Artifact review-in-progress: what the beta has taught US so far

Artifact review-in-progress: what the beta has taught US so far

Need to know

What is it? A Dota-themed competitive card game from Valve.

Expect to pay £55/$60

Developer Valve

Publisher Valve

Release date: November 28

Buy it Steam

Artifact never really wants you to relax. Playing the closed beta of Valve’s forthcoming card game, I can be staring at what looks like a commanding position—a comfortable lead in two lanes, one tower down and the other certain to follow next turn—and there's still this nagging worry that I've missed something vital. That the game is about to blow up in my stupid face.

Here's an example of exactly that happening. I've been tunnel-visioning too hard on Artifact's usual win condition: destroying your opponent's towers in two of the three lanes. Meanwhile, my opponent's quietly been committing all of her resources to the first lane. My tower fell a couple of turns ago, and now she's chipping away at the 80 health of my exposed Ancient. If my Ancient falls before I can topple her mid-lane tower, I'll lose.

By my calculations, my opponent won't have the necessary firepower to do the full 80 damage in time. Unfortunately, I've forgotten a crucial detail: my opponent's three heroes are all about to respawn, whereas my heroes are already on the board, stranded in the two lanes I'm dominant in. As feared, she redeploys them all in the first lane. Now, instead of facing down 30 damage—which wouldn't have been enough to finish me off—I'm looking at around 50. It's comfortably enough to end the game, and now there's nothing I can do about it.

Artifact review-in-progress: what the beta has taught US so far

I've snatched many such defeats from the jaws of victory during my time with Artifact so far. And while the initial emotion is always frustration, that feeling never lasts too long. Because with Artifact—bearing in mind it’s still early days—you always feel there like there’s something you could have done better. In this case, my mistake was overcommitting to those two dominant lanes. A safer option would have been deploying one hero in the first lane to stall—I would have still won in the other lanes, but slowed down my opponent just enough to keep my Ancient alive a turn longer. I lost, but learned something for next time.

Three is the magic number

Artifact asks you to manage everything in triplicate.

For players coming to Artifact with some collectable card game experience, the three lane system is likely to be the most unfamiliar concept. Where most card games settle for one game board and one life total for each player, Artifact asks you to manage everything in triplicate. The three resulting areas of play are called lanes, and are just one of many parallels with Dota 2, Artifact's thematic source material.

Keeping track of all those extra variables can be a little disorientating at first. As our own Tim Clark put it, it's a little like "playing three games of Hearthstone at once". And while this isn't entirely true—you only have one hand, after all—the comparison still holds a fair bit of water. This is a game pitched at hardcore card players. A gentle introduction to wizard poker it is not.

Another key link between Artifact and Dota are the heroes, each of whom has its own statline, special ability, and unique 'signature' card, three copies of which are automatically added to your deck. All decks must contain five heroes, and games start with three on the board—one in each lane. The remaining two are deployed on successive turns, and you get to choose which lane to deploy them in. When a hero dies, it takes a turn on the bench before becoming available for redeployment in any lane. Heroes are joined in the lanes by creeps—basic minions—which spawn at the beginning of each turn and cause winning lanes to snowball if left unattended.

Artifact review-in-progress: what the beta has taught US so far

Hero selection is at the heart of any game of Artifact. Easily your strongest units, you can also buff them up during the game with items purchased using the gold earned from killing enemies in the shopping phase at the end of each round. And once a hero equips an item, it will persist even through death—so, again like Dota, heroes gain power and increase in influence as the game rolls on.

Colour me confused?

Artifact's colour-based mana system has far more in common with Magic: The Gathering than it does Hearthstone. Heroes come in four colours—red, green, blue and black—as do the cards that make up your deck, the minimum size for which is 40. While the mana itself is colourless, you can only use it to play cards of a given colour if you have a hero of that colour in the lane, which is why having lanes without any heroes in them is a situation you desperately want to avoid. With no way for you to spend your resources, your opponent is free to go hog wild in that lane unchecked.

The specialties of each colour also run pretty close to what you'd expect from Magic—Blue has flashy spells, Black has the best single-target removal, and Green has lots of really big monsters. You'll also find that there are a lot of similarities between heroes of each colour. Red heroes are brawlers that excel in one-on-one fights, which means they are perfect for starting off the game and scoring some early hero kills. Blue heroes are relatively puny by contrast, with their powers usually lying in devastating special abilities—so it's best to keep them reserved until you can deploy them somewhere safe and swing the game.

