The Call of Blood
Before you dive in and download Bloodline Champions, I should add a caveat to this review as there are a couple of things you should be aware of beforehand.
1. If you aren’t a competitive person, this game probably isn’t for you.
2. If you don’t enjoy twitch-based games, this game probably isn’t for you.
In many respects, Bloodline Champions (BLC) draws parallels between Team Fortress 2, Counterstrike or Call of Duty in that most of the enjoyment comes from the knowledge that your skill is defining your and your team’s success. The premise is relatively simple with two teams, cold and warm (ala Blue and Red), battling it out across various game modes in 2v2, 3v3, or 5v5 setups.
Cold and Warm teams duke it out for map supremacy
Matches consist of three different game modes: Arena (known as team deathmatch in other games), Capture the Artifact (Capture the Flag) and Conquest (map control point game mode), though for the most part people tend to jump straight into Arena as it’s the quickest and arguably the most satisfying of them all.
Players choose from a range of Bloodlines (or classes) defined by traditional archetypes: Melee, Tank, Ranged and Healer. Unlike other games which stick staunchly to these pre-defined moulds, various Bloodlines do tend to blur the lines, with some having a blend of healing skills or ranged attacks despite being considered primarily one archetype or another. It certainly makes for more original class designs.
The Skills to Pay the Bills
Unlike traditional Player vs. Player elements people may have been exposed to (Guild Wars/League of Legends) BLC is entirely skill-based, with all skills revolving entirely around your ability to aim your attacks at your opponent or teammates. There are no critical hits that plague games such as Team Fortress 2 (who doesn’t hate a random rocket gib?) and no random damage. These simple concepts keep the game clear and no doubt aid in Stunlocks Studios’ attempt to balance an array of Bloodlines that all vary greatly in play style (though I’ll talk more about balance a little later).
If you have any exposure to competitive arena games or massively multiplayer games, you’ll undoubtedly be right at home with BLCs approach and appearance: scrolling combat text, visceral graphics indicating skill effects on players and a limited list of skills with global cooldowns restricting their use are all present and correct. What new players may find confusing is the abundance of information and the general speed of the game. Bloodline is very fast and you can die in seconds (and you will die lots). But Stunlock Studios should be praised for how they have tried to streamline the interface and the amount of information that the game throws at you.
The game screen consists of a minimap in the bottom left, your skills in the bottom centre, your team in the bottom right and each team’s score at the top of the screen. Skills have trimmed descriptions to provide you with the basics of what each skill does whilst holding shift on them exposes you to a much greater amount of information once you have learned the basics. As previously mentioned, visual skill effects also play a large part in identifying your enemy’s status. For example, when you are incapacitated, a purple circle will appear over your head; or if you are blind, others will see white stars (whilst your vision becomes incredibly limited). It’s a very simple method that shouldn’t be under-appreciated and is something many games in the wider genre should pay attention to.
Learning the Ropes
Inevitably, it becomes a case of practice and patience as you learn these nuances and get to grips with the speed of combat and the role your bloodline plays. Having recently implemented a starter quest alongside the tutorial, Stunlock Studios are clearly attempting to make the play experience all the more appealing for new starters. If there was one thing I would recommend to them it is that they should expand the tutorial to cover all class types (a tutorial specific to Melee, Tank, Ranged and Healer, not just the Igniter) but also cover the very basics of the subgenre: tell people what scrolling combat text is or what spell effects are. They shouldn’t just assume people know.
Choosing a Bloodline is a crucial moment, but learning the ins and outs of the different classes can take some time.
As for the starter quest, it does a great job of showing you the basics of the game and the reward of providing you with a free Bloodline (from a limited list) is a good start. What concerns me is that, of the 22 Bloodlines (if you have just downloaded the game), there are very limited opportunities for trying them all and deciding which one it is you actually like. Although Bloodlines become temporarily available on a rotation, it could potentially be weeks until you find one you really love, by which point a new player may have become disheartened.
I would propose two things:
- Implement a practice mode. This grants you access to all Bloodlines and places you in an arena that has a stationary combat dummy, which allows you to try all the skills against it.
- Allow new players, up to level 5, to play all Bloodlines with no restrictions against other players in all game modes. This should provide new players enough time to find their favourite.
