If Paladins, the latest title from Smite creator Hi-Rez Studios, isn’t an Overwatch clone, it’s certainly a fraternal twin. But who cares? Everybody copies everybody. League of Legends borrowed characters and concepts from WarCraft III DotA, which in turn took inspiration from a gallimaufry of lane-based WarCraft III mods. Triple-A shooters like Call of Duty and Halo pinch mechanics from one another all the time. So if Paladins is great, who cares if it’s a clone?
Too bad it’s not great.
Like an art student’s attempt to mimic Picasso, Paladins might convince a myopic passerby, but on closer examination it captures none of the original’s vibrance. Paladins is fun in a shallow, unassuming way. It’s polished and free to play. But since it exists in the same universe as Overwatch, the only rational course of action is to compare the two. And if the question is not “should you play Paladins” but “should you play Paladins instead of Overwatch,” the answer is an emphatic “no.”
The only rational course of action is to compare the two.
First, an exercise to establish the degree of uniformity we’re talking about here. The following paragraph could describe either game:
I’m playing a speedy female character who flanks opponents and drowns them in a rapidfire fusillade. My ult deposits an explosive charge that detonates after a couple of seconds. My immediate task is to help my team capture a control point. After looping around to murder a bow-wielding sniper, I regroup with my pals to take out the tank, whose big rectangular shield is no match for my team’s combined might. We capture the point, and a payload rises from its center; now we must push the payload to its destination near the opponents’ spawn. My team includes a short dwarfy guy who builds a turret, a Call of Duty-style soldierman, a tough rotund character with a hook who pulls enemies close for a faceful of blunt death, and …
Need I go on?
Before we declare Hi-Rez Studios guilty of baldfaced mimicry, it’s only fair to let them tell their side of the story. In an exhaustive Reddit post, Hi-Rez’s co-founder Todd Harris pointed out that Paladins was in development at the same time as Overwatch, that Overwatch stole extensively from Team Fortress 2 and other class-based shooters, and that many of the similarities between Paladins and Overwatch—chests with items, a D. Va-style minigun-wielding mech—were in Paladins before they were even announced in Overwatch.
Maybe he’s right, and the similarities stem from the same kind of bumbling serendipity that brought us near-simultaneous 2009 releases of the mall cop comedies Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Observe and Report (a genre hitherto unexplored in a over a century of American cinema). Yes, Paladins and Overwatch are uncannily similar. But it’s totally plausible that two videogame companies looking at the same landscape of industry trends and underrepresented genres in 2013 might have independently come to the conclusion that the world was ripe for a new class-based arena shooter. Team Fortress 2 was the most recent serious attempt, and it hit shelves way back in 2007.
Regardless of whether Todd Harris is being entirely truthful, I agree with him that the question of whether Paladins copied Overwatch is less important than the question of which game is better. And the answer is that Overwatch is better. So why is that?
My first Paladins match is pleasant. I boot in, select the “Casual” matchmaking mode, and pick a purple-haired champion named Skye. I have no idea what any of my skills do; I figure I’ll wing it and see how things go.
Things go extremely well. The people I’m playing against are awful. Their tank (Fernando, aka Iberian Reinhardt) keeps running alone into the middle of the battle and getting sprayed in the back. I slaughter everyone and hardly die at all; my team ends up with 50 “eliminations,” a combined kill/assist metric a la Overwatch, each. At this point I’m feeling great about 1) my FPS skills, 2) the strength/fun factor of the character I’ve selected, and 3) Paladins in general. The next game is also a rout. In The Meta’s chat room, everyone is bragging about their own huge kill/death ratios. “I just got 70 kills in a single match—the players have absolutely no clue,” somebody says. PC Gamer’s reviewer has a similar experience: “Chalk up some of [my] criticism to the inexperienced players I’ve been matched against in quick play—I’ve won all of the dozen-some matches I’ve been in.”
The people I’m playing against are awful.
