Note: I'm not going to make much juxtapositions between this and Overwatch since I haven't played Blizzard's shooter. All I can say is that based on my observations and some comparisons between characters, Paladins just doesn't give me the impression of a complete rip-off or clone of that game as some claim. There're a bunch of very similar abilities, yes, but there's also a considerable amount of substantial differences as well - at least enough for it to possess an identity of its own. And as for those similar-looking abilities, Hi-Rez's Reddit response made a rather solid argument about most of them being inspired by their earlier game, Global Agenda, which in turn took inspiration from Team Fortress 2, as Overwatch also did.
My first thought when I saw the open beta trailer for Paladins was, "this looks quite a bit like Overwatch, except that it's fantasy-themed." I was quick to download it nevertheless - I don't own Overwatch, and Paladins seemed like a tempting free-to-play alternative; I was also looking for a multiplayer shooter to sink into anyway. In the days that followed, comparisons by players were made, rip-off accusations levelled (eventually forcing Hi-Rez to respond), Paladins became one of Steam's top three most popular free-to-play games, and I found myself becoming hooked to the game.
Paladins currently features two modes - Siege (a combination of point capture and Payload), and Payload. Both are objective-oriented 5v5 affairs, and the Champions (numbering 17 currently) that make up a team fall into one of four classes - Front Line (an essential class that's durable and best at contesting and holding objective), Damage (self-explanatory), Support (they have healing abilities and pretty decent damage) and Flank (close-range glass cannon). Like most of the game, they're all familiar in some way, but there's enough variety to make things interesting.
Paladins' Champions are a mix of fantasy characters and individuals with more modern/futuristic gear, each possessing four abilities in addition to their primary fire, including a mobility-related skill and an Ultimate ability. A single match can see an axe-throwing tree who heals teammates clashing with a stealthy dart-shooting assassin with a nasty high-damage and fairly large AoE Ultimate, a jetpack-wearing dragon getting turned into a giant chick by an anthromorphic squirrel (I think he's a squirrel), or a sniper using her teleporter to escape from a giant tortoise that can project an energy shield and hook enemies.
It's a strange mix of characters, and with lore and character backgrounds unfinished it's anyone's guess as to why they're fighting (the technology part is sort of explained by the game's description mentioning the existence of ancient technology... though none of it looks ancient). It's not much of a bother though, and from a visual and gameplay perspective they gel quite well together. The only one that bothers me slightly is the assault rifle-wielding Viktor, partly due to his appearance and because his artillery-based Ultimate can be used in-doors. Not sure how they're gonna explain that in his background story.
Be they shotguns, bows or magic staves, most of the weapons - and damage-dealing abilities - in Paladins tend to feel somewhat lacking in weight and power. But! - the visible healthbars, audible hit-detection sounds and the loud "ding!" that plays upon getting a kill or assist do a surprisingly good job at making up for the weapons' shortcomings. I do hope that the feedback of the weapons themselves will be improved (especially shotguns), but ultimately I've had a lot more fun and satisfaction shooting enemies in Paladins than in games like Team Fortress 2 or Dirty Bomb.
It's not up at Call of Duty levels, but the time-to-kill feels fairly fast, especially when you're not tanky knight Fernando. However, the fun-to-use mobility skills - which range from user-propelling rocket boots to a supernatural dash - offer chances of escape and continued survival, assuming they're not on cooldown of course.
Unlike the Champions, the maps lack sci-fi influences and instead offer settings like ancient ruins and a medieval fish market. They're fairly small and linear but offer ample space and routes for team fights, mobility skills, and flanking opportunities. In both modes, players automatically get mounts when a round is about to begin or upon respawning to faster reach the objective or fight, and it also makes travelling after a respawn less tedious.
There're also varying degrees of verticality, mainly in the form of elevated walkways and upper levels that can be accessed via stairs and slopes, but there're some more exceptions. One Siege map sports a couple of platforms that only some Champions can reach, whilst the Outpost Payload map (which is the largest or at least most spacious-feeling map in the game so far) features buildings with portals at their bases to teleport players to the rooftop.
Paladins lets you purchase and upgrade items, or burn cards, during matches when you're in your spawn point. It's a much simpler version of item-buying in MOBAs - you don't have to worry about things like item builds - but its presence adds a nice, tangible flavour. The items are divided into four categories, with only one per category allowed, and offer bonuses like 10% damage reduction, a faster charge rate for your Ultimate ability or making your shots reduce healing effects on an enemy for two seconds.
Another aspect that reminds me of MOBAs is the character selection process. Although Paladins' Champions don't really hard counter one another (countering and adapting is mainly done with the items) and you don't neccesarily need a perfectly balanced mix of classes, team composition is still very important. This is especially true since Champions can't be swapped once a match has started, much like a MOBA. As a result, you will sometimes have to choose a class that fills in the team's vacuum rather than one that you like, or make a last minute swap if you're one of the four DPS players on the team and no one else seems willing to change their Champion.
