By Darren Henderson (DizzyPW), Scribe of the Gods
To say the gaming world is smitten by SMITE is no understatement. Anyone present at PAX East 2012 could feel the magic in the air as the typically shooter oriented HiRez Studios lured in lines fitting of a theme park not to play Global Agenda or Tribes Ascend but rather a previously unannounced “MOBA.” Sure the god graphics were wonky, item placeholders were stereotypical of the genre, and the standard three lane map looked a bit like Egyptian and Greek paper mache. The overall concept was over simplified from its juggernaut established neighbors and it wasn’t even the first title to bring third person shooter action to the genre.
Yet the vision was clear and anyone with even an inkling of love for mythology running through their veins could feel the electricity in the air as Zeus blindly shot charges of static electricity through Roman soldiers standing guard of a half bird 3D rendering of Ra, Egyptian God of the Sun. Hades’ dark magics withstood the onslaught of locusts unleashed from Anubis’ deathly gaze in a battle for control of the underworld. And the frozen titan Ymir clashed in an eternal struggle with the Allfather Odin, unknowingly setting the stage for the eventual coming of Fenrir’s Ragnarok. Nearly two years of beta testing later, HiRez now stands confident that their product is capable of sending fissures through the industry with multiple polished modes (some now three redesigns deep from the original concepts), a roster of 51 gods, dozens of unique skins and voice packs, and an item system forged by Vulcan’s fires to offer rewards and counterplay that feels satisfying to the most veteran of MOBA gamers. Welcome to SMITE!
Ah lore. The red headed step-child of MOBA design. Without it, marketing to outside players is nigh impossible. Lore is needed to build life into characters and connect underlying emotions to solid gameplay as players become further engrossed in the series. Yet the static and repetitive PvP nature of MOBAs makes building it quite challenging as there aren’t quests to complete or progression to be found from continuous play. As such backstory, character kits, and visual design are the best bet for scoring memorable characters. HiRez nails this across all three fronts and makes it clear that they put some serious painstaking research into each god released into the game to find that perfect balance between thematic design and game balance.
Right off the bat, SMITE prides itself in lore by introducing every new god reveal video with the industry’s lengthiest lore overview as read off from a partially animated parchment. Not satisfied with just acting as a Wikipedia reference, they manage to take what’s written about a god and tie it into motivation for why they would step into the Battleground of the Gods to face off against other pantheons in an eternal struggle for the fate of the cosmos.
This typically transfers directly into the kit of the characters such as the goddess Neith, known originally as a water goddess of war and hunting in Egypt before a later religious sect reclassified her as the weaver of the world’s fates, plays as a smooth flowing ranged archer utilizing an oversized bow you could nearly classify as a loom as she creates and breaks battlefield weaves with her skill set to control the flow of combat. Nu Wa, the Chinese goddess of creation, represents herself as such by combining the five elements known in Chinese lore to be the building blocks of creation. When all elements are combined, her true power (and form as a half snake woman) are unleashed, showcasing that only when all elements are in balance can true greatness be made. From obvious tropes like walls of ice rising from the frost giant Ymir to lesser known nods like Sun Wukong’s 72 transformations, players will recognize the personality and become attached to the various gods in game not just as figures they learned about in history classes, but as characters designed with new life and originality as envisioned by the HiRez dev team.
No worries. I won’t bore you like most MOBA reviews by spending an essay explaining how battles play out like in every other MOBA created in the last three years. Let’s just right in to focus on how itemization, combat, and general mechanics stand apart in SMITE.
First off, the third person shooter perspective of SMITE is what makes the game so attractive to action junkies rather than strategy fans. Typically levels and item bonuses mean less in other MOBAs as everything from auto attacks to skills must be aimed and timed to strike. Sick of right click champions in other MOBAs getting an early experience and gold lead before forcing you to hide under a tower for 20 minutes praying for a miracle comeback in late game? SMITE mechanics ensure that if you can outplay them, you can turn the game around at nearly any point of a match.
