Free-to-play team shooter Crucible's character design and PvE elements reward being a good teammate, not just good at aiming.
Update: Crucible launches on Steam today, giving you an opportunity to play Amazon Game Studios' first title. To get primed to drop, check out our rundown of all the details we have about Crucible and everything you need to know about Crucible before you play.
You'd be forgiven if the name "Crucible" doesn't ring any bells. The team-based shooter was among the three PC games Amazon Game Studios revealed at TwitchCon four years ago--and there's been barely a rumbling about it since. Even then, the game's description was a pretty vague mix of multiplayer shooter ideas and battle royale features.
Though nobody's heard much about Crucible for the last four years, Amazon's Seattle-based development studio Relentless has been hard at work on the shooter in all that time. And whatever Crucible started out as, it has changed significantly. Though it retains some battle royale elements, most of it is more an objective-focused hero shooter. Crucible combines a number of multiplayer shooter ideas to try to push toward something a little different, with an emphasis on teamwork and character combinations without the need for building teams based on specific roles. Earlier this spring, GameSpot got a chance to spend some time playing Crucible at Relentless Studios, where we tried out each of its three game modes and most of the 10 characters that will be available at launch.
The closest description of what Crucible feels like is a third-person version of Overwatch meeting Evolve, the now-defunct four-on-one monster hunting game from publisher 2K. Crucible's modes are about capturing objectives, making smart use of resources found on the map, and managing environmental threats, as much as about fighting the other teams who show up. Even the mode that's most similar to battle royale games offers some welcome twists on the formula. Since all the heroes have their own weapons and abilities, you're always armed and ready to go when you drop into a match.
The big focus of Relentless's approach in Crucible is in how it approaches player characters and building teams. Each character encourages a specific kind of play and sports their own set of special abilities on cooldown timers, similar to what's seen in characters in games like Overwatch and Apex Legends. The primary difference from those games is in what characters bring to their teams, and how those teams are built.
As creative director Eric Flannum explained, the idea with the design of Crucible's characters was to move away from MMO-like player roles such as tank, damage-dealing, and support. Instead, developers wanted characters to be more flexible in their roles and abilities, so that players would never be forced to take on a specific role they might not want to play for the sake of team composition.
"Here it's like, you can play the character you love every single time and it's never the wrong choice," combat lead Jon Peters said. "...[The] healer, tank, dps [role distribution] is about dependencies instead of teamwork."
That translates into groups of characters that aren't just designed for one job. You still have characters who play a particular way--Ajonah, for instance, is a Widowmaker-like sniper character, and Earl is a big alien trucker who carries a huge gun and who can soak up a lot of damage. But their abilities also attempt to break with the conventions of what their roles might normally include. Bugg, a flying robot that builds turrets, is also useful for flying over the battlefield to attack enemies or to heal teammates. Tosca, a fast-moving fighter with a short-range "blink" teleport, can drop gas that can obscure visibility and zip in and out of a fight to hit enemies with a corrosive weapon that deals damage over time. Other characters focus on melee attacks and interrupting other characters at key moments.
Relentless wanted the game to support several different types of "skill expression," Flannum said, where you don't necessarily have to be a headshot master to be a valuable member of a team.
"If you want to learn one character in our game and how to play that character, there's a lot of nuance there for you to learn and for you to latch onto," he said. "If I want to play Bugg and I'm with a group of friends and they all play characters who are not tanky, I don't feel compelled to play a tank character."
In every game mode, you're dealing not only with opposing players, but fighting the hostile planet of Crucible on which the game takes place. The place is special because of a resource called "Essence" that can be harvested both from the ground and from the creatures that live there. Though you have other goals when you play a Crucible match--taking down the other team, capturing objectives, or scoring points--Essence is always central to your strategy.
Accumulating Essence, either by hunting and killing herds of animals around the map or capturing Harvester machines that draw it out of the ground over time, is how you get an edge over your opponents. In each match, Essence levels up your team's characters, with each level making you more lethal in battle and giving you slightly more health. More importantly, though, leveling up unlocks additional perks for your abilities that give them different edges or make them more effective. So while you might be worried about other objectives in any given match, taking time to gather Essence (and to stop other teams from gathering it) is almost always a worthy diversion.
