Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes – Preview

It’s Tuesday afternoon, the Electronic Arts press conference and the assembled gaming press are furiously hammering away on laptops and iPads, illuminated only by the light from their screens and vying for bandwidth on an overly stretched wireless network. A short but explosive presentation for Need for Speed: The Run has just concluded and it’s just being announced that Dr. Ray Muzyka is about to take the stage, meaning that details surrounding Mass Effect 3 are, hopefully, just seconds away.  But where, amongst the chaos, am I? I’m at the very back of the crowd, down on my knees and praying to the gods of WiFi that I can finally stop trying to live Tweet about the conference from my iPhone and start to make use of the disconnected laptop that’s resting on my folded N7 jacket. The applause has died down, Muzyka has thanked the crowd for his welcome; surely I’m running out of time?

‘Guten Tag! We have a lot of talented teams at Bioware, making games of all shapes and sizes, spanning the spectrum of platforms and reaching our fans, wherever they live. We’re going to talk to you about four of them today, first off -Dragon Age: Legends….

It’s ok, I still have time. I’m not a big Facebook gamer and, while I welcome the move to Google+ and the game’s expansion to even more players around the world, this wasn’t the announcement I was waiting for. I chance a glance up, and everyone is making the most of the time to prepare for some epic announcement with all eyes down and ears only partway open.

…Out in Virginia, the Bioware Mythic team are also exploring new gaming platforms with our long time partners, Games Workshop. Today we’re pleased to announce Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes, a new player vs player, Play4Free game for the PC.

I sit up. My eyes are forward and I’m listening. The reveal trailer rolls and I’m transfixed. A montage of a battle I don’t understand, from a fantasy rule set I’m not familiar with and all drawn from a game I never did get around to playing. My interest is officially piqued though, with what I’m seeing being played out on stage looking fondly familiar, like the very best parts of my days spent PvPing in Warcraft, but without the tiring and drawn out score system, offering you a choice of pre-designed Heroes that you’re able to switch through on the fly, rather than forcing you to invest time diligently creating your own. Muzyka’s moving on, I however am not.

In the weeks preceding my adventure to Gamescom, I moved house, one of life’s great stresses where things disappear into boxes, never to be seen or heard from ever again. With all of the buzz surrounding Battlefield 3 and the chance to go hands-on with it drawing ever closer, I’d been keen to spend what little free time I had putting in some flight time on its earlier incarnations, so that when that 64 player moment hit, I’d look really cool. Sadly, I could only find my CD and not the manual so I didn’t get the chance to relive the dream without my sacred serial numbers. What I was able to do however, was download the recently launched Battlefield Play4Free.

The Play4Free approach to gaming has always been a turn off for me as, for some reason, I equate the act of spending money with that of the right to being allowed to actually enjoy a game. Play4Free has always suggested to me that if I’m not actually paying out any money, then I really shouldn’t look forward to anything and that I also shouldn’t expect to get anything back out of it all the same. But this is Dr. Ray Muzyka, the CEO of one of the most successful game development studios on the planet, standing on stage in front of hundreds of industry professionals and streaming live to millions around the world, telling me that I need to reconsider that stance. That week spent with Battlefield Play4Free was a real eye opener. This was every bit as good as Battlefield 2 was, with the addition of a levelling system that rewarded players who sank some time into it, but never stopped anyone who was just turning up once a week from competing at the same levels as everyone else. The visuals were solid, the latency was smooth and the gameplay tweaks they’d made, learned across the many years in which the PC FPS has changed since the original’s launch, were welcome. The free to play game had changed and I was ready to change with it.

Rising early one morning I headed to the Koelnmesse with the full intention of making sure I beat the rush, arriving in the EA Business Lounge to find bleary eyed developers tightly grasping their N7 Mugs of half drank coffee, making the most of the last free time they were going to get before the half hour cycle of presentation after presentation began. I circled the lounge and entered the ‘Behind Closed Doors’ area, walking past the numerous PR girls, each flashing me a smile and asking if I wanted to be first in with Battlefield, SSX, and Need for Speed. No, no thank you and maybe later, I knew where I wanted to be and I wasn’t going to be swayed by anything else.

Sticking my head around the door of the shared room for Burnout CRASH, Dragon Age: Legends, Need for Speed: World and Wrath of Heroes told me everything I needed to know about the game straight away. Sat down and happily playing their own game before the day had barely started was Carrie Gouskos, Producer at Bioware Mythic and Graham Bennett, Lead Designer on Wrath of Heroes. I watched for a few minutes as they traded instructions, laughed as they scraped through a tough fight and panicked as their health bars disappeared into the ether. You know that you’re onto something fun when those who spend every second of their days constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing a new title are still able to start their day with a smile on their faces, without coffee but with Warhammer.

