The multiplayer arena genre has been wriggling its way to commercial popularity through the likes of Heroes of Newerth, Avalon Heroes, and the much-loved League of Legends, so it's not exactly odd territory for Funcom to take an interest in. Combine the typical PVP format with Funcom's penchant for MMORPGs and you have a relatively natural fit. In the last decade its focused on turning out various massively multiplayer works. The laundry list starts around about nine years ago with the launch of Anarchy Online, a few years later Age of Conan came out of the development woodwork, and as we speak the biggest title on its plate is the upcoming Secret World.
Now out of Norway comes Bloodline Champions, an arena-style title developed by Swedish University graduates from the wee little Stunlock Studio; a company that was taken under Funcom's wing earlier in the year.
Bloodline throws you into a team and pits you against a group of other players, in what might feel like a combination of WoW's PVP arena and last year's League of Legends. Superficially it might not appear to be more than the sum of those two parts. Movement is based on the same control system as WoW's PVP and at a glance the top-down view might seem reminiscent of LoL. However, standard PVP frills like Critical Hits have been wiped from the game, meaning every hit you make counts equally. However its identity comes from how much it focuses on skill-based gameplay.
Speaking with Stunlock Studio's CEO Tau Peterrson, she tells us:
"We don't have any mana or anything - it's all based on cooldowns, which means you'll always have something to do. You're not going to run out of mana and have to just stand around. It's to keep the action full-time, all the time. And also where with WoW Arena you have to put in an extra forty hours a week to keep up with the game, here you can just play the arena and jump right into it."
And to an extent it's pick-up-and-play. In-game you choose a particular pre-made character who will fit within Melee, Ranged, Healer, or Tank categories. These character types are what the game calls Bloodlines, and there are sixteen of them - four within each category. Every individual bloodline has seven abilities at its disposal, with the last being an Ultimate Ability that needs to be charged by successfully completing certain actions, such as healing allies or damaging enemies. You don't earn further abilities like you might in similar games, instead you begin and end with the same set of seven and learn those abilities inside and out.
The direction of nearly all your actions is determined by your cursor, which means you're going to be dealing with a much more fluid game than what WoW's arena has offered in the past. In each two-minute fight you'll direct your abilities by hovering your cursor over either a particular area or a player, which means you're going to have to aim for accuracy. Bloodline Champions might be fast-paced but it's not a game for spamming spells blindly, as there is no lock-on targeting system. So while you're essentially as able to rack up kills as the next player, success comes down to how skilfully you can aim and how quickly you can dodge out of the way of enemy attacks.
Similarly, the game does its best to put all players on a level playing field by taking out level progression or unlockable abilities. Instead you advance your profile's level for the sake of matchmaking; you choose a character, and as you learn how to play as them, you fight quickly.
"It's tailored for competitive gaming," says Peterrson, "so we have an in-game tournament system. We have basically hired a guy called James Harding, who is one of the big names in the WoW community. He has been working with Blizzard, commentating on their tournaments and so on. We brought him in to work on the eSports side of things. But at the same time, it's so easy to jump into to the game during lunch at work. It's so easy to learn the control system, because there are a limited amount of abilities at your disposal. The feedback we've been getting from people is that after the first ten minutes of playing you just get it. You don't have to read a thick manual or wiki or whatever. In DotA you can really get flamed for not playing the right way or doing the right stuff. People in competitive gaming can be a bit harsh. But this can be a bit easier to get into."
Bloodline Champions' PVP is a three-part jumble of game modes: Capture the Artefact, Arena and Conquest. The former is what you'd imagine from the name, with the addition of a power-up that spawns at the centre of the map that will heighten any one of your abilities, whether that's increased speed or increased damage. A similar pick-up will spawn in Conquest, which has you taking control of specific points on the map. Secure a location in Conquest and the power-up spawns, giving you more incentive to head for control points rather than making a beeline toward the enemy team to collect kills. Arena is your traditional survival mode that throws you in anything from 2vs2 to 5vs5 and limits you to one life until the next round.
These are nothing particularly new to multiplayer, but Bloodline Champions is essentially an effort in honing what works in PVP combat and rejecting what drags combat down to a slow-motion pace. And it's an astounding effort for such a young studio. As of writing, the game is in currently in beta, however the game is scheduled to be released for download this winter.