Then there's the loadout/deck building system. It's pretty simple - pick a loadout slot, choose and equip five ability-augmenting cards from the ones you have, and upgrade the cards you want. Each card costs 1 point, increasing a card's rarity increases the cost (highest rarity, Legendary, raises the cost to 4 points), and there's an overall 12 point limit, so there's a lot of thinking to be done when creating a loadout. You can create a few of them, and before a round starts you can go through them and your preferred loadout.
It's a fun system that adds an appealing degree of personalization and customization to the game. My favourite creation is the "Jumping Buck" - a loadout for Flank Champion Buck which includes a card that adds lifesteal to his healing ability and another that increases the stength of his Heroic Jump ability. With this I can last longer in fights and jump ridiculous distances to either get behind enemy lines, escape, or return to my allies' side. It may not be the most optimal build for the shotgun-carrying monk, but "Jumping Buck" has served me well so far, and the upgraded Heroic Jump is just so damn fun to use.
For the most part, Paladins features a very generous free-to-play model. I usually get 200-300 Gold per match, while levelling up a Champion grants you 500 Gold. A Champion typically costs 5000 Gold (or 200 of the premium currency, Diamonds), and with 9 of the 17 Champions already available for free, unlocking the entire current roster isn't really a difficult task. I unlocked everyone after 40-plus hours of play, along with a few dozen cards.
Cards and skins can be obtained randomly from chests that are given out upon levelling up your profile or bought with Diamonds, but it's far easier and efficient to unlock them directly for 1200 Gold each. Champion skins and voice packs cost more than cards (a lot more, in some cases), and focusing too much on getting these will definitely make the game feel grindy. Some are only purchasable with Diamonds or locked behind "special promotions" or actions like liking the game's Facebook page.
The skins mainly just offer alternative colour schemes, and the ones that actually offer different outfits or fancier-loooking weapon are usually Diamond-only purchases - smart move there, Hi-Rez. You can get Diamonds (and Gold) via the daily log-in rewards however, so if you've got the patience you don't have to dish out a single dime, unless you want the exclusive skins from the Founder's Pack. Following Open Beta Patch 35's release, I also noticed that some of the previously Diamond-only purchases now had the option to be purchased with Gold, and Gold prices for some were slightly reduced.
The recent additions of both SEA servers and the ability to choose preferred server regions for casual matchmaking is a great plus. "Preferred" is the keyword here though, and sometimes you might still end up in servers with higher ping, like 200-250 (mostly tolerable, but in my opinion not so for all Champions) or 300+ (terrible). Not a deal-breaker, but terribly annoying. On the bright side, matches that seem crippled by extreme lag regardless of ping and are unplayable tend to be ended automatically after a while without any penalties for the players.
In team-based games, it's probably a certainty to encounter some annoyances when playing with randoms. In Paladins' case, these annoyances sometimes include teams that seem strangely averse to fulfilling the objectives, teammates who leave the poor, besieged Front Line player unsupported in the middle of the capture point, or players who do the opposite of what their Champions are supposed to do (like a Front Line player who hangs back most of the time or a squishy Flanker who charges into the frontlines and battles the enemy team head-on). That last bit's a tad concerning when the Champion roles are already so clearly stated in their class names.
The greatest annoyance of all is when your team is in need of a Front Line Champion and no one bothers to pick one or switch to that role. There're several times when I'd pick some other class from the get-go, have faith that someone on the team will fill the Front Line role and find that faith betrayed when my focus returns to the screen and I see only DPS and Flank Champions on my team, and it's to late for me to switch to the Front Line class myself.
To be fair, I suppose that they might have been newer players who were unaware of the importance of the Front Line class, and maybe I should from now on forever maintain focus on the screen during the Champion selection phase. But it's terrible and soul-crushing when it happens, because it pretty much guarantees a loss for your side. Good thing it doesn't happen often.
Some other (minor) complaints: Players are matched against bots until they hit level 5, even when using PvP matchmaking. I support this decision, but it would be nice to inform players about it, as unless you search for answers in the forums you won't know when you'll finally get to face off against other players. Second, following a recent patch, the skill descriptions in the Champion profiles no longer list their respective cooldown periods. I really hope they change this soon, because it seems silly to not display such important information in the game.
On the bright side, toxicity in Paladins is barely existent, based on my experience so far. Having no voice-chat system in the game and not letting opposing teams chat with each other probably contributed to that. Complaints about teammates' performances crop up time to time in chat, and occasionally you'll see the word "noob", but communication is civilized on the whole, and I hope it stays that way.
Overall, Paladins is a very fun FPS. It may look a bit like a budget game compared to something like Overwatch, but that doesn't mean that it's lacking in quality or entertainment. Its successful combination of a team shooter with selected MOBA elements, fun gameplay and a very fair free-to-play model make this a delightful offering from Hi-Rez. If the game gets a steady flow of updates and new content even after final release, I can see myself playing this for quite some time.
*This open beta review does not cover competitive matchmaking.