If you've heard of Paladins: Champions of the Realm, no doubt you've also heard the inevitable Overwatch comparisons and criticisms from the keyboard warriors of the world, and in some ways it was always going to happen considering the colourful art style and the fact that both sit firmly in the hero shooter genre, but there are elements like player customisation that really do set Paladins apart from other hero shooters. The game entered early access back in September 2016 and has since then been tweaking and changing things as time went by and more people came on board, meaning lots of player feedback too, and now we have the full release to sink our teeth into.
Let's start by giving you the basic rundown of what happens at the beginning of each match. First off you select a hero, and then you choose what's called a Talent, meaning bonuses that increase the effect or potency of one of your abilities. Afterwards, you choose your Loadout, which is essentially a set of five cards that also contain their own effects, and then you're dropped into the game to start playing.
And with that comes what may be a sticking point for some people, and that's the added bells and whistles that new players might find a little intimidating at the start. If you're jumping in expecting a simple drop-in-and-play approach, picking a Talent and a Loadout might be a little confusing, which is why we'd advise training before actually facing the other players in the world.
Newcomers might also find the main menu a little intimidating as well, as you there are daily rewards, quests, Battle Pass, and a store to find your way through, but like with everything else, with time you'll realise that these are just more options to spice up your game. The quests, for instance, offer incentives for extra XP and coins to spend in the store, while the Battle Pass offers regular incentives each week, although you have to pay for it (Fortnite players will be familiar with this model).
In regards to the Store, there's plenty on offer here too, including a Champion Pack for £24.99, unlocking all current and future Champions (characters); the Season Pass for £32.99, featuring all Battle Passes for the year; and a Digital Deluxe edition for £37.49, featuring the Season Pass and Champion pack. Of course on top of that there are skins, mounts, sprays, announcers, poses, and more to unlock, as well as crates to purchase containing these items, and while we won't get into the discussion around loot boxes, it's important to note that this isn't a pay-to-win setup, as these are purely cosmetic.
Speaking of pay-to-win, much ado was made about the card system introduced last year, which some accused of being pay-to-win, but that's been removed as of a few months ago, meaning that instead there's now a deck building system which allows you to tailor your character to your own playstyle. Talents, for example, are unlocked for free by earning XP and advancing in the game, while the Loadouts allow you to distribute up to 15 points over five cards to make a deck that suits you, depending on the different bonuses on each card. With each Champion Card being free, this is a far better system than the one we saw before in the one accused of being pay-to-win, and it really allows you to deeply customise how you play based on your personal preference.
So now that we've thoroughly laid out the structure and the extras of the game, how does it play? Well, when booting it up you have the choice between either DeathMatch, Siege, or Ranked, although as with other shooters you'll need to reach a certain level before entering into the battlefield of the latter. Deathmatch speaks for itself, revolving around game modes such as Team Deathmatch and another that has you all vie for control over a zone on the map. Siege, on the other hand, works like the Payload in Overwatch (we're sorry, it was the easiest comparison), so teams try to control a point before pushing a moving target towards an end-goal.
These modes won't be too shocking for most players, and the simplicity is sort of the joy. With a lot of things to choose from around the outside, when you're actually in the game the premise is always pretty straightforward, which allows players to easily know what they're doing, regardless of their level of ability. If newbies find a hero they're good with, they could potentially top the leaderboard in their first game, for example.
When the going gets tough and you face experienced opposition, then team composition comes into play. Heroes are split into Front Line, Flank, Damage, and Support classes, and it's only by balancing your team that you'll get the best results. Someone like Fernando (a Front Line) with a shield will be useful when defending a point, for instance, while Androxus or Lex (Flanks) will be useful to get around the opposition to deliver a quick punch. Again, not too complicated for people who've played shooters - especially hero shooters - before, but it's worth mentioning since it adds another layer of depth to the affair.
As for the Champions themselves, we really enjoyed experimenting with them, and there's a ton of creativity on offer. Our favourite, for instance, was Mal'Damba, who fired shots out of a snake, and when he reloaded he threw the old snake at the opposition which stuns them. Whether it be visually or in terms of their in-game offerings, there's a ton of variety in here to choose from, and during our time playing we didn't get the sense that any was picked more than the others, nor that there was any imbalance, which has no doubt been helped by the game's lengthy stay in early access.
What's more is that each character has five abilities: your regular attack on R2; a movement ability (like a roll or dodge) with R1; two varied abilities on L1 and L2; and a special attack on triangle that needs time to charge (if you hadn't guessed already, we've been playing mainly on PS4). With each character having varieties on each, there's plenty to choose from when selecting a character, as Kinessa's L2 ability turns her rifle into a sniper, for example, allowing for great support from distance.
With five different Champions running around the screen injecting colourful attacks into the mix, matches often become chaotic and frantic, but that's a good thing and especially engrossing when you're all fighting over the capture points. Maps are intelligently designed too, with various bottlenecks forcing people together and different avenues that allow Flanks to shine, but we have to say that some maps (like Trade District) felt a bit too big and aimless, as we were often wandering around wondering where people were when playing TDM.
Each Champion of course handles differently, but in terms of the gunplay in general, we felt hat everything was as it should be; satisfying to handle with each weapon feeling unique. The slower weapons like Pip's guns that fire potions felt light, for example, while the heavyweights like Drogoz' rockets felt heavy and slower, and each weapon had their own benefits and drawbacks just like the characters themselves.
All in all we thoroughly enjoyed our time with Paladins, especially once we found our stride and what characters worked for us and which didn't, as well as learning the subtleties of all the maps. It's not always perfect, and it's a shame that there will always be comparisons to Blizzard's Overwatch, but considering it's free-to-play Paladins might just win you over if you give it a try, and we'd definitely recommend you to do so.
As for the future, we're also excited to see what the Battlegrounds mode entails when it releases. The Battle Royale-esque mode has already entered open beta, but we'll get treated to the extra mode either as a standalone or an update in the future, meaning even more ways to enjoy Paladins' mixture of heroes as they scavenge for cards, enemies, and chests in an ever-decreasing zone. For now though, we'll be enjoying what's currently on the table, and seeing if we can hone our skills a touch more.