We aren’t even into the first sentence of the article, and I know what you are already asking. “Lou, are you kidding me?” Fortnite is a worldwide phenomenon — lightning in a bottle. Any comparison to it must be hyperbolic. And yeah, I usually agree there. But that doesn’t mean Hi-Rez Studios isn’t setting themselves up for a monumental win with Paladins on Nintendo Switch.
In case you missed it, the ongoing rumor that Paladins would be coming to Nintendo Switch was confirmed by Hi-Rez earlier this week. Long-available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One, the hero based shooter has captured the attention of the hero based shooter for three main reasons: it is free to play, it runs surprisingly well, and it dips deep into mechanics found in some of the other leading titles in the field. Sometimes to a fault.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. The Nintendo Switch severely lacks solid multiplayer games. Sure, ARMs and Splatoon 2 are great installments for Nintendo franchises, but they run off the often-shotty Nintendo online infrastructure and carry burdens of their own. On top of that, hero-based first-person shooters are entirely absent from that market. Despite being one of the most followed eSport genres in 2018, developers like Blizzard have been hesitant to touch the Nintendo Switch due to porting difficulties. Oh, and free-to-play only sweetens the deal.
A missing genre market on a popular console, lack of main-stream multiplayer competitors, and free-to-play price structure. Does that set-up sound familiar? Because it should.
In 2017 the name of the game in the Battle Royale genre was PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds — and to many, that is still their go-to title. However, PUBG staked its popularity on a weird footing. Initially, the Battle Royale game launched primarily on PC, later partnering up with Microsoft for a console exclusivity deal. Essentially, this left a gaping hole for the monumental audience of PS4 owners — a market that most developers won’t casually ignore.
The then-struggling fort building PvP title from Epic then made a nearly-erratic pivot in a move that left many industry professionals snickering. A then no-name title was going face-to-face with PUBG, one of the biggest gaming success stories of recent memory.
A year out of that decision, we can see how wrong we were wrong. Epic Games leveraged several positions — mainly setting the Battle Royale mode as free-to-play and catering to every console — that lowered the entry-level for many to pick up the game. Along with near-constant updates, content drops, in-game campaigns, and a reliable series of bug fixes, it’s no wonder (in hindsight) how Fortnite managed to take the lead in what seemed like an already-won race.
In many senses, Hi-Rez’s Paladins isn’t too far off from this exact same scenario. There are obvious similarities and difference (which I will go into later), but an introspection into how the game plays needs to come first.
Paladins on Nintendo Switch as a Showcase
As someone who has had the Nintendo Switch since — ney, before — launch, I thought I had a sensible range of expectations for a Switch PvP game. Hi-Rez boasted 60 FPS in docked and handheld mode, which seemed like a dubious claim. But I’m not above giving developers the benefit of the doubt.
Even still, I was shocked — especially following a shoddy Mario Tennis Aces online demo weekend — with how well Paladins runs on Switch. Whether I was playing handheld in my bedroom or docked right next to my router, I didn’t see one stutter in performance. The gameplay was fast, chaotic, and oh-so-rewarding when I managed to lock down a 15-kill streak as Androxious in Siege.
The game isn’t without its own need for polish. Initial load times (specifically the boot-to-battle) time (seen below) is nothing to sneeze at, even if it is common among many online games.
Not only that, but some sections just feel lacking of presentation mainstays. Background music seems sparse in areas that there should be some. Unlike the gameplay, Paladins’ version of Play of the Game feels tinny and hollow in comparison to what players see with Overwatch.
But when you reduce the game to the meat and potatoes, the game is phenomenal. Even though I attended HRX 2018, Paladins never grabbed my attention compared to Hi-Rez’s most popular title, the MMO Smite. However, as a late-bloomer onto the scene, the game can go blow-for-blow against leading competitor Overwatch in most areas (outside of polish). As far as I can tell in the pre-release servers (which should still be connected to Xbox One via crossplay), everything was smooth and stable. And yes, that is a welcome addition to the Nintendo Switch PvP scene.