Something’s not right, though. The opponents don’t respond to trash talk. They all have neat, non-gamerly names like Grievous and Despot, always one word, with perfect capitalization. And they’re just so inhumanly dumb…
When I figured out what Hi-Rez was doing, I have to admit I was impressed, in a skeeved-out kind of way. Pretend you’re a developer. Think about how important the first few matches are to somebody’s perception of a competitive game. In a perfect world, you want your players to open up with five sweet stomps in a row. You don’t want them to get dominated by a smurf or ridiculed in chat. So you put them against bots, which never call their opponents inappropriate names and can be fine-tuned to reliably fail. That’s obvious and straightforward; League of Legends and Dota 2 forced new players to begin with bot matches long ago. Paladins, however, is the only game I’m aware of that—intentionally or not—tricks newcomers into thinking they’re playing against humans when they’re actually facing the computer.
It’s brilliant! At best, new players are bamboozled into thinking they’re better than the average newbie, which is a wonderful feeling. At worst, they detect the deception and shrug it off. After level five, the same queue that served up bot matches suddenly begins matching them with human opponents. Nowhere in the menus or in-game interface (that I’ve found, at least) does Paladins indicate that they’re playing against AI opponents up to that point.
(Brief aside: as AI improves and becomes more convincing, and even gains the ability to hold a Turing Test-level conversation, what’s to stop developers from always pitting players against bots? If you can convince players that they’re matched against humans, you can give them each a plausible yet ego-stroking 60% winrate while minimizing toxic interactions between teams. How much time and effort has Blizzard devoted to reducing toxicity in Overwatch? Isn’t it fucked up that the easiest way to keep players from being assholes might be to build a fantasy world that dupes them all into feeling special and above-average? Or is feeling special and above-average what makes people assholes in the first place? Is the ultimate solution to replace teammates too?)
Really what the disguised-bots ruse suggests is that Hi-Rez put an abundance of careful thought into Paladins’ non-diegetic infrastructure. The system of level-ups, card loadout customization, chest-openings and character unlocks is elaborate and seems engineered to foster a constant sense of progression. The interface and in-game graphics are polished, colorful, and welcoming. It’s when you turn up the magnification on the core mechanics of the game itself—not the scaffolding that surrounds it—that you begin to find cracks, little issues of game feel and character design that are ultimately the reason Paladins falls short of Overwatch’s (admittedly towering) success.
Here’s an example. It gets granular, so bear with me. Every time you fire a rocket with Overwatch’s jetpack trooper Pharah, the game goes through a complex and meticulously calculated process of visual and aural feedback to make you feel like you really just fired a rocket. That the rocket you fired has got visceral oomph and raw explosive power behind it. Immediately after you click the mouse button, you hear a deep-throated mechanical cough. The end of your rocket launcher not only kicks back from the recoil but unfurls, metal gadgets springing open to signify force. As the muzzle flash fades, the metal gadgets at the business end of the device fall back into place, while the ring of ammo further up the barrel rotates with an audible (and deeply satisfying) click-click. This click-click is layered atop the aftershock-sound that blooms from the initial cough of discharge, the aftershock a deep rumble that broadens and thrums, rising slightly in a distant echo before dissipating. Meanwhile your orange-yellow projectile screams away, trailing fluffy gray smoke. And that’s just the first step. Unless you’re aiming at the sky, your rocket is probably going to hit something, and when it does there’s a whole new wave of stimuli. There’s a meaty crack followed instantly by multiple booming echoes—CRACKboomboomboom. The orange/black explosion at the point of impact is big, round and multilayered; it kicks up chunks of whatever surface it erupts out of. The detonation keeps thundering and fading for several seconds thereafter, intermingling with the sounds of the rockets that follow … because, let’s be honest, when it feels this good to pull the trigger, you’re never going to fire just once.
