Battle royale might rule gaming right now, but there's still life left in the hero shooter genre. Popularized by Blizzard Entertainment's Overwatch in 2016, others have stepped up to compete, but most have fallen by the wayside. This year sees two new contenders: Valorant from League of Legends studio Riot Games, and Crucible, from Amazon Games.
It may have slipped your mind that Amazon, the company who ships you books, movies, and other knick knacks, was also busy working on its own games. The retail giant announced three games at TwitchCon 2016: Breakaway, New World, and Crucible. The first game, Breakaway, was a "mythological sport brawler" that was the furthest in development, before getting a big overhaul and then being unceremoniously canceled in 2018. New World was a sandbox survival MMO which also received a massive rework during development and is now coming out later this year.
Cutting the Fat
Crucible was the final entry, and it's the game we've seen the least of since 2016. At the time of announcement, it was a third-person shooter. The main hook was that teams of 12 players would be competing against a game master, who would make events and challenges to stymie their progress. Crucible was originally supposed to lean on audience interaction as well, via the Amazon-owned Twitch streaming service.
Crucible franchise lead Colin Johanson admitted that Twitch integration is "not part of the game right now," but the studio is open to adding it in the future. Apparently, that shift came from the connection between Twitch and Crucible developer Relentless Games, as the studio reached out to Twitch-partnered streamers, content creators, and cosplayers during development.
"We brought them in and let them be a part of the development process," Johanson says. "We gave them unprecedented access to the development team. One of the biggest pieces of feedback that group constantly gave us was, 'Focus first on making a game that's going to be really fun to play. That should be where you spend your time up to launch. Then worry about things like integrations for Twitch streamers. If you make a game that has a bunch of Twitch integrations that sucks, no one's going to play it.' We really just followed that guidance."
Most of those ambitious ideas have been jettisoned, in favor of focusing on Crucible's core: a team-based third-person shooter. You've seen this type of game before, of course. Hell, Microsoft Game Studios and Ninja Theory just released Bleeding Edge back in March. So I expected a relatively-polished, well-designed game that probably wouldn't do much to dent Overwatch's stranglehold or Valorant's upstart popularity. And let's be honest, that's largely what I got. The benefit here is that Crucible hasn't acquired the cruft that pushed me away from Overwatch, and it's far more fanciful compared to the Counter-Strike-style nature of Valorant.
Where We Dropping Today, Boys?
Crucible drops you and your teammates on a hostile alien planet as one of 10 hunters. Among them is Captain Mendoza, your generic Soldier 76-style jack-of-all-trades who drops turrets on the battlefield. He's joined by characters like Earl, a massive mini-gun-wielding alien trucker, and Ajonah, the requisite sniper with sneaky cloaking abilities.
I ultimately settled on Shakirri, a hunter with attack modes: she moves faster when she has her melee-focused energy sword out, but she can also swap to a six-shot, high-precision revolver. She's not entirely a ninja—that's more Anjonah's space—but I had a lot of fun harrying the enemy across the battlefield and cleaning up stragglers by chasing them down.
Crucible finds its particular flavor by blending hero shooter gameplay with MOBA and battle royale mechanics. On the battlefield, you collect Essence, an energy source rooted in the planet itself. You'll find Essence by killing NPC monsters and opponents, or by controlling Harvesters around the map. Collecting Essence levels you up, and every hero has an improvement tree that offers bonuses as you level. It splits the game modes between harvesting and combat, so even those without the strongest twitch reflexes can contribute.
It will launch with three different game modes: Harvester Command, Alpha Hunters, and Heart of the Hives. Harvester Command pits two teams of eight players against one another to control those Harvesters around the map. Holding a Harvester gains points, and the first team to 100 points wins. Alpha Hunters is the least conceptually interesting, a small-scale battle royale mode with the standard shrinking battlefield and eight teams of two players. The only twist is the temporary alliance mechanic: if you lose a partner you can temporarily join up with a lone solo player, knowing that truce will be broken if you make it to the final round. This was pulled directly from The Hunger Games, which was an early inspiration for Crucible.
"In the original team, which was a small incubation team, kinda hit on the idea of something similar to [The Hunger Games]. At the time, when we were talking about that battle royale games weren't really much of a thing. It was still a year or two until PUBG arrived on the scene. As we've developed the game, it's been really interesting to watch the competitive shooter space evolve and change," says creative director Eric Flannum.
The final mode is the marquee mode of Crucible: Heart of the Hives. Two teams of four try to collect Hearts that drop from massive hives that spawn on the battlefield. Here, you're not only keep track of harvesting Essence from monsters and harvesters, you're also trying to take down the hives, which respond with their own defenses. Once you've taken down a hive, you then need to collect the hearts. Getting a total of three means you win.