Apart from that, the game draws from a broad cast of heroes that distinctly outnumber the limited set on Overwatch. Sure, there are the obvious parallels. Androxious feels like a Reaper clone, is entirely like Torbjorn, and there seems to be a near-constant stream of mirror moves. That said, some of the variety is altogether unseen in any other hero based shooter. Like Mal’Damba, who is a freakin’ snake god and fights with — you guessed it — projectile snakes.
Obviously, I haven’t dipped too heavily into ranked play or the late-game meta, so I can’t speak to balance. I would favor a guess that in the higher skill arenas, Overwatch would likely outclass Paladins in balance alone. But — unlike the core gameplay and character design — most of my hangups with Paladins stem from areas of the game that can be patched, not core gameplay design.
Outside of direct comparisons with the heavyweight contender in the genre, it is unquestionably one of the best playing Nintendo Switch PvP title on the market. I can’t speak to Fortnite, which (likely) will be launching around the same time given pre-E3 leaks. However, offering one of the most stable online infrastructures and a genre unavailable on the Nintendo handheld console, all at a free-to-play price point, is essentially creating a love letter to the dedicated Nintendo fanbase.
Paladins vs. Fortnite
Okay, Lou — I get it. You really are digging your time with Paladins. Where does your comparison to Fortnite come in?
Like I said before, both Hi-Rez Studios and Epic Games seem to be operating under the same playbook. And it goes like this:
1.) Find a popular, untapped market
2.) Offer an experience that the top-tier competitor can’t (or won’t) offer
3.) Launch the game at a free-to-play price point
What is the “??????” besides a really dated meme? In this case, it is going to be attachment rate. Can Paladins catch the positive word-of-mouth and cult following that pushed Fortnite from industry joke to impossibly successful? It’s the (literally) million dollar question, and one that I can’t answer. But Hi-Rez is doing everything to mirror that strategy and ramp up the hype in the meantime.
Outside of the business model, where are the deviations that can hinder or bolster Paladins’ relative success?
Starting with the plusses, Paladins is hitting the Nintendo Switch market as an already complete experience. As compared to Fortnite which was very much still in nascent development at the time, players who come into the hero-based shooter already start on a stronger development ground.
Next up, Paladins currently has notoriously weak competition as far as PvP goes. Sure, we all have fun with Rocket League, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2. But all of those titles stem from some degree of performance issues, either in the port of the game or the online infrastructure. Paladins, meanwhile, gets to roll in like a titan. Not only is a mostly sound technical experience, (pre-release, at least), but the online gameplay is rock solid — even in Handheld Mode.
But not everything can be a win for Paladins. While the game is a currently-strong showing in the eShop, the imminent Fortnite release will likely overshadow and monopolize a swath of that audience. Additionally, Fortnite garnered much of its success by launching to the vast PS4 audience — an audience that already has Paladins and Overwatch, and heavily supports the latter. Say what you want about the ever-growing Nintendo Switch audience, but the PS4 player base is a lot broader.
On top of all that, hero-based shooters aren’t necessarily gaining ground concerning popularity. Unlike Battle Royale (which will likely be E3’s buzzword of 2018), the hero based shooter genre has been seen as long-won since at least 2016. While it would be grand for Paladins’ launch to draw in since-jaded fans of the genre, there is obvious doubt that many of these gamers have just moved on.
Last but not least, Blizzard Entertainment is an entirely different beast than PUBG Corp. PlayerUnknown’s Battleground had it’s own distinct set of problems, mainly stemming from the fact that the developing studio was relatively novice to this success. Updates were slow, bugs were everywhere, and the marketing strategy was questionable. Overwatch’s developer Blizzard is one of the lead gaming studios, long before Soldier 76 graced the scene. If they smell blood in the water, they have the resources and the talent to figure out creative strategies to mitigate a loss of players.
While Paladins is riffing off Fortnite’s playbook in their upcoming Nintendo Switch release, not everything is black and white. WhileHi-Rez Studios is positioning themselves to take on the Nintendo Switch in a strong way, the key to success will be how the Nintendo Switch audience embraces the game and genre. Thankfully, Paladins is a remarkably solid port and a technological achievement for the handheld platform and is an easy recommendation.
Paladins: Founders Pack will be available on June 12, 2018 at a premium price, unlocking Early Access and in-game content. Those looking to try the game pro bono can grab it later this summer.