Gold acquisition also stands out a bit as SMITE offers more of a “sharing is carrying” mentality. Being in the proximity of a kill, be it of an enemy god, minion, or even jungle creep, will net you an assisted share in the gold. Combined with support sharing items that boost gold gain for being near a minion when an ally kills it and playing support in SMITE becomes far more rewarding. Minions killed in your vicinity, even if not by last hit, still reward gold as well, promoting more aggressive harassing of enemies since sending them back to base to heal is far more effective at shutting them down than denying last hits. The high levels of utility and in some cases even damage offered to support characters as well as the truly tanky nature of tanks makes various metas possible in Conquest and just about any team composition viable in the more casual modes. The distance between lanes is quite small once boots are purchased, meaning SMITE’s action oriented nature is further complimented by constant roaming and ganks. And the tower’s ability to zap up minion gold means you won’t be hearing carries crying about supports last hitting as keeping minions pushed is a constant struggle.
SMITE does a decent job of establishing boons and banes for being the aggressor or defender in small skirmishes as well. For one, utilizing abilities and auto-attacking typically slows character movement temporarily. This allows smart defensive play to read their over aggressive opponent’s moves and then be rewarded for properly counter attacking them when their cooldowns are ticking and their speed is dwindling. The nature of the camera angle also makes committing to battle without proper warding on the primary Conquest map more dangerous than most other MOBAs as the jungle routes between lanes are numerous and hard to keep fully warded, distances between towers is long, and keeping track of all 5 enemies is exceedingly challenging with the increased depth of 1 on 1 combat offered.
Across all modes snowballing is limited, but present if a team can perform well enough to deserve it. Most items that offer a noticeable difference in battle are quite expensive and require quite a few instances of outplaying your opponents to warrant purchasing noticeably ahead of your foes. Defensive items are also more valuable than in most MOBAs, and characters building full tank will feel like immovable objects while lacking the ability to melt faces even when against fully offensive built foes. And while a bit of snowballing can occur on Conquest by force feeding a strong scaling god a solo lane and plenty of jungle creeps, most modes focus on group battle from the get-go and boosted experience scaling to ensure a fast rise to the max level of 20 and even team fights more dependent on skill and synergy than item purchases.
Progression and Prestige
While other MOBAs often offer power supplements to separate a new account from a veteran one, SMITE takes an approach that ensures a level 1 can be on perfectly equal terms to a level 30. Rather than tangible power increases, instead a follower ranking system exists that showcases players experience with each individual god. This can be built up across all modes and isn't directly factored into the elo match-making system, but sweet gold (rank 1 +) and legendary (rank 10) skins can be purchased with favor to get a shiny golden glimmer to your god as well as showcase your kills, assists, and wins during the loading screen. It's surprisingly effective at keeping players hooked on the game as they attempt to boost their overall mastery symbol level for a sense of prestige, and also is used to create a barrier so players who haven't tested out multiple gods can't jump straight into ranked matches. Of course those not using their favor to purchase skins can also unlock new gods for free over time, adding a secondary feeling of collection progression.
Thoughtful Itemization Trumps Cookie Cutter Builds
Itemization is diverse and rewards players smart enough to ditch cookie cutter builds in response to reactive purchases. As mentioned, fully building items to their tier three status is an expensive process that can take some time against equally skilled foes. Aura items are common as both ally buff and enemy debuffs. Proper communication is a must as splitting the chore of building defensive and offensive auras can make all the difference in the world when suddenly your team united has boosted magic and physical defenses as well as an aura that slows enemy auto-attacks for foes that come into range. But that’s just one of the many examples available.