Having surprised them that I was keen to go hands-on so early in the morning, they quickly dropped out of the game and started to reset so that I could get the whole spiel, seating me between them both while we swapped notes on our favourite keyboards, mice and headsets that we’d seen at each of the booths around the show, and devising plans to steal them for our own evil purposes. While Graham got things ready, Carrie jumped right in to tell me all about the game.

So we announced on Tuesday that we’re making a 6v6v6 companion to Warhammer Online. We looked at Warhammer Online and we said this game is pretty hardcore, pretty complex and the people that play it spend a lot of time Min/Maxing gear, knowing which ability sequences are the best, and that takes a lot of time and a lot of investment. One of the main reasons that people have told us that they left is that even though they like the scenarios and the Realm vs. Realm combat, they just don’t have time and don’t have the money. So we wanted to find a way to get to those people and we thought part of it is that they don’t want to put a whole lot of investment into it, part of it is that they don’t really want to spend a lot of time levelling a character or Min/Maxing, reading on ElitistJerks how to get the best DPS ratio per…la-de-da-da, right?! So, the thought behind this has been to take the core elements of Warhammer Online that people really like, the scenario gameplay and make it into a standalone product, completely free, keeping it small (it’s under a gig right now) and focus on just giving the player cool, iconic Warhammer Heroes to play with…

This is the one for me. I used to be that guy, I used to spend my time ‘Theory Crafting’ as it was known in World of Warcraft, punching numbers into damage calculators, arguing until I was virtually blue in my virtual face about how assigning my talents across Survival and into Beat Mastery provided a better DPS than if I had done it the other way. I lived for the good fight, the repeated call to arms for the battlegrounds with the same group of players, getting used to our play styles and compensating for each others’ weaknesses. But then I ran out of steam, I got left behind and I never again had the same energy to catch up. Life invariably gets in the way of these things and, even though things got better for me personally, I still always felt like I was missing out on that part of my MMO life.

With everything now all set on the screens in front of me, Carrie reaches over, grabs the mouse and starts to show off just how the game works, explaining how they’re here showing off seven characters, six of which will be instantly familiar to those who play Warhammer Online, (the Black Orc, Bright Wizard etc.) and with one specially created Hero that has never been seen before, Nethys the Vampire. Each of these Heroes, condensed representations of the classes available in Warhammer Online, have five iconic abilities which are available to everyone, with every player who picks to play as any of the Heroes, each gaining access to that very same skill set and taking their place on the same level battlefield.

Where we bring it back around though is when you’re playing as the individual Heroes in game, you’re levelling a Meta-Character and that’s where you want to be thinking about your account level so that you can use these Heroes to contribute towards that. The Meta aspect of play gives you access to things like tactics (our version of buffs) which you can earn as well as being able to purchase, tactics load outs which you can take into the game with you that you can swap out on the fly, that all give you an edge, which is really the major benefit to levelling. All of our Heroes have alternate skins which will be available for purchase, but they won’t be created so that players will want them because they have armour that have different values, it’ll be that they want them just because it looks cool.

I feel good right about now. It’s always a concern with a free to play model that the player won’t be able to get involved unless they’re willing to open up their wallets, but the approach to Wrath of Heroes seems to be going against that, wanting to reward the player who has the time to invest but not the money, while still making the game accessible for those who don’t have the time but are willing to drop some cash, and still managing to do all of that without severely impacting the Casual Core who sit quietly in-between. Better still, during a separate interview with Carrie earlier in the week, she promised that those who are subscribers in WH:O can look forward to being treated like VIP’s in Wrath of Hero, helping to bridge the gap between the two and maybe even enticing Wrath’s following into joining the full fledged experience.

…Oooh this is cool but you know what? Actually, I want more, I want something more complex, richer, deeper and if they’re willing to become a subscriber then great, we can provide all that access to Warhammer Online, plus whatever else we can then put in for the existing subscribers for use in Wrath on top of all that. We haven’t finalised that yet, so we don’t know what it is, but we want to do them right because they’ve been loyal to us for so long and we really, really value those guys. I’ve been working on Warhammer Online for five years now and it’s this huge part of my life, so it’s very important to me to serve that community and to make sure that they’re happy.

