Paragon sees Epic Games branching out into new territory. As the North Carolina-based developer waves goodbye to the triple-A trappings of the Gears of War franchise, it has dipped its toes into free-to-play (F2P) online gaming, a business move that has seen companies such as Blizzard and Valve achieve significant success – both commercial and critical – in recent years.
A cross-play title for PS4 and PC, Paragon is the most high profile of Epic's current F2P gambits, alongside Fortnite and the new Unreal Tournament, and it has a lot to recommend it from the time I have played in early access. It's a gorgeous game, particularly on PC – if there's anyone who can get good results from Unreal Engine 4 it's the company who created it – but the PS4 version stands up admirably too, running at a stable 60fps (achieved by sacrificing the resolution to 900p).
Paragon is unabashedly a MOBA, a multiplayer online battle arena game, and comes with all the trimmings associated with the genre. A five-on-five, team-based arena battler, gamers familiar with the style, from titles like League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm, will get the gist of things straight away, but there can be a lot here to learn for new players, particularly the exhaustive terminology. You've got your top, mid and bot lanes, minions, jungle, the Roshan/Baron-style boss of said jungle (called the Prime Guardian here), towers, inhibitors (essentially Paragon's barracks), wards, last hitting, et al.
Where it distinguishes itself is in its use of a deck-building metagame, designed as a more beginner-friendly replacement to the usual MOBA "shop", allowing players to increase their hero's abilities with stat-boosting cards, as well as its third-person presentation (a la SMITE and the upcoming Gigantic). The primary motivation for this approach, according to creative director Steve Superville, stems from Epic's background in action games.
"When we started exploring the idea of making a MOBA, one of the innovations we believed Epic could bring was an improved action feel," he explains. "We recognized early on that the cinematic trailers of other games offer the player a powerful experience that is vastly different from the gameplay, so we aim to have Paragon fulfil on that promise."
Getting into a MOBA can be something of a commitment. It's a crowded genre with an ever-increasing number of options, and the inherent complexities of the mechanics, and a reputation for hostile players, can be daunting for beginners.
Gameplay footage from the early access preview of 'Paragon', captured by the author
Market leaders such as Valve's DOTA 2 and Riot's League of Legends have gained fierce reputations in this regard, though Blizzard took a good stab at simplifying the format with Heroes of the Storm, and has arguably nailed it with the recent Overwatch, which, while not a MOBA, takes inspiration from the genre with its roster of colourful heroes, each of whom have different team roles and abilities.
Paragon lacks the clean, cartoon lines and bright colours of such competition, however. The art style here is unabashedly Epic, all deep blacks and mottled musculature. Its heroes have a touch of Todd McFarlane about them, a cavalcade of hulking grotesques, mechanical monstrosities and buff bodies; it would be easy enough to imagine them adorning the shelves of a comic book shop as collectors' action figures. Crucially, they all possess distinctive silhouettes and gaits that help to keep the game's battles relatively clutter free. At this time of writing, there are 17 to choose from, and Epic promises regular free updates to the hero roster every few weeks.
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Characters are split into six main classes that will be familiar to MOBA fans. Tank characters with Saturday morning cartoon names such as Steel, Sevarog, Grux and Rampage are great damage sponges, and can hold the line with aplomb, while rangers like Murdock, GRIM.exe, Sparrow and Twinblast do excellent ranged damage, picking off rival heroes from afar with arrows and lasers and the like.
Casters and supports cover a wide variety of heroes; some, like Howitzer, Gideon, and Iggy & Scorch, are great at gaining ground in the lanes by quickly destroying minions with their area-of-effect abilities. Others, such as Muriel and Dekker, are great for buffing and healing teammates, or nerfing the competition. These four classes are recommended to beginners in order to get used to laning mechanics.
For more advanced players, the other two classes – assassin and fighter – can provide additional challenge. At the moment, these two classes only have one hero each to represent them. The assassin Kallari is a "ganker" who can sneak up on isolated opponents to deliver major damage, while the fighter Feng Mao is an expert melee damage dealer.
Others provide a mix of two classes – the rhino-like Grux and amphibian-gorilla hybrid Rampage, for example, are equally capable as melee fighters and tanks, though not quite as capable at either role as pure melee fighters and tanks. Some characters also make for effective junglers, fighting NPC enemies under the cover of verdant brush in order to level up for end game, gank unsuspecting players and buff teammates through the use of harvesters.
Having been playing the early access beta for the last couple of months, Epic's updates and interaction with the fan community has been impressive; they seem to have a lot of faith in Paragon, and updates have remained consistent throughout.
The input of new heroes every few weeks has also kept things fresh, and the pace of these additions puts the likes of Capcom to shame with the delays seen in Street Fighter V. The biggest major change I've noticed, however, is an increase in the speed of play, which was implemented back in April due to player request. This 12.5 percent speed boost to the heroes' movement (as well as an increase in strafing speed) may seem small, but it has made the game more dynamic, in keeping with Epic's desire for a more action-led MOBA experience.
We want to foster a competitive and welcoming environment for our community, and we're already taking steps to check toxic behaviour." – Steve Superville, Epic Games
"We wanted to get actionable feedback from players and actually listen to them," Steve explains. "We've seen everything from movement speed changes, to hero balance changes, to UI clarity, and more. We're not afraid to make sweeping changes, either, based on feedback; that's both exciting for us and the players."
Cross-play integration between PS4 and PC players – an unusual feature for its genre – is another selling point, though its implementation raises certain concerns given the toxicity some see as inherent to the MOBA genre.
"We want to foster a competitive and welcoming environment for our community, and we're already taking steps to check toxic behaviour," says Steve. "We have a fairly low tolerance when it comes to that. When you look at our forums and Reddit, we're already seeing players being incredibly supportive of one another, which is encouraging."
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In fairness, Paragon is not a twitch shooter and so playing with a pad is perfectly viable, and the PS4 version also offers keyboard and mouse support for parity. It can make voice communication a little more complicated, and there are some signs that the community is split on the issue – I have already seen a fair few LFG (looking for group) threads on the forums that request PC or console players only – but the game is constantly evolving, so players will have the chance to adapt over time. Cross-play has seen excellent integration in other genres such as fighting games (Street Fighter V) and MMOs (Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn), so it will be interesting to see if the Paragon community can adapt in a similar fashion.
It's early days for Paragon, but it shows promise. Whether the game can survive the crowded MOBA market once it releases properly later this summer, or even become a future eSports fixture, is for time to decide, but Steve remains hopeful.
"When the game is in a competition-ready state, the community will tell us. It's already happening in the early stages – we're seeing community competitions being held, and it's been really fun to watch. We're listening to what they need to make the competitions better, and we're making good progress. But we do have a long way to go, and we're committed to getting there. Our goal is that we treat competitive gamers the same, no matter their platform of choice – no second class citizens."
Paragon is now available in the US, Canada and Latin America in an "Essentials Edition". A free-to-play full version is due in late summer, following the paid early access release. Find more information at the game's official website.
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