Oh, it's a challenge to describe Evercore Heroes. A pleasant challenge. The name doesn't tell you very much. The team, which contains a number of people who worked on League of Legends, describes it as "competitive PvE". My own notes from a recent online presentation suggest it's a WoW raid mixed with a bit of Puyo Tetris. Having had the time to think about it, though, I suspect the whole thing is like one of those fancy cocktails where the different elements separate and form a rainbow strata: Evercore Heroes is simple at first, then complicated, and then ultimately pretty simple again. And hopefully delicious.
Here's where I'd start. You jump into a team of four heroes, all working through a sort of raid area. You're fighting mobs in order to get more powerful, because at the end of the match - matches take about 25 minutes - you're going to have to take on a boss. So you fight mobs and level up, in a way that reminds me of the PvE stuff from League of Legends, stripped of any PvP stuff. You also go after quests, specific objectives which make you much more powerful, and you harvest "shards" from the world, which give you perks. Every so often, though, you get something called a "surge wave", which means you have to go back to your base and protect it from a PvE horde. Clear a wave and you're back out there leveling and questing. Complete enough waves and you take on the boss.
Here's the thing, though. You're alone, but you're not alone. Spooky action at a distance! Your team of four are competing against three other teams of four, but indirectly. You're all exploring the same terrain, fighting the same mobs, collecting the same shards and taking on the same quests as you level towards the same boss, but you're essentially in different dimensions. You can't suddenly turn up in my world and lamp my healer. Instead, I see your team in my world as little balls of light moving around the ground. These balls of light don't do any damage, but they tell me what you're doing, and they remind me that we're in competition: first to take down the boss wins. What are you up to, and how do I compare?
And that's where it gets simple again. Ultimately you all want to take down your version of the boss: four teams taking on identical challenges in separate worlds, but ranked against each other, even watching each other's progress on the boss' health bar. And after half an hour, one team wins.
That's competitive PvE, then, and the League of Legends lineage is hopefully pretty clear. But what about the Puyo Tetris bit? This is the part of the presentation where I actually burst out laughing with delight, even though I was alone in a room watching a Discord channel while a car alarm went off outside.
Tetris - I'm most familiar with Puyo Tetris, but I think it goes across the board - has great multiplayer, and it's actually quite a good way of thinking about Evercore. Every player has their own well and faces their own blocks. I can't roam around in your well and drop specific pieces to mess things up for you. But if I play brilliantly, I can send junk pieces en masse into your well that make it a lot harder for you. You can do this in Evercore. Those quests? Some of them allow me to send stuff into other teams' worlds, as it were. Except it's not junk Puyo. It's stuff like yetis, which turn up during the surge waves and make defending your base even harder than it already was.
This bit right here - the bit where I reach across dimensions and ruin your day - gets at the inventiveness and the delicacy of what the team at Vela, which is making Evercore Heroes, is trying to do. Like all new teams, Vela has a sort of mission statement. "Creating core games that combine the mastery of esports and the power of positive social dynamics." Three parts to that: core games? Check. Evercore, with its cast of heroes to learn and synergies to exploit and its frantic top-down action and - I suspect - ever-changing meta is about as core as a game gets. Mastery? Yes indeed, by which I mean I can easily imagine making mistakes that costs my team the big W. But the power of positive social dynamics?
In one sense, this is straightforward. By separating rival teams into their own dimensions it means a load of griefing simply can't happen. You can't grief me through the Spider-verse! But while I can't directly ruin your game by running around in it with a sword, I can send yetis your way. And more besides. (I think the team just focused on yetis because it sounds more amusing.)
To put it another way, there is a balance to be struck here. "When we started getting into the idea of competitive PvE, we looked for ways to increase what we call competitive presence," explains Velo CEO Travis George when we chat later. "Because we knew that we didn't want to have people on the same map, because it just introduces, one, a lot of confusion, and, two, a lot of potential griefing. Like, I go and tag all the monsters on the map and run them away from you so you don't have a good time.
"So one of the things we've been pushing is the idea that I can send stuff to make your life really miserable. And now you can specifically see which team sent you that awful yeti. But it is the kind of thing where you can overcome it if you work together as a team, as opposed to, you walk around a corner in a competitive shooter and die from a headshot and there's nothing you can do about that and you feel bad. And you do it five more times and feel worse and worse and worse. So it's the way to wind people up the right way: man, I want to beat that team. But there's less rage at them, because they didn't end your fun."
It's a nice answer, I reckon. And Evercore is filled with this kind of thinking - not just about balance and about player behaviour, but about the way things work. There is a delight with Vela, I think, in going deep into things, whether that's the lore, which manages to bring all these battles together in an evolving story about a world that's under siege from a form of dark magic - I am garbling this inevitably - to the balance of heroes. Over the course of the presentation we see a handful of these characters, including Shade, an assassin who focuses on damage and fast traversal, Fyn, your cheery barbarian tank, and Zari, an archer who I think can call in sort of vast solar airstrikes. Every hero has talent choices and can unlock new talents to choose from the more they play: progression, and also a dynamism when it comes to creating builds.
The landscapes of Evercore strike a lovely balance between genre classics - the map I saw in action was all crags and frozen wastes - and interesting detailing. (On this last part, the game will have seasons, and will be telling at least part of its story in changes that occur from one season to the next; it's highly possible we'll see the kind of narrative-progression-via-cobbler's-elves that Fortnite is so good at.)
What I was really struck by, though, are the shards, which are these perks that add such dynamism to the game in a moment-to-moment sense. Some are available in the in-match shop, randomly selected from a large pool. Others are scattered about the place, there for the taking. Crucially, every team gets the same shards in the shop or scattered around. The randomness is there to bridge the gap between the item game of ARPGs, which offers lovely surprises but can separate players of different item levels, to the sort of recipe-run of MOBAs, in which there's a set way to approach the store in every game with only minimal variation.
Out there in the world, it's always a choice whether to go for the shards or whether to focus on mobs or quests or getting ready for the next wave. Broken up into categories that range from defensive to magic to physical and support, there's the same candied vibe I once got from the runes as they were originally planned for Diablo 3: a Wonka's worth of possibilities. Hit harder and hit faster? Gain passive gold? Transform gold to a stat boost? I can imagine really screwing my team over by accident while I go on a sugar-rush shard hunt.
And so! After all this, if I had to describe Evercore Heroes - and remember I haven't played it yet and I'm only covering the basics here - I would probably say that it's an elegant balance of imagination and memory. It's imagining a new way to play competitively without allowing for such easy, direct griefing. And yet when you see it in action, it's so clearly rapt with the glow of old WoW raids and classic MOBA matches. It's born of an idealised memory of what it is to play these games.
"We've been really into raids in MMOs and there's something really special about memories. Conversely we also worked on one of the most competitive esports in the world and I remember my first pentakill," says George. "What we see as really optimistic for us about Evercore Heroes is you can have those great experience again, and you can have them together. All my best gaming memories from games are with other people."
You'll have a chance to see the game for yourself this weekend, 13-16 October, by signing up through the Evercore Heroes website and Discord. "Joining the game’s Discord will increase your chances to be selected for this weekend’s exclusive playtest."