Back to the demo and it’s time to start talking gameplay, looking at what drives this game and finding out if this really is worth all of the wonder that’s still floating around my chest. First up is the ability to swap your Hero out when you die, allowing you to take a good long look at the makeup of your squad and think ‘Did we bring enough healers? Are we doing enough damage?’ so that you can return to the fight in a different class, without having to worry that you haven’t played enough as that particular Hero and can add that straight into the mix. It also adds in a rock, paper, scissors approach to gameplay that constantly refreshes the experience, with you bringing in one Hero that can readily deal with one threat, only for that player to utilise that very same mentality against you and come back with an even more dangerous trump.

We also have three teams, something which we learned from working on Dark Age of Camelot and something which we thought would bring an element to the game of advanced team strategy with three teams helping to balance each other out where you don’t ever have that situation where just one team is dominating because two teams can work together to take that one team down. My personal favourite is when you’re just coming up into an area and you can see those two teams fighting, so you just hang back for a second, let those guys take each other out and then we’re going to just storm in and roll through!

I’ve been watching Carrie’s hand twitch towards her mouse this entire time, with all of the passion from this presentation of the game just calling her back to the scenario, and even though there’s plenty more to talk about, she knows that best way to explain how this all plays out is to do it as we play, directing me towards the big red button at the top of my screen labelled ‘Play Now’ that I was somehow struggling to find and explaining that we should, hopefully, all be placed on the same team. Having caught glimpses of the chat window at the base of the screen during the presentation so far, I’ve seen a continuous stream of chat scrolling down, and with there only being three PCs in the room, I turn to ask Graham who it is we’re playing against. Its three a.m in Virginia but the team at Bioware Mythic have stayed up through the night, just as keen to be a part of the first presentations of the game as Carrie and Graham are, four thousand miles away in Cologne.

They’re all a little loopy! They really do get loopy at the end of the day! You’re actually going to be the first match too so they’re not going to be all that co-ordinated!

The loading screen is telling me I’m headed to Mourkain Temple, a scenario that featured in Warhammer Online but which has been re-designed to better suit Wrath of Heroes’ new approach. There are three flags around the outside, available to be captured by each of the three teams at any point, but which exist as non-scoring objectives, specifically designed to prevent the scenario where everybody just runs around swapping flags but never actually fighting. What the flags do provide are score modifiers, giving you more points per kill and allowing you access to the Artefact which, in this scenario, is the Temple in the centre of the map. If we were to lose our flags around the outside, we lose the ability to score with the Artefact, the one area in the map that is designed to be the absolute focus of combat and what promises to be the place where all of the action is.

So let’s jump in now, it plays like an MMORPG, tap targeting, F is nearest target, you can hit the one through five keys or click on the abilities with your mouse depending on which sort of player you are, you can look around with left mouse like you do with an MMO and…..no! You can’t /dance!

I was listening, honestly. As soon as Carrie had started delivering these instructions, I had already cycled through all of my usual button presses, finding out how tailored this was to the average MMO gamer and completely making myself at home by attempting some /dancing without even thinking if it would be a feature in the game at this stage. Carrie continued with her tutorial, explaining how the game has been designed to make things as comfortable as possible for the player, with features like map-pinging allowing you to simply click on a location in the game’s mini-map and broadcast that position automatically in chat to your teammates. Having already demonstrated how they’re making the most of as many good ideas, adapted to work from all ranges of genres within gaming, Carrie then directed me to hit the X and C keys, bringing up a list of Counter-Strike styled quick radio commands that intuitively interpret your key strokes to produce readable announcements for your team mates, directly into the chat window.

We’ve already captured our first flag and we’ve headed for the Artefact. We’re arriving later than the other two teams though, as Carrie has been making sure I was comfortable with the controls, explaining how the abilities are arranged in order of cool down length, with number one as your spam button and five serving as your ‘Oh Shit!’ button. I hung back to watch the fight, purely as a curious spectator and I wasn’t thinking about it tactically, despite being given this as a very example of how a three team system can lead to moments like this. Just as the dust was beginning to settle, we stormed in, wiping out the rest of the guys in no time at all and waited for the imminent onslaught of both respawning teams as they descended upon us from their separate corners of the map. Yeah, we didn’t stand a chance. Vengeance was swift and we were all brutally cut down, every one of us laughing as we struggled to hold on and feeling far better about having died than you’d ever expect a game could evoke when you’ve just been royally ganked.

