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Preview: Warlander

12 Sep 2022

Is there anything in gaming as immediately tantalizing as player-versus-player castle siege gameplay? I’m earnestly asking here, as the concept has consistently found its way into the designs of many a game, all the way from earlier MMORPGs like Dark Age of Camelot in 2001 to more focused competitive games like Chivalry and its 2021 sequel.

And yet whether it’s the large amount of players working toward a common goal or the simple spectacle of storming a castle, all evidence points to the desire of virtual sieging being something inherent to human instinct on a fundamental level. That desire is exactly what upcoming games like Warlander, developed by Toylogic Inc. and published by Plaion, are hoping to satiate.

The competitive multiplayer title pits up to 100 players against one another across three lanes in 15-minute matches. Each team attempts to fight their way down each one to claim towers, utilize catapults, and fight in the trenches before reaching the enemy team’s core and destroying it to claim victory.

Warlander supports 40-player matches across two teams and 100-player matches across five teams. I had the opportunity to play a few matches of the former mode ahead of the PC open beta starting September 12th, and while only time will tell if the game will find the audience it’s searching for, there are some promising ideas and execution here.

Obviously throwing twenty people onto a battlefield and saying “Go!” isn’t always going to be a great recipe for fun, and to stem that confusion a bit, Warlander splits each greater team into five individual squads of four players each. Castle Guard squads are responsible for defending their team’s keep should the enemy team reach it, Assault squads are tasked with pushing forward and attempting to reach the enemy’s keep, and Special Ops squads attempt to build catapults and capture towers further away from the action.

Moreover, players can volunteer themselves to be randomly selected as the Commander for their entire team, which allows them to highlight certain objectives and issue orders to help lead everyone to success. Of course, nothing is forcing you to follow these objectives to the letter the entire time, and you’ll have to pull away from your assigned goals often in order to assist other squads with their own, as well. It’s a pretty successful way of encouraging player agency and map awareness.

When it comes to the core gameplay, Warlander offers three character archetypes: the Warrior (focused on dishing out and preventing damage), the Cleric (focused on supporting allies with beneficial spells) and the Mage (focused on dealing massive damage at the cost of being a glass cannon).

Interestingly, the Mage character can’t be selected from the beginning of the match. Instead, players level up what’s called Valor Rank over the course of the battle which then unlocks the ability to spawn in as one. I might be dating myself with the comparison, but it’s a system very reminiscent of the original Star Wars: Battlefront II, and one that works well in the way it prevents overall damage output from being too high while also allowing players the chance to play a highly powerful unit—even if you sometimes only last a few seconds as said unit, because the outgoing damage in Warlander is quite high in general.

There were absolutely moments where my squad took a lower path, got caught unawares from above, and was staring at a respawn timer before we had much of a chance to react. It’s hard to be too upset about moments like this though, because being on the other side of that situation is a matter of keeping an eye on the battlefield and organized movement in a squad.

High damage also causes you to really feel the effects of your teammate’s actions and how it can sway the tide of the match overall. There was an occasion where nearly every squad of my team was pushing forward to claim a tower. It seemed like an easy victory—at least until multiple enemy mages showed up and dealt heavy damage to most of us. Before many of our health bars hit zero, however, one of our Clerics jumped into the fray and activated a spell that caused us to be invulnerable for a short time. It was a close call, but we managed to fight back and claim the tower for ourselves.

Another point in the match saw an enemy Mage sneak their way past the frontlines and begin to charge up a powerful spell that would have done a drastic amount of damage to our keep. I hadn’t noticed until my team’s Commander informed us that it was happening, and because I was the most recent player to have respawned, I was able to get my Warrior to him first and powerbomb him into the ground just in time for my teammates to swoop in and deal the killing blow.

Moments like those, especially combined with the general chaos of war that the game sports with the crashing of metal on metal, shouting, and magic spells littering the battlefield, were where my time with Warlander really shined. The matches played out quite differently, and that’s not something you can say for every game of this ilk.

When it comes to monetization, Warlander is set to be a free-to-play title with a battle pass featuring three tiers: one free track, one paid track, and a second (more expensive) paid track. I wasn’t informed if there would be any monetization outside of the battle pass, but Plaion was clear that they are adamantly against anything that could be perceived as pay-to-win—a shocking statement, I know, but it’s true.

Truth be told, the largest area of concern I have with the game is in regard to everything outside of the actual battles. I neglected to mention this earlier when discussing the unlocking of Mages, but the game also allows players to create and customize powered up versions of the Warrior and Cleric units as well, which are also locked until you reach a certain Valor Rank.

The screen to create these powerful characters is confusing, to put it bluntly. Players have the ability to customize tens of items for each character with multiple rarities and individual equipment costs to consider on top of earning new ones after each match. It was very difficult to grasp at a glance, and I couldn’t help but feel the sheer breadth of options on display was overcomplicating things to a fault.

It’s important I reiterate that I only had about two hours with Warlander and the open beta could very well have tutorials that explain this system better, but it was hard to shake the feeling that it was simply too much customization. The game was already enjoyable on its own, and throwing an overly complicated character creation system on top of it all seems like a superfluous addition to the gameplay itself.

When it comes down to it, the feeling of gameplay and core ideas behind Warlander are fun. The ingredients for a successful PVP game are noticeably present. That said, the true mountain it has to climb is in carving out a niche for itself among the myriad other competitive games vying for a similar space.

Large-scale battles are great, and even the 20v20 variant I was able to preview was hectic without being hard to follow. The problem is that you actually need the player counts to back them up, and I can see the overcomplicated loadout system being something prospective players will bump up against, especially when the game is already a good time without it. Only time will tell if Warlander is able to grab the attention of players, but for my own part, I think it deserves a chance to succeed in its open beta.

Preview beta access provided by Plaion for PC. Screenshots provided by Plaion. Featured image courtesy of Plaion.