Change is everything, especially in this industry where technology moves in leaps and bounds, leaving many broken franchises in its wake. How then to account for the MOBA which, by and large, has remained virtually identical since it first broke onto the scene. DotA, LoL and Heroes of the Storm all feature the classic isometric camera angle onto 3 lanes of battle, as player controlled heroes battle alongside AI minions to emerge victorious. SMITE’s approach to progression is not to reinvent the wheel, but instead (if you’ll excuse an extremely tortured metaphor) to put that wheel under a newer model. The adoption of a 3rd person over the shoulder viewpoint is SMITE’s big selling point, and it makes a massive difference, not only to how the game plays, but also to how the game mechanics feel. When you’re controlling one of the game’s numerous god-avatars, you’re experiencing something quite unique.
The first key change is in how you view the map and your surroundings. Given the isometric nature of traditional MOBAs it’s incredibly difficult to be caught unawares. You can see behind and around you at all points, and the relative far off distance means the skill element of attacks is reduced to little more than timing, rather a deeper awareness. It’s much easier to sneak up on enemies with the new camera, and conversely much easier to be on the receiving end of the same. Similarly it’s much harder to keep track of where the enemy is without the comforting scroll of the world map to keep safe. When you do get in close getting the damage in is also a challenge. Your position and direction when controlling a melee character feels absolutely essential, and the vast majority of all the possible attacks in SMITE are SkillShots. This means missing is a distinct possibility here, unlock some typical MOBAs which require simple click to land a potentially devastating attack. This challenge makes landing a successful flurry all the more rewarding, and gives SMITE a level of combat complexity not usually present in this kind of game.
SMITE’s other new innovation is simply being a bit more welcoming and accommodating to the new player. Whilst combat is skill-intensive and often very frenetic, most gods have have escape abilities to allow you to save yourself at the last minute. Hades for example, who is a tank character, can teleport himself in and out of an area whilst dealing some AOE damage. Developer Hi-Rez certainly seems to have spent sometime slim-lining the bulk of a MOBA, to not only soften the learning curve for new players, but also allow in game development to spread in a more rounded manner. Experience and currency for example, are not only doled out on a last-click-wins basis but instead to everyone within a certain radius, ensuring those who got involved from the start get their fair share. The items and consumables are very straightforwardly presented, and it is simple to get your head around how and when to purchase what, but even if you don’t feel inclined to do this the game will simply auto-level and auto-purchase on your behalf.
The financial aspect of the game is generous too. Whilst spending real money is obviously a possibility you can achieve a lot from simply playing. You can make a one-off purchase at $30 which buys you access to all gods in perpetuity, which is less than the cost of a new release, especially if you’re a console player. Otherwise there’s a free rotation of 10 gods each week which ensures you always have someone fresh to play with from an absolutely huge roster which is currently at 77 with recent addition of Da Ji, and is still growing. You can acquire gods via the traditional purchasing manner, and the costing here is generous. You don’t need to put in lots of hours or money to open up the roster, and as long as you’re playing at least a few games a day, the list will lengthen soon enough. The choice of mythological deities here as avatars was an absolute stroke of genius, offering a varied otherworldly setting, but giving people enough of a hook to want to look into these fascinating characters and cultures if they wish to.
The game’s not perfect, and still comes with lots of the same issues with MOBAs have always had. As noted above, the wheel has not been reinvented, so if it’s not your preferred mode of transport there’s nothing here to convince you otherwise. Likewise it doesn’t really add any unique extra modes, apart from minor riffs on notable classics. There are still towers to destroy, jungles with neutral monsters and final points to capture, but the look and camera do give them a distinct feel that masks this somewhat. All online games have to deal, to some extent or another, with individual human agency and the impact they have on the experience. Trash talking and trolling are the bane of all online games and SMITE is no exception. This can be avoided entirely by playing on private servers, but it should also be noted that SMITE seems to have less of these people. Likewise there are less of the griefers, and the solo-ists who have little thought for teamwork or who abandon the fight mid-match. They are there, but on balance SMITE has one of the least offensive online communities I’ve played with.