Okay, now I am taking liberties. NEHZ’s MountainStruggle AoS is, as the name suggests, an “Aeon of Strife” type map, where two teams of up to five heroes assist waves of spawned units as they battle down lanes to destroy the opposing base. Ever since I first played it with NEHZ and the rest of the Clan WCM crowd, this take on the AoS genre captured my heart more than any other with its tight, multi-layered landscape and Soulstone system.
Most importantly, however, it has bots — so while everyone else moved on with their lives, I could keep playing alone. And the AoS genre is about controlling a single hero against the world, as they gain experience and use abilities, so technically it’s still an RPG…
Today: the inimitable MountainStruggle AoS by NEHZ
I always liked the idea of the AoS more than the reality. It’s a fascinating way to bring a large-scale battle to the single-hero world of an RPG, where your hero can play a pivotal role in the conflict alongside floods of rank-and-file soldiers.
Most AoSes are pretty unforgiving, though. You have to work so in tune with the rest of your team that there’s no room for mistakes, and falling behind means you really fall behind as successes pile upon successes and failures are compounded. I’m not really very good at team-work in these games; I just want to take my hero in, bash some bad guys and save the world. I don’t really have the patience for balancing precisely which items to buy and abilities to use in perfect synchronicity with 4 other players.
MountainStruggle never feels like that.
MountainStruggle‘s fun begins with the Soulstone system.
Traditionally, in an AoS map, the waves of soldiers are fixed, repeating infinitely until one or other side’s heroes win through. But in MountainStruggle, each wave of soldiers can be expanded by Soulstones, which drop sporadically on the field of battle or can be bought with a special currency (diamonds). There are various kinds of Soulstone — red gives a melee unit, green a ranged unit, and so on. That, however, is only the beginning, because Soulstones can be merged.
Merging two soulstones combines them into a more powerful unit, so you immediately have a choice: bolster your soldiers right now with something weaker, or save up those stones for something better at the risk of your waves being outnumbered. You can merge a stone up to four times, going from lowly critters to powerful monsters. And as if that wasn’t enough, you can merge two soulstones of a different colour to get a unique blended unit… (Though a multicoloured stone cannot be merged again to reach a higher level.)
The landscape you fight across also includes a number of novel features. The two outermost lanes cross over a ridge in the middle of the world, where a guard tower joins forces with the player that most recently killed it. The two inner lanes do one better — they funnel through a cave system (via Waygates disguised as entrances) “under” that ridge. Finally, the middle lane is waterlogged — while only amphibious units and heroes can use it, it provides a very direct route right to the heart of the enemy base which can completely up-end a match if used correctly.
The world is, quite frankly, packed with places to explore, despite its relatively small size. This means that running around picking up Soulstones doesn’t take all that long, nor does returning to the fray after having died. It makes things fast and constantly interesting, and that interest is not centred solely on fighting other heroes — so if you are playing alone the living world sustains your interest, and even if you are playing against humans, you don’t need a full house to have a good time.
The bots are perhaps not the best in the business. While they are happy to attack and retreat sensibly, their fatal flaw is that they won’t gather Soulstones — so as a solo player who does, your victory is almost inevitable. I tend to stack the odds against me to compensate, giving them a full house of five heroes and only put one or two bot companions on my team.
There are also loads of generic items dropped over the course of a game and they don’t use those either, nor do they make purchases. Some item interactions would really have rounded them out and made them a more even match for a human. (Though having now done a lot of bot programming over the years, I can well understand why NEHZ didn’t go too far down that rabbit-hole.)
As the game comes to a close, another powerful peculiarity emerges — it’s actually very hard to destroy even a single Barracks. There are five Barracks for five lanes, they’re relatively close together in each base, and their waves are staggered. This means that, as the wave from one lane wins through and reaches a Barracks, then while that path is swamped, the wave from a nearby Barracks is intrinsically drawn in to defend and all the units battle each other rather than focusing on the actual buildings.
This is further compounded by the fact that the Keep itself has an attack, meaning that WC3’s unit AI inexorably drags the units through the maze of structures and to an almightly maelstrom at the centre. However, while all five Barracks stand, the game is very much not lost — a concerted push to disperse that ball of destruction can turn the tide and reassert the traditional tug o’ war nearer the middle of each lane. Since Soulstones and other items drop from dead enemies, such a massive battle right in your base can even give you a chance to redress the numerical superiority that led to it.
Yep, it’s a classic. It’s small, it’s fast, it’s exuberant and it’s full of twists and turns. This is how the AoS genre should have panned out… Though of course, playing with other humans might give it a completely different feel. Softmints did a more in-depth analysis over at Lane-Pushing Games a while ago if you’re interested in that angle.
This 1.04 version of the map, however, is not the full story. NEHZ was working on a version 1.05 (which I have in my posession, of course), which had a larger map area, more Soulstone merge combinations — including powerful level 8 units created by merging two maximum-level stones of different colours — and various other refinements. While I definitely wanted all that good stuff, I think expanding the map size lost the tightness that I enjoy so much, so I stick to playing version 1.04. I believe 1.05 was never released anyway, so as far as you’re concerned, I said nothing!