They Didn’t Get the Overwatch License
I’ve played Overwatch for all of fifteen minutes, and still they were enough to peg Guardians as an imitator. From the colorful roster of characters to the powerful “ultimate” abilities, this thing practically screams “I didn’t even try to get the license.”
You know what? I don’t care. Seriously, not a jot. Nor a tittle. And I’m unsure why anybody else should, either. Despite one or two hitches, this thing is a sublime location-grabber, and it deserves more attention.
If you’ve played Smash Up, you know the drill. There are locations that need grabbing — in this case, military-industrial districts and helipads and overpasses, all shadowed with that digital blue that screams future chic — and there are muscle- and armor-bound heroes ready to do said grabbing, plus possibly smashing. Pick three, shuffle their moves together, and you’re ready to go.
But more than evoking Smash Up, Guardians operates as an inversion of the whole genre, including my personal favorite, Omen: A Reign of War. The norm in a location-grabber is deadly simple. Meter out your troops to the handful of locations arrayed before you, tinker with their abilities in order to gain an edge, and then capture the place while your rival is reeling. Repeat until somebody emerges dominant.
Guardians doesn’t play that way. Or, well, it does, but with one crucial difference. Rather than playing general to an entire army, you’re commanding a squad. Barely a squad. A love triangle. That’s three for anyone who flunked geometry. Three heroes, each with their own selection of abilities, powers, and one always-available-but-not-always-unleashable ultimate. That’s your deck.
It wouldn’t work if the heroes weren’t worthy of the task, and in that regard Guardians draws upon Plaid Hat’s long history of creating memorable characters and distinctive factions. Each of its roster of ten characters manages to bring something totally different to the table.
An example. Harbinger is a hulking weapons platform with killer stats. He can both dish pain and soak it. The problem is, he can’t move, at least not normally. In a genre where you need to be nimble in order to slide into prime capture locations, that’s a liability. Even for Harbinger. Rather than featuring loads of abilities that move him around, Harbinger only has a couple. One of them is a simple move; the other is more illustrative of his style — namely, he deals a ton of damage regardless of where he’s squatting. His Mortar Wall shields an ally from damage by smashing an enemy, and Full Auto can hit enemies at adjacent locations. Played well, he’ll lock down a location all on his own, while assisting in nearby fights.
But Harbinger alone doesn’t make for a winning strategy. That’s where Guardians draws from the appeal of Smash Up. Team Harbinger with the movement manipulation of Whiplash, and you’ll be dragging enemies into his Terminator-vision line of sight. Or Venger, who’ll dole out so much spare damage that an enemy squad won’t even bother hiding. Or Astra, who’ll hide behind his bulk while she snipes. Every combination draws out new strategies.
And it’s important to put those abilities to good use, because capturing a location sometimes requires a surprising degree of finesse. Rather than winning them outright by having more heroes standing around, you’re required to slowly influence them until they flip onto your side. There are a few ways to do this, but the main pair are one, by having active heroes around while your opponent doesn’t, and two, by knocking enemies out of the fight.
The first option is all about positioning and timing. It’s also why using a hero’s attack isn’t always the best course of action. Attacking is fine and dandy, plopping damage onto an opposing hero at that location, but in the process it also exhausts your attacking hero. Unless you can stand them up again with an ability, your next turn’s control phase won’t see that marker move an inch in your favor. Weathering enemy attacks, on the other hand, can often mean you’re the only one slowly seizing control of the terrain.
Then again, being cavalier about absorbing damage can also lead to trouble. Whenever a hero is knocked out, it retreats to its owner’s hand for a spell. Worse, that location’s control marker zips two spots toward the victor’s side.
That’s twice as many as one, but don’t let that confuse you. In Guardians, the contest between heroes is nearly always a close one, as much about anticipating what your opponent might be holding as being bold with your own abilities. In that regard, it understands the appeal of a game like Omen perfectly.
Where Guardians falls short is mostly a matter of variety. Ten heroes sounds like a lot, but their range of abilities isn’t quite as diverse as it could have been. Each hero has a permanent ability, six cards divided between three powers, and a single ultimate. The deck formed by a combination of three heroes is nice and tight, reliably providing signature moves, but can wear thin across multiple plays. This can be seen in a positive light, letting you learn the ropes quickly, but it also means it isn’t long before the entire roster, and certain character combinations, becomes all too familiar.
But the journey to that point is packed with cool moments, including those badass ultimates I mentioned earlier. These babies accumulate zap tokens as certain abilities are deployed, then trigger for a single-use super move. Kosi deals a ton of damage and then, if she didn’t kill her target, pulls that location’s control token toward her side. Whiplash drags the entire enemy squad to her location and gives them a minor beating. Mauler, uh, mauls people, even if they’re defended by shield tokens. Grave flatulates on somebody and forces them to breathe it.
Okay, so not every hero is equivalently cool.
Guardians is a terrific inversion of the usual location-grabber formula, focusing on small squads with cool abilities instead of the usual hordes of minor warriors. I can’t help but wish that Callin Flores and Plaid Hat had gone further, providing more heroes and new abilities and a greater breadth of variety. As it stands, there’s an overabundance of damage-dealing and not quite enough trickiness. For now, though, it’s an intriguing start, a minor release that proves there are still good ideas at Plaid Hat — even when they’re drawing direct inspiration from multiplayer video games.
A complimentary copy was provided.