Contrast that with the experience of playing Drogoz, the Paladins character with a rocket launcher and jet pack. First of all, his weapon is quiet. You can hardly hear the sound of your own rocket launcher over an enemy player firing a bow and arrow. (The bow and arrow sound is a really unpleasant and annoying THWEEE, by the way.) The sound of a rocket discharging in Paladins is a univocal, non-descript, barely-audible whoosh. When the projectile lands, it releases a single low thunk and a misshapen explosion reminiscent of the flame decals that come included with GameMaker. There’s no echo. There’s no sense of force. Your weapon, an ugly bulbous green plastic 1970s-sci-fi-movie-prop-looking thing, doesn’t react except to bounce back at you. And then the icing on this ass-flavored cake: the sound of your next rocket slotting into place isn’t a satisfying click-click but a harsh noise like two pieces of ceramic dishware glancing off one another. It’s the sound produced when I’m unloading the dishwasher and I accidentally set a plate on top of another plate with way too much force. It just sucks, man. It just fucking sucks.
The truth is that hardly anything in Paladins feels as good as it does in Overwatch. That’s kind of an intangible claim, so here are a few concrete examples. When you jump with Pharah, you get a nice exertive little sound when you take off and a satisfying double-sound of both feet landing when you come down. The farther you fall, the louder the landing sound. When you jump with Drogoz, you get the first part of his jetpack sound as a launch noise and a tiny, almost imperceptible ker-swish when you land. (I had to turn the volume way up to hear Drogoz’s landing noise at all, which as you can imagine made the background of THWEEE-type sounds even more unbearable.) It might seem trivial, but plummeting out of the sky after your jetpack runs out of juice only to land soundlessly is unnerving and bizarre. Satisfying ults are another area where Overwatch has Paladins beat. Drogoz’s ult, which turns him into a living missile that insta-kills the first opponent he touches, doesn’t make impact with any kind of appreciable force. There’s no explosion, no flashy visual or audio effect. The ult just ends as the target you struck collapses bonelessly to the floor.
Hardly anything in Paladins feels as good as it does in Overwatch.
It should be noted, of course, that one reason Overwatch has better visual and audio design is that Blizzard’s budget in those areas was undoubtedly orders of magnitude bigger. Blizzard probably had somebody whose entire job for three months was getting Pharah’s rocket launcher to fire just right, whereas a small studio like Hi-Rez probably whipped up Drogoz’s goofball-launcher in one-tenth the time. Thinking about it this way gives the whole thing kind of a tragic vibe, like if Goliath had actually pummeled the shit out of David and the Israelites. If Todd Harris is to be believed, Hi-Rez started working on Paladins well before Overwatch was a glimmer in Bobby Kotick’s cyborg eye. Trying to imagine the stomach-dropping horror in the Hi-Rez studio on the morning of the Overwatch launch trailer—which, with its Pixar-grade production value, probably would have cost a significant chunk of Paladins’ entire budget all by itself—makes me physically wince and feel sort of a deep secondhand gastric unease.
Reviews are not known for doling out handicaps, though, and the potential scantiness of Paladins’ budget does not in any way exculpate the game’s deficiencies. (The happy ending here is that, regardless of relative quality, Paladins will probably have broken 1,000,000 downloads by the time this review goes live.) The next and perhaps hugest gulf may also be attributable to budget disparities, but that doesn’t make it any less important: compared to Overwatch, Paladins’ character design is cobbled-together, rough-edged, and generally just inferior.
Consider the Overwatch character I find most different and interesting: the submachine pistol-wielding nuisance Tracer. Typically, characters in class-based games who want to get in close will have more health to compensate for the additional damage they’re likely to take, whereas those whose kits allow them to stay far away will have less health to compensate. Tracer bucks the trend: her offensive options work best up close, but she’s incredibly fragile. Blizzard took that foundation and ran with it. Tracer’s machine pistols do huge damage, as does her ultimate, but she has to be right in the thick of things to deploy them effectively. To keep her alive, she has more (horizontal) mobility than any character in the game—high base move speed, three teleport dashes, and the ability to rewind time, returning to the location and health level she occupied a few seconds earlier. A great Tracer player is constantly zipping in and out of the battle, dishing out damage, dancing on the machete-edge of utter annihilation. It’s a hyperkinetic playstyle completely unlike that of, say, Roadhog, the hook-wielding brute who stands at a distance with a hefty reserve of hit points and reels opponents in.