Every item is unique in its own strategy though similar items are lumped into categories that all build from a single source. Though this item overhaul has only been out for a couple patches and requires some fine-tuning, it fixed the severely lacking issue in SMITE of dynamic and reactive character building. Prior every item was an island, featuring 2 rather useless tiers leading up to an all-powerful third tier that made building new individual components before completing prior components a waste of resources. Now should you build out a magic focus with the intention of creating a ward stone to lower enemy’s magical resistance in an aura around you, and discover your teammate is doing the same, you can instead focus on boosting your personal magic penetration in every attack, or go towards an item that offers a stacking debuff to enemy magical defenses on each of your attacks should you choose. Knowing your gods and your enemy’s strengths, recognizing how their team is capitalizing on those strengths, and then building as a team to counter them thus becomes more important than any other MOBA I’ve experienced.
The Actives system follows this philosophy by offering three tiers of purchasable active skills. Rather than attaching said actives to specific items or making players choose what to bring prior to a match beginning, this rewards or punishes players for their choices as a match progresses. Buying into actives too early can hinder your damage or defenses. They can’t be sold once purchased either so “breaking hearts” early can allow your foes to recognize your strategy and build actives that weaken it. Every player can have two actives with some focused on boosting individual performance while others act as more team oriented boosts to fit any strategy well.
Extra Modes That People Actually Play
Beyond the three lane standard MOBA setting, HiRez has put an astounding amount of effort into building more casual focused fun offerings for players that either don’t have the time or competitive nature to want to duke it out on the Conquest chessboard for thirty minutes to an hour. Here’s a quick overview:
Arena: Hate the slow start to MOBAs but love team fights that feel more akin to MMORPG arenas? SMITE’s Arena will make you feel right at home. Players start at level 3 with boosted experience and gold gain, and must fight to push two criss-crossing minion paths through a portal just outside the enemy team’s spawn point. Conquest’s jungle monsters make an appearance at a dangerously fringe side region offering plenty of risk and reward for gods seeking the extra experience and buffs, as the match quickly comes to an epic conclusion based on a team point system. Every minion that is last hit and every god that dies deducts points from a pool of 500 until one team’s statue falls. After a set number of kills, an intense team fight is forced by spawning an impossible to ignore tower unit that offers massive point bonuses if the team can escort it to the enemy’s portal. With matches ranging between 8 and 20 minutes, Arena is the go-to mode for casual MOBA players that want matches to be over long before anyone has time to get toxic.
Assault: Ever played a MOBA where you had one hundred characters to choose from and just couldn’t make up your mind? Assault makes up your mind for you as you’re thrust into a single lane no-recall scenario with four other players all using a randomly selected god. Though it’s still very much a work in progress, Gods classified as healers are taken into consideration and added to both teams should either team roll one. Despite the random and sometimes unbalanced nature of the mode, it can be quite a bit more competitive than Arena when equal teams face off, with matches sometimes stretching upward to 30 minutes. Though it’s also a mode more prone to snowballing than others, meaning 8 minute stomps are just as likely.
Joust (3v3 and 1v1): 1v1 me noob. HiRez decided to give this trollish taunt familiar to any experienced MOBA player an official match type. Joust features a single lane with two rather extended towerless side lanes for jungling. While the 1v1 is pretty gimmicky, the 3v3 offers pretty fun gameplay while making new tactics and team compositions viable. Similar to assault, game durations can be incredibly short or stretch on for a while depending on how evenly matched opponents are. It’s a tad bit unbalanced but not to the point of hindering the fun.
MOTD: HiRez crafts fun scenarios that swap out every 24 hours for those looking for a goofy diversion rather than an intense bout of PvP. Whether it is all winged gods in an arena or maximum gold and levels on conquest, you’re sure to get a new experienced from them not available in the standard modes. While some matches are a bit bland or even painful (here’s looking at you All Bacchus kegger bash), others like Thorsday can be both strategic and hilarious.
