Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes detailed

PAX Prime 2011: BioWare Mythic opens up on what players can expect from free PVP-focused online game; Warhammer Online "maybe" going free-to-play.

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Who was there: Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes development head Carrie Gouskos took to the PAX Prime 2011 stage alongside creative director Paul Barnett, producer James Casey, and Web developer Ken Holley, as well as senior designers Nate Levy and Amber Turner.

Wrath of Heroes is entering closed beta
Wrath of Heroes is entering closed beta "very, very soon."

What they talked about: This fall, BioWare Mythic will launch Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes, a free-to-play variant of the scenario combat found in the studio's massively multiplayer online role-playing game. The Wrath of Heroes team was on hand at this year's PAX Prime to deliver more information on the upcoming game.

The panel began with a trailer for Wrath of Heroes (embedded below), which primarily showed off the game's illustrated art style and chaotic combat. The trailer also emphasized the team's mantra of "Fast, fierce, fun." When the trailer ended, the team noted that this game is intended to provide an experience separate from Warhammer Online, in that it won't have that game's realm-versus-realm competitive gameplay.

Instead, Wrath of Heroes offers scenario-based combat built on three teams of six players each, where rounds last 15 minutes and players can change their heroes on the fly. It also emphasizes leaderboards, unique heroes, and a small download client (under 1GB).

The team also briefly addressed Wrath of Heroes' free-to-play nature, which is to say, how they plan to make money off of the game. Namely, there will be a roster of playable heroes that rotate in and out. However, players can purchase permanent access to the character that they prefer to play as with real-world money.

Moving on to Wrath of Heroes' particulars, the team began with how they go about creating heroes. This process can be divided into two questions: What is needed and what would be fun?

To the first question, they gave the example of Korith Deathbringer. The character operates as a ranged damage dealer that specializes in single-target sniper abilities. In early play-testing, they found that Korith was vastly overpowered, so they introduced the dark elf Korelei. Her specialty is close-range, fast combat, with armor-piercing abilities and high damage avoidance, and she effectively countered Korith.

Less was said about characters introduced to be fun. However, the team did mention a troll and a dryad hero, with the first being able to rain vomit and the second having changing foliage.

On to art, the team said that the base of any hero's appearance is its character model. They first start with what a character looks like naked, and then they layer on the armor and weapons. Barnett noted that his core creative direction to his team has been, "Let's get to the cool s*** really quick." As such, the focus has been on cutting out any equipment that doesn't have a vivid, interesting look and style.

Abilities are designed in tandem with the hero's look. The team decided to go with only five abilities so as to get away from the MMORPG way of incremental upgrades to skills. Instead, they are hoping to give the game a deathmatch feel akin to something from the first-person shooter genre, where everyone has the same weapons and it comes down to player skill to determine the victor.

Because Wrath of Heroes is a Warhammer property, heroes will have a backstory. The BioWare Mythic team didn't delve too deeply into this area, saying only that character development is important in Wrath of Heroes and that each one will have voice-over work.

Once the heroes' art and abilities have taken on more definition, the team moves to play-testing and iteration. Calling this an on-going process, they said that there is a cycle of play-testing, taking feedback, iterating, and then play-testing more. This method occasionally leads to cuts, with the team saying that Warhammer Online's Chosen class was introduced into the game but ultimately cut, for now, due to balancing issues.

At this point, Gouskos confirmed that Wrath of Heroes will enter a closed beta phase "very, very soon." No additional details were offered, but players interested in participating can sign up through the game's official website.

The team then addressed the approval process it must go through with intellectual-property holder Games Workshop. Largely, GW is hands-off, as long as the game hits the requisite dark, gritty tone that the franchise is known for. However, it has thus far requested some changes.

For example, an Egyptian priest character was initially submitted with the name "Yu'Mahd," playing off the trite forum retort "you mad." GW rejected this name but did approve its substitute, Amenadresh (which phonetically said roughly comes to "a man in a dress").

The BioWare Mythic team then provided an overview of the first few characters that are being tested. Bax Dreadtoof is an Ork that specializes in heavy armor and close-quarters melee combat. The more he fights, the bigger he gets, and he's loosely modeled on the Incredible Hulk. Felica the Flamekissed fills the bright wizard role, specializing in potent ranged magic and area-of-effect damage spells.

Glowgob da Green is a goblin healer that specializes in area-of-effect restoration. The team noted that Glowgob is a great example of how some characters are designed to be button-mashy, while others are complicated and require skill. Glowgob falls into the latter group.

The aforementioned dark elf assassin Korelei and archer Korith Deathbringer are also currently in the beta, as is Nethys the Crimson. Nethys is a vampire class that focuses on close-range magic and spells that siphon life from her target to restore her own power. Lastly, they showed Thagison the Disgraced, a pugnacious dwarven fighter that is highly resistant to magic and is extremely fast.

BioWare Mythic currently has about 25 heroes in varying stages of development. As voted on by those assembled at the PAX Prime 2011 panel, a ratlike Skaven hero will be the next that is fleshed out.

As an interesting tidbit that arose during the Q&A portion of the panel, the team was asked whether Warhammer Online will transition to a free-to-play model of its own. To this question, Gouskos answered with a noncommittal "maybe."

Quote: "What do you do? Blow s*** up. How do you do it? Fireballs. What else do you do? Nothing. There's a purity to it."--Paul Barnett, describing the bright wizard class.

Takeaway: Wrath of Heroes won't just be a spin-off of Warhammer Online's scenario combat. Instead, BioWare Mythic is creating a drop-in, drop-out experience that emphasizes a level playing field, where players differentiate themselves on the basis of skill. And it doesn't look like the free-to-play business model will alter the balance of this effort.

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