Making the most of being dead, I switched Heroes from Nethys to Korith Deathbringer, a ranged class that I would usually opt for, and jumped right back into the fight. Instead of heading straight back in for the Artefact, however, I took the time to see who was currently in control and headed for their flag, curious to see just how easy it would be to turn this battle on its head. I neutralised the flag and turned it in our favour, just as those who had respawned from the ongoing battle in the Temple came barrelling down the hill toward me. I ran for it and headed back toward the Temple to meet up with Carrie, expecting to get no further than a dozen steps.  Spinning my camera back around, I saw the other team stop at their flag, waiting for it to return to their possession before chasing me down, only delaying the inevitable perhaps, but highlighting how the smallest use of strategy could be vital to turning a game in an instant. As I ran back up to help secure the Artefact, I suddenly remembered that I’m here to ask questions and so we returned to discussion about what other features Bioware Mythic are looking to introduce before launch.

We are looking at voice chat for the game, we’re not sure if we’ll get it in but it’s something we felt that might be needed when we realised just how fast the game played, that communication really is key. Right now, we have a team that’s communicating really well but that’s still all text so we need to consider voice for sure. All of the radio commands all have voiced dialogue, its a little quiet, but in the meantime that’s what we have and no! No /dance! [Laughing] To be fair, I think all of our emotes are still in from Warhammer Online but if you type them it’ll just say ‘You Refuse to Dance’. We haven’t really finished what we’re doing yet with the emotes yet have we Graham? Maybe we’ll get Taunt in there? Everyone likes Tea-bagging right?! Oh and I just want to point out, we are dominating this match!

I look at the scores and she’s not kidding. I’ve been keeping an eye on the chat log since I sat down, expecting at some point to see a message that said ‘He’s playing on System2, take it easy on him so that he enjoys it and wants to tell people about it!’, but there never was. We were all just in this together, trying to beat the crap out of each other and go for glory, no matter the cost. Winning was a bonus when, in truth, it really didn’t matter. I was having a blast and it really was a struggle to remember that I was actually here working, that I’d only had a few hours sleep or that I had a ton of other things to do in the day ahead of me. I was now running with my fourth Hero, a Black Orc named Bax who specialised in the old fashioned approach to combat of smashing things in the face really, really hard. There were seven Heroes to choose from in the demo I was playing, though having asked if this was the final line-up or the closest approximation to one, Carrie informed me thusly:

I think we’re actually going to launch with a couple fewer. We’ve made a lot and we’ve been going through this process of just narrowing, narrowing, narrowing, trying to find the best characters. The nice thing about all this is that we have such a huge selection to work from, there are twenty four playable careers in Warhammer Online and because we get to decide what characters are playable, we can make lots and lots of Heroes and we plan to do that. It’s probably what’s at the core of what we’ll end up monetising too, I mean you can have some of the Heroes for free but if you want a big Toolbox to work with then you might want to buy them.

It’s truly bewildering. If you tell me that I don’t have to spend any money to have a good time and then show me it working in practice, I become a very happy man indeed. Once I’m in that state, if you tell me I can have a better time by dropping a little money here and there, that’s when things get dangerous. This may well be the oddest analogy I ever make concerning video games, but think of it like a strip club. I won’t labour that point, I’ll just move on to the part where I asked the real technical stuff and hope that no-one ever quotes me on that.

It’s the same engine as Warhammer Online, we’ve obviously made some big visual changes but it is the same engine with all of the same assets. On the net-code side of things, we’ve been working on that for a very, very long time and the benefit for that is that it’s only eighteen players, so all the work we did to make sure you could have as many people as possible fighting in open Realm vs. Realm combat in WH:O, now governs these scenarios. The other thing is that we did make some changes to the net code as there’s no main or central server here, you won’t be connecting to the server ‘Badlands’ in order to play with your friends, it’s just the lobby, you can find your friends from there, group up, go play and it’ll put you all in a team together. We also provide all of the hosting for each individual game too, no local games so all the benefits of a first person shooter approach to hosting but without having to make a clan pay for hosting a server. I haven’t actually been asked that one yet! I’m going to use that one!

So what do you think?

What do I think? I think I’m in love. I need this kind of game in my life, something I can hit up for twenty minutes, play through a match to put a smile on my face once a day, or something I can arrange to get some friends together for and hammer away at for a few hours. It’s quick, it’s streamlined, it’s a constantly refreshing experience, it’s bold, it’s different and it’s fun. I am literally surrounded by tens of millions of pounds worth of massive, huge AAA titles, all of which I’m excited for, but none of which I’m amazed by. Wrath of Heroes is just about the most intelligent approach to the Play4Free model I’ve ever seen, putting the player’s enjoyment first and then giving you the option to take that further if you find yourself wanting to.