Heart of the Hives brings together everything that works about Crucible. It's team-based, so not every member needs to be a pure killing machine; sometimes staying away from combat and grabbing Harvesters for your team is just as helpful. But there's also a certain amount of strategy in grabbing the hearts. Someone needs to take down the hive, and you need a bit of time to acquire the heart. Attacking the hive leaves you open to a rear attack from the other team. Alternatively, they can just wait you out, and then wipe out your weakened team and take the heart while you're respawning. I'm not the deathmatch-heavy young buck I used to be. I like team-based shooters because everything doesn't rest on my shooter skills. I'm better at completing objectives—stay on the payload—rather than killing others, and Heart of the Hives rewards that.
You'll have to start playing with your hunter's abilities and understanding where they slot into play. Shakirri has a Shield ability, which creates a bubble that enemies can't pass through. I found that while she wasn't great at hive takedowns, that shield was excellent at denying opponents the chance to stop whoever was trying to pick up the heart. It was also awesome to trap my opponents in place while on the run. One of the upgrades allows the shield to heal teammates inside the bubble, making it even more useful.
Over the course of relatively few games, I started to get a firm grasp of each of the hunters. I understood where they slotted into the overall meta, who I should be afraid of, and who my chosen hunter was a hard counter for. At some point, I began to target Bugg and the very annoying Tosca. I could take on a hefty Earl, whose minigun wasn't great at close range, or call out a Drakhal bearing down on the rest of my team.
I spent a weekend with Bleeding Edge and I couldn't tell you much about the characters outside of Daemon. After five games, I knew who most of Crucible's hunters were. The last time I was this onboard with the cast of a hero shooter was probably Overwatch itself. (Sorry, Paladins and Battleborn.)
It's All About Business
It also helps that Crucible will have a lower barrier to entry compared to Overwatch. Like Valorant, it'll be free-to-play when it launches, subsisting on a battle pass and a store for cosmetic items. Crucible game designer Stephen Dewhurst promises a new season of content every eight to ten weeks, including a new battle pass and more. (Every two weeks will see a balance and bug fix update.)
"Exactly what's in that season will vary in some ways. We're always going to have a new battle pass," says Dewhurst. "In addition to those steady beat aspects of the seasons, you can expect that every season will have some sort of large gameplay-impacting thing. Sometimes that'll be a character, sometimes that'll be a game mode. The idea is that each one of the seasons will change up the meta, give players something new to be excited about."
Relentless is cognizant that the battle pass business model is somewhat at odds with the hero shooter system. The battle pass generally relies on a shared set of rewards, like the weapon skins, weapons, and new characters found in Valorant and Call of Duty: Warzone. If I'm playing as Drakhal in Crucible, and the first few tiers of the battle pass are skins, emotes, and more for other characters, that lowers my personal desire to grind it out.
"There are lots of skins that are simply for sale in the store. If you really want a Shakirri skin, you can just go and get one," says Dewhurst. "One of the things you get out of the battle pass is a key; we're not going to tell you what skin you want or what character you're going to get a skin for. The thing you get at the end of a battle pass is always a free pass to the exact content you're most excited about."
Every character also has their own progression track, so if you spend 30 hours playing Earl, you'll get new skins, emotes, and more just for Earl. Spreading out those rewards across character progression, the store, and the battle pass is how Relentless hope it'll keep players coming back.
The studio does realize that it's setting the stage for Amazon Games as a whole. Amazon has a whole host of technology that's behind its studios, including the Amazon Lumberyard engine and Amazon GameLift server tech, that it also licenses to other developers. Part of releasing these games is the success of not only the games themselves, but as a living proof-of-concept for Amazon's tech.
"We sit a floor away from a lot of the Lumberyard team," Johanson admits when asked about the larger giant that is Amazon behind the studio. "At the end of the day, we're trying to approach this from a very humble perspective. We haven't released a major game before. It's part of why we picked this marketing strategy of, 'announce the game and then very quickly put it out.' We know that people need to play the game to find out if it delivers. We don't have a built-in playerbase, we don't have a bunch of games that we can point to and say, 'Hey, this is our brand.' We're really setting the standard for all of that at once. We take that very seriously."
Passion and effort aren't enough though. In the end, Crucible will live and die on whether the community thinks it's interesting. It has to convince the world that there's room to breath in-between Blizzard Entertainment and Riot Games. Overwatch is a bit too complicated for me and Valorant needs more flavor.For now, Crucible seemingly fits my needs. Is that enough for everyone else? We'll see tomorrow, May 20, when it launches on PC.