Note: This review was originally for the Paladins - Founder's Pack, a £25 package comprising the game and various extras which was the only way to play at launch. Paladins has since gone completely free-to-play.
With Nintendo Switch fast accumulating all manner of new multiplayer experiences - including the global phenomenon that is Fortnite - it seems fitting the plucky hybrid machine would add another competitive string to its bow. Enter Paladins, a hero shooter that does an impressive of job of bringing the full experience to a new platform with a surprisingly small number of concessions.
At first glance/play, Paladins does look and feel an awful lot like Overwatch. Both games launched four months apart in 2016 and on paper the two do share plenty of DNA: both feature a roster of ‘heroes’ with unique weapons and abilities, both feature objective-based matches and both place a heavy emphasis on teamwork. But that’s where most of the similarities end, with Paladins adding a little more strategy to the mix to help set itself apart from the pack, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
There are 36 Champions to choose from, which are divided into four specific classes - Damage (those with mid-range health pools but large damage output), Flank (low health, but high mobility and high damage potential), Frontline (high health with a focus on shielding and brute strength) and Support (low damage output but essential for healing teammates). While they all fall into the familiar sniper, assault, tank and healer templates, there’s still plenty of crossover that makes many of its roster considerably more dynamic in battle.
The mech-toting goblin that is Ruckus is considered a Frontline with his heavy reserves of health and on-board shielding, but his double Gatling guns and rockets make him just as effective as a Damage character (especially when using his dash ability). Then there’s Grover, the axe-wielding tree from Smite (developer Hi-Rez Studios’ MOBA). He’s a Support by trade, but his axe has surprisingly low damage drop-off at range, making him an ideal Flank if needs be. Not every Champion is so dynamic in their application, but there’s a generous amount of scope for those looking to ‘main’ a specific character.
To complement your chosen warrior, and to mix things up further, Paladins also uses a card-based loadout system. Each Champion comes with a default loadout consisting of five normal cards and one talent card, with each one providing a specific buff or enhancement in battle. You can build your own loadouts as well, applying a set number of points to increase the potency of each effect. For instance, the blunderbuss-toting dwarf Barik (a Frontline beast by day) is built around the use of turrets, so you can use cards that heal his turrets when Barik is near, or reduce the cooldown between each deployment.
Talent cards are chosen at the start of each match and are periodically unlocked as you level up each Champion. These are geared towards a particular playstyle and give you glimpse into just how versatile some of them can be. Androxus, for instance, can use his Flank-based abilities in a multitude of ways. You could use the Godslayer card to increase his damage against enemies with 40% health or lower, or instead opt to increase the output of his Reversal ability when absorbing and redistributing enemy fire back at its source. It’s here you start to realise this is way beyond the simple point and shoot mechanics of Call of Duty and the like.
There are also items you can purchase before the start of each match to further buff your abilities. These only last for one match at a time, but add an extra dimension to play once you start actively learning what each one does. It’s a lot to take in for new players, so you can easily turn on auto-purchase which will select an extra buff based on your character and loadout. These are purchased with in-game credits, so you won’t have to worry about being penalised for not pumping in real-world cash. There is a premium Battle Pass you can buy, but this just drops cosmetic items such as profile avatars and skins and won’t affect how you play (unless fashion is your number one priority).
Game modes are pretty slim, but then again this is the same for Overwatch, so it’s not really a criticism. TDM (Team Deathmatch) is the best way to try out Champions for the first time, with its simple first to 40 kills setup offering a quick and clean way to see where your skills and persuasion lies. Onslaught adds more of an objective-based spin, tasking you with battling for control over a central area. The longer you spend in the area, the more you score, with kills also adding to your team’s total. It’s a great place to step up from TDM and start applying your abilities as a team rather than a lone wolf.
If TDM is Paladins’ hors-d'oeuvre and Onslaught its starter, Siege is the main course and dessert piled onto the same delicious plate. Two teams of five race to the middle of a large map, with the aim of controlling a central point then moving a payload towards their enemy’s base. These larger maps also offer some of the best level design, with shortcuts that favour the ambush potential of Flank characters and elevated positions perfect for Damage Champions looking to cut through a poorly grouped enemy team.
So here comes the big one - just how well does it run? Those aforementioned ‘concessions’ are certainly present and will stand out to most to those that have played Paladins on PC or other consoles, but even then they’re hardly game-breaking. There’s the occasional bit of slowdown during a match, but it’s a rarity, with the promised 60fps holding true for the most part. There’s a slight delay moving between screens when you’re navigating menus, with the online store suffering the worst - just trying to move between tabs can be a real chore.
Matchmaking for the most part is pretty stable, although frustration does arise when the game automatically kicks you from a lobby if one or more players fail to select a Champion before the pre-game timer runs out. Swapping them out for another player (or automatically assigning them a Champion) would be a far more productive process, and one that wouldn’t penalise those who are simply waiting to join a new match. There's also no support for motion controls, but thankfully it still works really well with a Pro Controller.
Again, it can’t be overstated just how well Paladins runs on Switch. Whether you’re a twitchy Damage player looking to snipe an objective from afar or a Support trying to heal multiple teammates during an unfolding battle, everything from hit detection to AOE all work just as well as they do on consoles and PC. It’s a really impressive feat from Hi-Rez Studios and proof that Nintendo Switch is far more powerful and versatile than we give it credit for. And with cross-platform play due to be patched in by the end of June, Switch’s Paladins community won’t be an isolated one either.
The lack of voice chat support is a problem, though, and one that can only be remedied by joining a Discord channel (such as the official Paladins one) and jumping into a party. Considering all other versions of the game support such a feature, as well as the fact Epic Games proved such a component can function on Switch without the need for the official companion app, there’s no excuse for its absence. We’re really hoping Hi-Rez is working on patching it in ASAP.
As it stands, you can only access Paladins via the £25 Founders Pack. It’s a big asking price when you consider the game will be free-to-play later in the summer, so those of you looking to avoid spending big might want to wait. However, considering it unlocks all 36 Champions as well as additional skins and a special mount, it’s an attractive early way in for those wanting to play ranked (where you need to have at least 14 Champions unlocked and have a level 15 account, with the former taking a lot longer to grind than the latter).
While locking the game behind a £25 Founders Pack might be a little cheeky for a game that’s actually free-to-play, the game itself is an easy sell. As exciting, tense and rewarding as Overwatch, Paladins: Champions of the Realm brings the cross-platform hero shooter to a new platform without sacrificing the moreish gameplay tenants that’s made it such a hit with both gamers and pros. There’s a definitive learning curve for those looking to play competitively, but it’s nonetheless one of the console’s best new multiplayer additions.