At a time when every MMO that ever struggled or lost the spotlight is embracing free-to-play, you'd think that Warhammer Online would simply throw up its hands and join the party. It may well do so at some point. For now though, it's taking a different approach to the rest, opting to take its existing engine and assets and rework them into this: a free, fast-paced competitive multiplayer game, following in the wake of MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) hits like League of Legends and Bloodline Champions.
As with those games, the basics are simply described. You pick from a selection of unlockable heroes, each with their own abilities and specialities, and team up with another five players on a randomly selected map with its own objectives. The beta currently offers three: a team deathmatch arena with collectible power-ups, a capture-and-hold map, and one about recovering runestones.
All are quick to play, sharing the main gimmick that there are three teams fighting it out instead of two. That makes things much more chaotic, helping to break stalemates and keep you on your toes, though the added random element of simply not having a chance if you your team gets ganged up on won't be for everyone.
Between rounds, you get to spend the money you win on new heroes and new skins to make them look slightly different, while bitching about how overpowered your least favourite hero currently is. Finally, there's a general levelling system behind the scenes for improving your performance in future games, giving you points to spend on talent trees that slightly customise your favourite heroes' performance in the field.
For a MOBA, it's incredibly easy to get into. Heroes are well categorised in the store, labelled in plain English, and Wrath of Heroes offers the extra-handy in-game touch of pointing you to good countering characters if you keep falling prey to one in-game. Objectives are simple, with an excellent colour-coded mini-map and a streamlined approach to capturing points. Run to the thing, ideally in a group. Stand next to the thing until a bar fills. That's as tough as it gets.
It's a much less intimidating experience than most, too. Players tend to be quiet, with a distinct lack of DOTA-type douchebags trying to wash your ears out with scorn and hate. Admittedly, that's largely because there's not a lot you can do painfully wrong.
You can easily get the measure of a map and what you have to do in a single round, and if you get shouted at for anything, it'll be not sticking with the group. Wrath of Heroes offers some scope for lone wolf play, but not much. The current maps are both too fast and too small for things like scouting to be relevant, and you have little to no chance against even a handful of enemies - never mind wandering into the crossfire of both enemy teams at once.
The catch is that where its competitors take a simple presence like this and build on it, Wrath of Heroes feels completely reductive. For starters, while MMO combat is rarely great in and of itself, here it's stripped down to its simplest possible form.
Where normally you'd have a whole bar of skills to play with, here you just get five per character. That would be fine if they were exciting or interesting, but at the moment at least, most are simply flowery-named variations on damage or healing with different cooldowns. Do X points direct damage or Y points damage-over-time? Who cares? Most fights are so long, or against so many people, that you end up just spamming the lot of them from the crowd anyway - rotations and tactics be damned.
Some characters do offer slightly more, with skills including more situational abilities like pouncing on an enemy, going into stealth, or spreading damage amongst a group. There are also a few subtleties to take into account, like Illanya the Dark Elf doing more damage depending on how many fellow Dark Elves are on her team. These twists are few and far between though, at least in the current beta character line-up, with nobody having much personality or draw. Next to the cast of League of Legends especially, they're a downright dour bunch.
Obviously, there's room for this to be changed, for more imaginative heroes and more complex abilities to be added. This beta only has a handful and the line-up at launch will likely be both more extensive and honed for epic battle. What's worrying, though, is that the basic mechanics on show in this beta don't seem to lend themselves to added complexity going forward. There are no items to use during battle for instance, no mana or rage to combine with the cooldowns on skills and help balance big attacks, no mid-round levelling... Even your choice of character and your team's composition don't really matter, since you can swap in someone else after every death if you decide you need another healer or whatever.
By far the biggest omission is skillshots. In a game like Bloodline Champions, every shot has to be aimed, requiring reflexes and accuracy and offering the chance to get the hell out of the way. Here, combat is in the classic MMO 'click/tab to target' style, auto-selecting anyone nearby; none of the beta characters even having something like a 'drop the fire rain over there please' attack to mix things up. Your only way of dodging is to break an enemy's line of sight before they attack, which doesn't always work, and has nothing on heroically avoiding an incoming fireball even if it does. It's MMO-style combat with an action game's depth, which seems - tactfully - the wrong way around.
Even if all this remains as-is, Wrath of Heroes has room to carve out an interesting niche. Every new hero added to the roster offers scope for new and exciting mechanics, and every map the chance for an exciting custom rule-set. Warhammer Online, for example, features siege mechanics, which none of the current popular MOBAs have any interest in. Experimenting in that direction instead of pure capture-the-flag design has possibilities. The current 6v6v6 just turns most of the maps into chaos, but how about an asymmetrical struggle where two teams are in a loose alliance to take on a well-dug-in third, while still skirmishing with each other to be the overall winner of the map? There are plenty of possibilities that Wrath of Heroes can tap into if it has the guts to shake things up more than usual post-launch.
For now, however, there's precious little inspiration on offer, and even less novelty. The current maps get dull after only a couple of run-throughs, and far too many of the design decisions feel like they've been made in the name of an easier transition from MMO mechanics to casual game rather than because they're the best ones for the game. Losing the complexity isn't a problem in itself, but taking away the world, the wider conflict, the epic battles and any meaningful character customisation short of buying skins all quickly takes its toll.
As something to do between quests in a full MMO, Wrath of Heroes would be a fun diversion. In the crowded free-to-play MOBA market though, it's got a long way to go if it wants to stand alone.