In the sea of free-to-play games, you need fresh gameplay to stand out. Five-versus-five PvP? Been there, done that. With Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes , the latest venture under EA's Play4Free banner, BioWare Mythic is taking a stab at an entirely new approach—6v6v6. Three teams, one map, and six heroes per side makes for a whole lot of chaos, and we've our hands dirty with blood and goblin guts inside it over the past several months. Read our impressions inside, and if WoH sounds like a raucous good time to you, joining the ongoing open beta is just a few clicks away.
Not quite a MOBA, not quite an MMO, WoH seems to exist in a space all its own. The premise is simple enough: choose from an ever-expanding roster of heroes to fight as, each with five active abilities that make up a kit of tank, DPS, or healer. There's no mana resource to speak of, so cooldowns are the only thing controlling the frequency of your ability casts—nailing down the rhythm of your spells' availability is paramount to topping the kill charts. And there will be plenty of kills to go around: with three teams all vying for the same objectives, battles get awfully hairy (and that's before you factor in all the NPC Skaven running around). Combat is fast, and the matches are faster, never lasting longer than fifteen minutes; WoH is an ideal "lunch break" romp to get a dose of fantasy fun.
There are three maps, each with their own goals: Mourkain Temple is capture-and-hold gameplay in a dank swamp, Black Fire Pass has you making a mad grab for ancient relics, and the aptly named Arena tasks you with killing or being killed amongst the bones of competitors past. Each map has its own triangular layout, to emphasize the three-team symmetry between the Orange, Blue, and Green armies. Your team composition will make the difference between victory or death—if you find yourself in an 18-man skirmish and your team's composed of six DPSers, you'll be flattened in a hurry. Similar to Mythic's own Dark Age of Camelot, the outcomes of the trilateral battles are impossible to predict: any team can jump into the fray or avoid conflict all together, leaving the other two teams to duke it out or pouncing on them when they've whittled each other down. No matter the score, there's always a chance to come back if the other two teams are getting a bit overzealous at beating each other down.
With open beta in full swing, there are currently 10 heroes to choose from, with a free rotation of three each week. Heroes can be swapped any time when you're waiting to respawn, so you can always change up your team comp if things on the battlefield are looking grim. But I found it more satisfying to pick a hero and stick with him or her, working to perfect my style over the course of a match. Fan favorites include Ikkrik, a Skaven rat-rogue who can stealth into an invisible-and-invincible state when he's taking too much heat, and Nethys, a sultry vampiress who has a staggering six-second disable (with no diminishing returns!). But my go-to guy had to be the dinky green goblin Glowgob, an obnoxious healer who throws mushrooms, totemic wards, and high-pitched war cries in every direction. Healing in WoH is just too fun—all heals work in an AoE, and with no mana to worry about, you can mash your Shroom Tossin' heal spell 'til your fingers ache. BioWare Mythic also added an update as of this week which adds Bax, my favorite gargantuan, metal-plated orc who tanks damage and takes names as he charges around the field stunning people with an axe to the brain.
The game's talent trees are also quite ingenious: when unlocking each heroes' trees as you level up, you can customize their abilities by swapping out old spells for new ones, or giving them up to three passive bonuses to bolster them in the fight. If you're dissatisfied with a damage spell, you can replace it with a disable, or a gigantic fireball nuke that will only activate after a certain number of kills (much like Modern Warfare's perk system). What's even cooler is that some of these talents can be applied to other heroes. For instance, Ikkrik talent tree ends in a passive that will him transform into a gigantic Rat Ogre once he hits a certain number of assists. One popular closed beta tactic was putting this Terrible Transformation passive on Glowgob—as you racked up assists with healing business as usual, you'd eventually get to turn into a hideous, mutant Chuck E. Cheese and terrorize the opponents who had previously tried to target you for your annoying heals. It doesn't get much better than that.
There's also a nice nod to Warhammer lore buffs in WoH's skin system: each hero skin represents a different period in that character's military career, with its own backstory and everything. It may not affect gameplay in any way, but it's the kind of idea that I want to see more of in the F2P genre that so often gets bogged down in nonsensical appearance customizations.
WoH still needs a coat of polish before it's officially released, but there's a lot of potential in the 6v6v6 scenario and pretty awesome hero customization. As the roster expands, the combo potential will get crazier and crazier—this is the kind of game where theorycrafters can have a field day trying to optimize their favorite fighter. If you're in the mood for some fast-and-furious MMO-style combat, but you'd rather not go through the pains of leveling up and farming for gear, WoH is the answer to your prayers. Give the game a try in the open beta , and see if it's to your liking—if nothing else, you might be blessed enough to witness a diminutive goblin transform into a titanic mouse monster.