Crucible packs three game modes, each with a different focus and different team sizes. Heart of the Hive is a four-on-four mode that makes best use of most of the game's elements. Both teams run around the map waiting for a giant enemy-spewing Hive to spawn. When it does, it's marked on everyone's screen, with both teams converging on the Hive to try to destroy it. When it's knocked out, the Hive leaves a "heart" behind. Both teams attempt to "capture" the heart by committing a player to standing beside it, holding a button down until a meter is fully charged. The first team to capture three hearts wins, so you spend every match fighting the environment before getting pulled into fast, intense battles with the other team as you try to control the area and survive long enough to make a capture.
Alpha Hunters is more of a battle royale-like mode featuring eight teams of two trying to eliminate each other, with the map slowly constrained over time to force you into fights. The mode still includes the hunt for Essence to try to power yourself up, and includes an additional caveat: if you lose your teammate, you're not necessarily doomed to fight the rest of the match alone. Instead, if you can locate another lone player, you can offer to create a temporary alliance. The system is meant to keep lone players from being completely disadvantaged throughout a match, but the ability to create new teams on the fly leads to some interesting dynamics for character combination, as well. But alliances are only ever temporary, and if your makeshift team should make it to the end of a match, you'll have to fight in order to assure your own victory.
Crucible's last mode, Harvester Command, is probably its most straightforward. Two teams of eight players run around the map capturing Essence harvesters, machines that slowly draw Essence out of the ground for your team. It's essentially a territory control mode, where the more locations your team holds, the more points you earn--the first team to 100 wins. The environmental elements of Crucible are still in place, though, so a team that's struggling to hold territory can potentially go hunting animals to increase their Essence and earn some levels that will help them strike back against the enemy.
It takes a bit to get used to Crucible's nuances, especially since characters all handle so differently from one another, but the game's marriage of PvP and PvE elements comes together quite nicely once you get the hang of it. The distinctiveness between the characters and their abilities offer a lot of variety in play and in developing strategies.
Playing characters such as the assault rifle-carrying Mendoza or Summer, a character outfitted with flamethrowers, provides familiar run-and-gun action. Hopping into a match as Bugg, on the other hand, changes things up completely: your job is more about territory control with turrets and harassing the other team, since you can fly above the battlefield and float in and out of combat easily. Characters like Bugg and Drakal, who wields a big scythe-like weapon and an enemy-snaring chain, give opportunities to find ways to play Crucible that aren't all about twitch reactions and great aim. And with every character, smart, timely use of abilities can be just as clutch as any headshot.
The mixture of PvP and PvE play also helps give Crucible a fresh feeling in comparison to other team shooters. Hunting Essence, capturing harvesters, and controlling other resources that appear on the map that give team bonuses like health regeneration or increased damage are a big part of any match's strategy. You might not always be readying to fight another team, but you always have something to do in Crucible as you plan for your next battle.
The pacing of matches, thanks to the PvP and PvE dynamic, is also something that helps make Crucible interesting to watch--another big focus for Relentless. Flannum said the game is designed to be easy to follow while spectating, with each character's abilities getting deliberate animations, weapons relying on real projectiles so that it's always clear who is shooting at whom, and lulls in matches providing just enough time for teams to regroup for their next fight and for casters to have time to talk about what's happening. Flannum said Relentless has a close relationship with Twitch, since they're both under the Amazon umbrella, and the studio was able to leverage it to help tailor Crucible to be as watchable a game as possible.
The question, of course, is whether all those elements will resonate with players. The barrier to entry is pretty low, though: Crucible is free-to-play, with monetization coming from selling cosmetic items and a seasonal battle pass system. Relentless also said that the game won't include loot boxes, and it sounds like additional heroes can be added to the game over time--as well as additional game modes and more spectator features.
"This is the part of the game that we think is the core and then the plan is to just keep expanding it and to keep adding to those things," Flannum said. "We plan to just keep making the game better and adding more stuff to it as we go along."
Crucible launches on PC on May 20.