In Paladins, the closest equivalent to Tracer is Skye, the purple flanking hero mentioned above. Like Tracer, she has a rapidfire weapon that works best up close. But Skye’s mobility options are comparatively lackluster. She can cloak herself to gain a slight speed boost, but opponents within a certain distance can still see her. She can deploy a smoke bomb, but it only blocks line of sight, so the opponent can keep spraying at the point where she vanished or simply move around for a better view. As a result, Skye feels nowhere near as durable as Tracer, despite having a health total that’s much closer to the game’s average. She’s still forced to get up close to do damage—but her options of getting there and back again are limited. Half the fun with Tracer is playing by a different set of rules, entering portions of the map that would be certain death for another character. In contrast, Skye must obey the same rules as everyone else—make sure there’s cover to duck behind, don’t overextend, don’t dive so deep that you can’t get out again.
Skye might not be particularly interesting, but at least her stealth-oriented kit occupies a fairly specific niche. Other characters in Paladins feel like haphazard mishmashes of disparate class-based shooter concepts. In Overwatch, some heroes (like Winston) are built around going to the enemy, whereas others (like Roadhog) are built around bringing the enemy to them. Both archetypes are muddled together in Paladins’ turtle champion Makoa, who wields a Roadhog-style hook and shotgun in addition to a Winston-style leap and shield bubble. Makoa can pull enemies away from the pack, but he can also leap into the middle of them and set up a bubble. He even has Winston’s raging melee ult. There’s no unifying theme there, no tightly-focused playstyle. When every character can be played in every way, is there really any mechanical diversity at all?
To its credit, Paladins does attempt several innovations, departing in notable ways from the Overwatch formula. In Paladins, your champion heals up to full health after a few seconds without taking damage. All characters spawn atop horses to rush into the fray. And characters are customized both before and during the battle through a system of upgrade cards. The problem is that these additional features have the effect of reducing variety rather than increasing it. In Overwatch, character speed is a major differentiator. If the pudgy juggernaut Roadhog were able to hop on a horse and arrive at the battle as quickly as Tracer, that would make the characters less distinct. (It should also be noted that the horses are another area of dubious game feel; they clip through walls, seem to slide more than gallop, and look completely out of place beneath a jetpack-strapped lizard or anthropomorphic tree.) Likewise with Paladins’ in-game upgrade cards, which allow you to turn any character into a life-stealing shield-buster. And by giving all players rapid health regeneration, Paladins trims away not only an entire class of Overwatch-style healers, but removes the potential for differences in self-healing playstyle. In Overwatch, Tracer or Reaper must seek out health packs, whereas Roadhog can step around a corner to munch on a snack. This distinction is lost in Paladins, where everyone can hide for three seconds and return good as new. A pillar of the class-based shooter’s appeal is its starkly differentiated cast of characters; by reducing variety through tacked-on mechanics like horses and autohealing, Paladins steers players towards a limited subset of undifferentiated playstyles.
Paladins falls short in every way but price.
In a world without Overwatch, Paladins would be exactly what it is today: a fun but nutritionless alternative to hardcore FPS titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. But because we live in this world and not that one, it makes no sense to judge Paladins except in comparison to the game it so closely resembles. And on that scale, Paladins falls short in every way but price. To put it simply, Overwatch is superior, with stark advantages in key intangibles like game feel and character design. Nobody should feel bad for enjoying Paladins. And it’s not really Hi-Rez’s fault that they didn’t have the money to match Blizzard’s Triple-A production value. But we’re not grading these games based on relative quality-per-dollar-invested; we’re grading them by relative quality, period. The jibe about Paladins being a poor man’s Overwatch contains a shrapnel-shard of truth: no discerning ballistophile with forty bucks to spare should ever settle for Drogoz when they could be playing Pharah.