Many aspiring game designers dream of creating the next big thing—something revolutionary that combines the best aspects from their most beloved titles and genres into an amalgamation of awesome. The developers at Laser Guided Games are no different; thus Golem Gates was born, which attempts to blend elements of real-time strategy (RTS), collectible card games (CCGs), and multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs) into a single entity.
At first glance, this concept seems an interesting, if not daunting, idea. After all, MOBAs arose from the RTS genre, finding their first form in the ‘Defense of the Ancients’ map modifications for Warcraft III, and are now played as popular e-sports worldwide. CCGs became all the rage during the early 90s, with the original iteration of Magic: The Gathering capturing the imaginations of teenagers and young adults everywhere, and the genre now continues on in physical and digital forms, such as Hearthstone. On paper, combining MOBA, RTS, and CCG could be a fun and engaging way to spark the interest of players across multiple genres and gaming generations. Unfortunately for Golem Gates, that on-paper appeal simply does not work in practice—at least, not at this early access stage of development.
Upon loading the game, the player’s ears are greeted with a dramatic theme that reinforces mental images of massive mechanical armies making an inexorable advance across a battlefield. Here, gamers are given their first glimpse of the Harbinger—a humanoid outcast clad in mechanical armor with the ability to manipulate and command nanites, summoning units to fight for him. The Harbinger’s design is quite striking, featuring glowing eyes, a stern expression, and a metallic halo that suggests hidden, god-like powers. The game’s graphical quality is not top-of-the-line, nor is it substandard, leaving it somewhere in the middle of the road with room for improvement before full release.
From the main menu, gamers can pick between battling the AI or another player online. However, PvP utilizes skill-based matchmaking that can make the wait for a game excruciating. The main campaign and storyline of Golem Gates is not available in the Early Access version, though a short prologue mission is included to familiarize users with the game’s concept. When playing against the computer, gamers may further select options for the AI’s playstyle, choosing between three strategies: balanced attack, rush attack, or a defensive turtle-type. Players may also choose to select a “randomize” option whereby the computer decides which strategy an AI opponent will use. The ability to decide how the AI behaves is a boon, allowing users to practice against a certain playstyle in preparation for multiplayer or surprise themselves by randomizing their opponents and seeing what kind of fun ensues.
In battle, users control the Harbinger and, through him, summon units with which to fight opponents. As with most real-time strategy titles, creating units costs resources. However, in Golem Gates, the resource used is energy, which is always available to the Harbinger and slowly regenerates over time after being depleted. No capturable resources, such as gold mines or ammunition dumps, are present. Instead, owning various control points across battle maps causes the Harbinger’s energy to replenish faster, allowing gamers to summon greater numbers, more powerful units, or use special abilities, such as flinging balls of fire with the Harbinger.
The Harbinger serves as a mobile base, and the battle ends if he dies. Units are summoned through the use of cards, called glyphs in the game, and drawn from a deck of the player’s design. Intended to add another element of strategy and customization, this mechanic instead sticks out like a sore thumb—a throbbing irritation that detracts from the enjoyment of gameplay rather than adding to the fun. A large part of real-time strategy games is micromanagement of resources, units, and buildings—players knowing what will be available to them and when. However, in Golem Gates, knowing what will be available next is impossible, and pre-planning can only be done during glyph deck building. Any gamer who has played CCGs has felt the annoyance and disappointment caused by a bad series of card draws that leaves them unable to act as their opponent unleashes hell. Adding that element of luck—good or bad—to an RTS-style game is infuriating. Rather than creating a building and from which troops spawn in fixed intervals, players must wait as the game draws for them another card glyph, meanwhile hoping they are gifted with one they need. Should a player run out of cards, all is not lost as they can request the game re-shuffle their glyph deck. However, use of this feature places the Harbinger into a 15 second sleep state where users are unable to send commands to units or cast spells from any glyphs remaining in their hand.