Something that was often commented on during my week with Electronic Arts UK is that when it comes to an EA product, the team creating game X have access to this incredible network that instantly puts them within arm’s reach of games Y and Z, games which may not be in the same genre, but which still make good use of features that are cross-compatible, should the team working on game X decide that they also have a use for it. Bioware Mythic already have this incredible wealth of resources available to them from Warhammer Online, a deep history with successful PvP titles in Dark Age of Camelot, and Games Workshop ready and waiting on the other end of the phone to ensure that their content is well represented and authentic to the experience. That they’re extending themselves beyond that, making regular visits to the teams responsible for both Battlefield Play4Free and Battlefield Heroes to find out firsthand what works and doesn’t work in the free to play world is testament to the desire the studio have for making sure that this game can proudly walk its way onto the stage at EA’s press conference like it did that week, and invite the world to look up from their holes in the sand.

I spent an entire week sitting in on presentations, going hands on with the blockbusters and interviewing some of the biggest names in the industry, but none of that could top the experience I got when I sat down to play Wrath of Heroes. When my time at Gamescom came to an end, I sat with my fellow EA Community Writers and we talked about what we were the most impressed by. There was a lot of love in the room for SSX, a great deal of fawning over Mass Effect 3 and plenty of good things to say about Kingdoms of Amalur, with everyone keen to hold each of the titles up as their individual Game of Show.

This was my Game of Show and that surprised people; it even surprised me but it couldn’t be given to a more deserving title. There’s a lot of passion at Bioware Mythic for all things Warhammer and when you have the privilege of sitting down with those who live and breathe the stuff, it really does show. Nine in the morning in Cologne during the week of the world’s biggest games show is early enough, and three a.m in Virginia is even earlier, but the energy that surrounds this entire project really is captivating. I thank Carrie and Graham for taking the time to talk to me, for the gift of my very first Warhammer piece and for putting a spring in my step for the rest of the show. Anyone hoping to join me when the game enters closed Beta can do so by signing up here and I very much hope we’ll meet again, out on the battlefield.

Last five articles by Adam



  1. Mark Mark_S says:

    Hmm as a huge fan of Warhammer Online, I really really hope that this F2P game brings in some subscribers. While its not a game I can see myself playing (I’ve had enough Warhammer pvp to last a life time) I can see how it might bring people over to the cause.

    Warhammer Online was a revolutionary game, introducing some of the best player vs player gameplay i’ve ever seen in an MMO. Sadly population dropped and a game based around having people online to fight became pretty dead dispite their best efforts to fix it. Glad to see that the developers are still at it though, it’s a great IP and deserves guys like the folk at Bioware Mythic working on it.

    Brilliant job Adam, detailed and funny as always. I’m off to sign up for the beta :) or maybe bed, its quite late.

  2. Ben Ben says:

    What’s with all the new MMO’s coming out, I thought I was free from that ghost a few months back. Quite enjoy the Warhammer universe so looking forward to seeing how it turns out when I eventually get my paws on it.

  3. Rancid says:

    White Wizard? Bright Wizard!

  4. [...] – Gouskos does redeem herself somewhat with a more considered interview with Gaming Lives – http://www.gaminglives.com/2011/09/06/warhammer-online-wrath-of-heroes-my-gamescom-2011-preview/ but I don’t think it will stop the more vocal amongst us of waxing wrath.[...]

  5. Lorna Lorna says:

    I love how much passion the team have for the project. Not one for MMOs, but from what I’ve read it sounds pretty absorbing and the graphics seem more than decent. Always great when a gem pops out of nowhere to become your Game of Show :)

  6. Edward Edward says:

    Well, I can certainly see why it’d end up becoming such a sleeper hit with you :)
    I’m still yet to really delve into the MMO, but I’m tempted by this one. If it comes with your seal of approval, I’ll have to keep it on my radar :D

  7. Adam Adam says:

    Thanks for all the comments guys and I apologise for my ‘noob’ reference to a White Wizard when it is of course a Bright Wizard. I went all Lord of the Rings for a moment.

    I seriously encourage as many people as possible to sign up for the Beta and you better believe that a full review of this will be published once the game is fully live. I think it’s an outstanding idea, to pick out a part of an MMO and create that into it’s own, unique experience. They really are such passionate and talented people that I think this has the potential to shake up the MMO market, despite carving out it’s own niche in the genre by doing something very different, I think that many developers are going to look at this and say “Oh…Why didn’t we think of that”

    Thanks again guys :)

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