Artifact review-in-progress: what the beta has taught US so far

Feeling drafty

Performance

Played on: Intel i5 3570k, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 6B, 8GB RAM

My desktop rig comfortably maxed out Artifact at 1080p, with the framerate never dropping below 60fps. I also played a few games on my MacBook Pro (2017 edition), which delivered less impressive but perfectly playable performance. As expected from a card game, you don't need a beastly PC to run it.

Honing your deckbuilding skills is essential to mastering Artifact. And nowhere are those skills more critical than in draft, which is already being touted as Artifact's primary competitive mode. The basic structure is this: you select 60 cards from five 'packs' presented to you, whittle that pool down to a playable deck, then play until you either win five or lose two. Rewards, which come in the form of more entry tickets and card packs, are available depending on how well you do. There's also a casual draft mode, which allows you to practice with no entry fee—but you won't win anything if you do well.

Drafting in Artifact is a skillful business. Over the course of the last few months of beta, pro players have compiled tier lists that attempt to demystify what the best picks are for each colour. However, there are so many judgement calls to be made in a draft—which colours to go into, whether to pass up on a hero to wait for a better one, getting a healthy balance of mana costs in your deck, etc—that no resource is a substitute for experience. Already, we can see the best players putting together dominant runs in draft—former Hearthstone pro Lifecoach recently went 25 games without a loss. It's that cavernous skill ceiling that's made draft mode so compelling for me, and it's what I've spent almost all my time playing up until this point.

And what of the beta meta? Honestly, at this point, it's pretty hard to tell. Blue looks like the weakest colour currently, with the other three far closer together in terms of power level. Aggressive black-red decks that rush down my towers are giving me no end of grief at the moment. Particularly ire-provoking is the black card Disciple of Nevermore, which functions something like Savage Roar in Hearthstone, buffing up everything on its owners' side of the board and conjuring 20+ damage from seemingly nowhere. More controlling options are available as well. Green has chunky, defensive heroes that can often stall out a game long enough for terrifying creeps like the 12/12 Thunderhide Pack to hit the board—a feeling which is made all the more satisfying by the absence of summoning sickness in Artifact, so your big green boy can launch an assault on the enemy tower within seconds of being played.

A disclaimer: All of this only applies to draft. I haven't yet had the chance to cut my teeth in Artifact's constructed ladder. So blue could well turn out to be the all-conquering god colour in that mode

It’s the economy, stupid

I've never played a card game quite like Artifact before.

I'll have a full verdict on Artifact's monetisation system in my final review, but since the topic's been so hotly discussed I think it's worth mentioning it at this point. Artifact will cost $20 to purchase: that gets you 10 packs, five event tickets and two pre-made decks. The question is: is this enough to enjoy the game without any further spend? At this point, I'm not so sure. Since I'm in the beta, I haven't yet had to stump up the purchase fee for my initial tickets and packs, but I will soon. And when I do, I might well be a bit glum about how far my collection is from being complete, despite buying 20 packs and five event tickets. I've yet to properly try constructed—and I expect this is true of a lot of players—because I simply do not have the cards to compete with people who've already spent big on packs.

The solution could lie in buying and selling cards on the Steam Marketplace, functionality which is expected to be added to the game on release. If I'm able to get rid of unwanted rares for a good price, and use that money to assemble the constructed deck of my dreams, then I'll certainly feel less put out by the relative lack of value from packs and tickets. It's also the reason I'm holding onto my duplicate cards rather than turning them into event tickets. Who knows, maybe I'm sitting on a gold mine? (OK, you can actually only turn commons into tickets, which aren't likely to be particularly valuable. But I still hold out hope.)

I've never played a card game quite like Artifact before. In terms of complexity, I have no doubts that it lives up to its billing. There are a lot of systems and rules that I've had to leave out of this in-progress review. I do have a few concerns about the monetisation model, though—if that purchase price doesn't deliver value, Valve could still have a mutiny on its hands. For now, I'll reserve judgement. In pure design terms, the potential for high-skill fun in Artifact is massive. And if the barrier to owning a competitive collection isn't prohibitively high, it should reach great heights.

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