Smite has a pretty simple premise: It’s a Defense of the Ancients -style game played from the third person instead of the top-down perspective. That shift doesn’t seem like that big of a change on the surface, but the zoomed-in perspective has some interesting impacts on the gameplay. The game is still in beta and there’s definitely room for improvement, but Smite is shaping up to deliver on the gameplay that fans of this genre enjoy in a new and interesting way.
Smite pits two teams of players against each other and each side is trying to kill the guardian of the opposing team’s temple. In addition to the other players getting in their way, there are also continuously respawning NPCs and powerful defensive towers. Each player controls a character that – similar to an RPG – will start off relatively weak; towers or NPCs can make short work of you early on. However, you grow stronger by unlocking new skills and purchasing items. Like most DOTA games, Smite has an emphasis on teamwork, and a slow buildup with your team’s characters.
In Smite, everyone takes on the role of a specific deity. The Pantheon currently draws upon Greek, Egyptian, Norse, Chinese and Hindu faiths. At release there will be roughly 30 Gods and these stretch from Anubis, the jackal-headed God of The Dead, to Odin, the Norse Allfather. The developers have done a great job, for the most part, of matching these Gods to specific skillsets and styles. For instance, Ra feels right at home under your command as ranged magical damage caster calling down searing heat and blinding light on your foes. A few of the deities are however less compelling to play, the appeal of calling down lightning with Zeus is easy to grasp, but less so for playing as say Vamana, Fifth Avatar of Vishnu, whose appearance is sort of that of a small fat baby with an umbrella. I don’t doubt the challenge of incorporating so many different appearances into a single unified aesthetic, but currently a few of the gods seem out of place.
Building your character is much the same as other games in the genre. You level up, assign skill points and buy items. Currently there isn’t any kind of persistent customization systems, which limits variety some, but it does keep everything wrapped into each match. In Smite every god has four abilities and a passive skill. Throughout the course of the match you’ll level up all the way to the maximum of 20 and assign points to your abilities. You’ll also accrue gold by killing NPCs and enemy players. Gold is primarily used to purchase items. The wide variety of items gives you a lot of choices. Some of the really interesting ones are those that have a risk/reward attached to them, like getting stronger as you make kills but loosing those stats if you die. Another major aspect to the items is not only knowing what you should build, but learning how to counter what someone else is buying. If you see someone getting a lot of armor you’ll probably want to build an item with armor penetration. In Smite you can also use gold to purchase extra abilities. These extra abilities tend to have long cooldown timers, but they can tip the balance at a key moment. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by that those choices Smite does include an option to automatically purchases recommended items and assign ability points, it might not always be the best choice for the situation but it will keep it easy for new players.
There are two aspects to Smite‘s item system that I’m currently not a huge fan of though. Every item is bought in tiers, you buy the first level of a specific item and upgrade it twice into its final form. There’s nothing particularly bad with this system, but I found it less interesting than recipe format of buying various other items together to combine them from other games. The other issue with the items might take a bit of theorycrafting and number crunching to confirm besides a gut instinct, but items’ level of impact doesn’t seem like its high enough. At no point in my matches would I finish an item and get that feeling now that I have X item I can really start putting down the hurt. By the end, I could certainly tell that I was stronger, but somehow the milestones don’t feel as weighty.
Given the over the shoulder perspective, the typical DOTA like genre configuration of using the mouse to move and issue commands doesn’t really work as well. So instead Smite handles a bit more like an MMO, with the WASD keys driving your movements and the mouse being locked to looking around and aiming. Skills and attacking are likewise affected since now you no longer have access to the mouse to click a target. Smite makes heavy use of “skill shots”, which are abilities and attacks that must be manually targeted. Your basic attacks either swing or shoot out in front of you and it’s up to you to position your avatar correctly for them to land. Your skill shots are generally a bit more forgiving, with extensive use of cones or area of effect attacks, but you still need to point the right way lest you risk whiffing with your most powerful attack.
So that all sounds fine enough, but what does it actually change? The big difference between Smite and other DOTA games is the greater emphasis on player skill in certain aspects. If you’re playing the archer Artemis you need to, actually be in range for your arrows to hit and properly aim in order to hit your targets. Vice versa, the more tank-like Ymir can physically block for a weaker character by standing in the way of attacks. You’ll also need to be more careful to defend yourself from being ambushed or “ganked”, the third-person camera makes it easy to see down your lane, but it also means it’s easier for your opponents to sneak up behind you because that’s now a blind spot. You need to be vigilant in watching the mini-map and noting when the enemy isn’t visible. Team fights also get quite chaotic with all the spells going off right in your face, but there is a certain sense of pride as you start learning to parse what’s going on and what you should be doing to most help your team. A god might have a big aoe attack that deals a ton of damage, but only if the enemy stays in that area. That’s where the teamwork comes in by say combining Zeus’s lighting storms with Odin’s ring of spears to pen them in. There could be some improvements with some sharper and more distinct visuals though, especially when all ten players are in a single fight throwing around a combined 20 abilities.
Smite will be free-to-play with a dual currency microtransaction system, favor and gems. Favor is gained by playing game and gems can be purchased for money. New gods, custom skins and various bonuses can be purchased with either of the two currencies, but besides having a larger pantheon of god characters to draw from, nothing purchasable directly affects your in-game power. There is even a much welcome practice mode where you can try any god before buying them. Some of the prices feel a little off. You gain roughly 70 favor each match, but a new god costs 5500. However, you do gain bonus favor for your first win of the day and a hefty amount for leveling up. A lot of these numbers are still in beta just like the rest of the game, and developer Hi-Rez Studious was receptive to concerns when pricing for Tribes: Ascend. The gem, real money currency, is pretty reasonably priced at around $4.00 to unlock a new god, even less if you buy in bulk. There’s currently even a nice sale to have all the starting 30 gods for a dollar each.
A lot of games have been trying to iterate the design and success of DOTA, but it can be refreshing to see a developer run with a crazy idea and see what directions that takes the gameplay. I enjoyed my time with the Smite beta. There’s certainly some room for improvement, but that’s what beta tests are for.