Domination: Sadly this mode is under construction and out of the queuing system for the time being. It’s still available as a custom match or on occasional match of the days like Egyptian Roulette as HiRez states they are looking at reworking it to be as popular as their other modes. Players march down a windy convoluted map towards three control points that spawn rather nasty sand genies that throw fireballs akin to a fickle tower. Once the genie is defeated and all enemy players are pushed out of the circle of control, the point changes hands. Holding two of the three points will cause your enemy’s 500 team points to begin ticking away while holding all three points will cause it to deteriorate quite fast. Every player death also costs their team 1 point, which isn’t noticeable for the most part, but can provide a means for some pretty wild comeback victories. While not as popular as the other modes, Domination is an adrenaline junkie’s dream map featuring a good mix of team fighting, stand your ground moments, and 1 on 1 duels.
Balancing Gods, Goddesses, and Demons
All the features in the world can’t save a MOBA that’s poorly balanced. HiRez had its rocky moments in the beta (never forget the death bongos…), they’ve done a rather fantastic job of getting most of the fifty one gods in-game up to a competitive level. Statistics show the various gods weighing in with win percentage differences ranging from 47% to 55% give or take a few points each week, showing a clear sign that while the illusion of perfect balance is impossible given the nature of MOBAs, SMITE comes pretty darn close.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of the puzzle is how each god brings enough range through itemization to the table that you’ll typically run into tanks, supports, assassins, mages, and warrior archetypes in just about every mode available in the game. Dedicated healers like Chang’E, Hel, and especially Ra can bring about brutal onslaughts of damage if defensive items are ignored and only magic damage items are built. Tanks like Geb, Ymir, and Ares can bring crippling levels of CC and even damage to smaller skirmishes when some defense is sacrificed for cooldown reduction. With a well-timed defensive item, assassins like Loki and Bakasura can find their place in modes like Assault and Joust where one would imagine the straight forward nature of the map would hinder them. Damage items featuring speed and CC reducing defensive items can make hunters like Artemis, Neith, and Anhur viable in the open Arena battleground where tank peeling and map juking are less common. Warriors and Mages typically melt face across the board so not much to be said about making them viable.
While this level of balance could easily be accomplished in MOBAs that lack originality in builds, SMITE somehow manages to do so in a way that pumps new life into the genre. Gods like Thor, Thanatos, and Apollo literally take to the skies with their ultimates, seeing the landscape of the maps from angles other MOBA engines can’t even dream of. NeZha literally lifts his target into an outer dimension to enter a timing arcade-like mini-game to score bonus crits. Neith and Athena feature global ultimates that still take into account skill by forcing players to maintain aim of their target rather than the easy mode of simply clicking an god icon, an easy alternative HiRez could have used but choose not to. Vamana literally channels anger into a massive growth that’s all the more impressive given the third person camera view. And you won't soon forget the creepy little Scylla growing from a tiny Alice in Wonder Land looking girl to a giant tentacle monster while giggling the entire time. Creepy. And best of all is the crisp 3D visuals do an excellent job of portraying exactly what these skills’ effects are, meaning the burden of knowledge for new players trying to learn gods is far less than experienced in rival MOBAs.
I typically don’t like giving out a full 5/5 on a game at launch. But then I’m typically forced to review free games that don’t understand the difference between a beta and a launch state. HiRez recognized the intense competition present in the MOBA market and put in a herculean effort to alter, improve, and rework almost every aspect of their title these past two years. And it shows from the tiniest retexture in the Conquest jungle to the not so face melting damage of a hyper speed Chronos. But even in an excellent state and with the ‘launched’ sticker slapped on, it’s clear there’s still much improvement to be seen going forward.
Visual reworks are plentiful for the older low resolution gods. Voice over packs are now available across the board and interactions between gods on the battlefield are even slowly being implemented. Legendary cosmetic skins are certainly worth the purchase while simpler retextures are available for purchase with favor earned from simply playing the game. With an active and growing esports scene, I only foresee great things coming in SMITE’s future. So hop in-game and play a round with Bastet now so you can be one of the cool kids that played the ugly puddy beta cat before her visual rework removes one of the last symbols of just how far this game came in only two years of beta.