviously played a lot of online games.
You get small amounts of in-game change ("Blood coins") from playing matches – but with these it might take you a thousand matches to save up for that Frog suit. There are also Tournament coins from performing well in tournaments and which allow exclusive content, but they haven't been implemented yet.
The real money is Funcom points, but this doesn't affect match outcomes and is only used for buying cosmetic changes if you really want to express your love for the game. There are three versions of the game available: a totally free version which has four character classes on rotation; a Champion edition which is £25 for the main 16 classes (and £8 for an extra four classes); and a Titan edition that is a whopping £75 but includes access to all once and future classes, as well as Store discounts and a wodge of Funcom points. Alternatively, you can just buy Funcom points and unlock classes individually.
Joining the swollen ranks of the free-to-play army, Bloodline Champions should elbow its way to the front. It's intelligently designed, skilful and quick to play, and intentionally egalitarian. Anyone can join this game, even on the free version, and excel. It is a pity the free version is so limited, but if you like it, the Champion edition isn't expensive. Compared to that frog suit, anyway.
8 / 10