This is where the free-to-play model comes in. Due to the highly skilled nature of the game and the nuances of each class, the game is rewarding by playing a single Bloodline as your skill with said Bloodline significantly increases.
As you play the game, you earn Bloodcoins, which can be exchanged for outfits, weapons and Bloodlines, with the latter costing you around 20,000 Bloodcoins or roughly 600 Funcom Points. In a few hours you can earn several thousand Bloodcoins, allowing you several days to eventually unlock a Bloodline of your choice without paying a single penny, or for around £4 you can unlock the Bloodline instantly by purchasing Funcom Points. For several weeks, as I dipped in and out of the game, I only purchased one Bloodline with Funcom points (Seeker) as I didn’t want to buy the full game or spend several days earning it through Bloodcoins.
I see this as an entirely fair trade-off and, if anything, Stunlock Studios are incredibly generous with Bloodcoins and how quickly they are earned. I must also add that the outfits and weapons they allow you to purchase are purely visual and have no statistical advantage. They also look bloody good. If I was to recommend anything it would be to lower the price of all weapons and outfits (300 Funcom Points should do it) to really tap into the impulse purchase made so famous by Team Fortress 2, whilst also ensuring that Male or Female alternative outfits actually come with the appropriate voice rather than the transgender confusion the game currently has.
Balancing the Scales
In terms of game balance and having only invested 85 hours into the game, this is a very difficult subject to analyse and discuss. I’ve years of experience under my belt in this genre and within competitive MMOGs, and not once have I ever encountered one where the community feels there aren’t any issues. ‘Balance’ is incredibly subjective and there are numerous variables that affect it. Players in Bloodline have to consider:
- Your personal skill with X Bloodline
- Your opponent’s skill with X Bloodline
- Your team’s composition
- Your teammates’ skills with their Bloodlines
- The map and layout
What I find surprising is that Stunlock Studios have further complicated matters by implementing Traits and Medallions. This single addition to the game undermines the entire purpose of what they strived for: a balanced, competitive PvP arena-based game with constants and few variables that was entirely skill-based.
What Traits and Medallions do is allow players to customise their Bloodline by improving certain characteristics (damage, run speed, energy gain etc.). Whilst the pure statistical bonuses of Traits and Medallions are minimal, there is a fundamental question: why implement them in the first place if the bonuses are minimal?
As you level up (the highest level is 25) you unlock Traits which allow you to spend points in certain key areas of your Bloodline, but there are also certain Traits which give you a blanket improvement (such as a 20% damage reduction when your health is below 20%, or Traits which reduce the cooldown of your extra abilities by 15%). These are undoubtedly advantageous and serve to reward those who are higher level than others. Couple this with Medallions (you can choose 4, 3 of which you can add Gems to, with gems also increasing base statistics) and you have a recipe for a balance nightmare.
That isn’t to say new players can’t beat those who are highly experienced and Traited and Meadallioned up to the eyeballs, but I don’t see it as particularly fair. If Stunlock Studios are serious about sticking to their founding principles, they really need to rethink this addition: it’s just so ill conceived.
Removing player levels (they are fundamentally pointless), making Traits available to everyone from level 1 and making Medallions and Gems free would go some way in fixing their errors. Implementing a Bloodcoin requirement to purchase Gems that socket into Medallions is also nothing more than a time sink that actually stifles experimentation. Alternatively, just remove the entire concept completely if Stunlock are unwilling to make those changes, and I’m sure the player base would rejoice.
Returning back to balance in the grand scheme of things (and again after having only played the game 80 hours and being only grade 10), the game feels quite tight. There were some minor irritations, but most of those have already been patched up by Stunlock Studios or were down to my own lack of understanding on how to combat a specific Bloodline. Stunlock Studios appear relatively reactive to squashing any balance concerns and aren’t scared to remove skills entirely if they aren’t working out. What they are in danger of, though, is adding too many Bloodlines which, when combined with Traits and Medallions, could end very badly.
The Final Verdict
With the launch on Steam bringing new players into the game and a greater amount of publicity, combined with the recent launch of the Metal Warden Bloodline, there has never been a better time to jump into Bloodline Champions. It’s free, you won’t need to spend a penny if you are willing to wait a short amount of time to unlock Bloodlines and it is incredibly polished. It is without doubt the second best free to play game on the market.