Available units run the gamut of those typical to RTS games, including light and heavy infantry, ranged attack squads, healing and support troops, and large, slow-moving machines of war. Character design is mostly comprised of mechanical and robotic creatures in humanoid and animal forms. In addition to summonable units, players have access to glyphs that allow the Harbinger to cast spell-like abilities. Players may deploy troops or use their special glyph spells wherever they have vision, allowing the deployment of armies anywhere on the battlefield. While this trait is unique, several issues arise from it. Troop vision radius is so small that players can muster a massive force mere feet away from the enemy without his or her knowledge. To compound this problem, Harbinger abilities, such as the aforementioned fireballs, are extremely powerful and capable of wiping out large numbers of troops in a single cast. This encourages a hit-and-run style tactic where the player sends a scout into the thick of the enemy formation, a sacrificial lamb used to acquire vision on their opponent and blast the entire enemy army away with one ability.
Other problems plague Golem Gates in its current iteration as well. Available maps follow the same format—a design familiar to those who play MOBAs. Rather than open areas through which troops can traverse to find their enemies, players must funnel their units through tight corridors connecting control points to each other. Poor pathing means units tend to trip over each other as they travel across the map. Attempting to move multiple groups of units at the same time causes them to try to make their way to the precise point selected, leaving them a jumbled mess. Exacerbating this annoyance, players are unable to create control groups, typically done in RTS games by selecting units and pressing CTRL+1 (or any other number) for fast switching. Instead, all squadrons must be clicked on to move them, a vexing extra step that takes away precious seconds from micromanagement.
At the center of each map lays a capturable objective that spawns a ‘super destroyer’ on a set timer. Defeating the super destroyer and standing upon its ownership point for a short time will grant the player possession of the unit, which sets off down a pre-determined lane toward an enemy capture point. Quite blatantly copied from Heroes of the Storm, the super destroyer behaves in the same manner as the Sand Golem and Bone Golem bosses of HotS do—mindlessly walking into enemy units and swatting them aside until it dies an inglorious death. However, unlike the capturable bosses in HotS, the super destroyer of Golem Gates is neither impressive nor impactful, taking far too long to meander toward the enemy and dealing less than mediocre damage when it finally gets there. Unfortunately, in the game’s current state, capturing the central super destroyer is a waste of player’s time, energy, and units and is best ignored in favor of using summoned troops to battle.
Last, but not least in this long list of issues is the game’s encouragement of a ‘turtle’ strategy. By creating a glyph deck consisting mostly of stationary turrets and defensive emplacements, a player or AI can surround their Harbinger with an impenetrable wall that slaughters any enemy troops entering vision range. All efforts to break through result in ignoble defeat, with the attacking player forced to wait as they respawn glyphs and regenerate energy for another attempt. Because energy gain is only slowed by lack of capture points and never reduced to zero, the result is a never-ending stalemate rather than the ‘fast-paced’ battles the developers advertise. An unending cycle of attack, regeneration of energy, reshuffling of the glyph deck, and another assault can take hours before the player finally gives up and cedes victory. Overcoming the turtle strategy in Golem Gates is impossible with the starter glyph deck, as the Harbinger cannot use his overpowered abilities on the turrets, since even the strongest units entering the area of such are slaughtered in an instant. This gameplay imbalance can easily evoke feelings of rage or a sense of unavoidable defeat, ultimately ruining the player experience.
While the concept of Golem Gates is appealing in theory, trying to merge three contradictory genres results in a game sorely confused about its identity. The combination of luck-of-the-draw and real-time strategy is off-putting, while tight lane corridors rather than open maps means player movement is predictable. Poor pathing leads to units clumping into jumbled messes that are hard to separate and control. Overpowered Harbinger abilities and impenetrable turtle defense strategies engender frustration and eliminate fun. A chance exists that the campaign and storyline may be worth playing for those interested in the narrative, but, without any part of the campaign available, players cannot know for sure. Though Golem Gates is just now entering Early Access, the game is, unfortunately, destined to fail unless its developers address all of these issues and make some drastic changes before the scheduled March 2018 release.