You may not think the world needs another free-to-play hero shooter, but Amazon does. The e-commerce giant’s game development arm, Amazon Game Studios, is releasing its first big-budget title this week. It’s called Crucible and it was developed over the course of many years by Amazon subsidiary studio Relentless, with each iteration seemingly changing to adopt big trends in the industry. Like many free-to-play games, it borrows heavily from many of the most popular competitive titles of the last decade, in a bid to create a new formula that Amazon hopes will catch on with both Twitch streamers and everyday players.
Crucible may be a hero shooter, like Overwatch, at its foundation. But fans of the Blizzard hit — or any other popular shooter of the moment, like Apex Legends — should not expect a similar experience. Crucible is highly derivative and designed with a rather bland aesthetic, but it ends up being surprisingly unique when you’re actually playing it. That makes all of its well-worn game modes, including a mini battle royale and one inspired by e-sports heavyweights like League of Legends, feel more like new experiences rather than remixes of popular classics.
Crucible is highly derivative, but its blend of competitive elements ends up feeling unique
After trying an early version of the game for a few hours ahead of release last week, I’m fairly confident Crucible, which releases for PC only on May 20th, will find an audience that’s been itching for this particular mashup of design ideas and genres in an accessible package. It’s fun and dynamic and has a depth of strategy to it that, while not perhaps at the level of a Dota 2 or League of Legends, is certainly deeper than your standard shooter or battle royale. How big that audience is, especially when it’s competing with so many similar games doing similar things, will be a test for Amazon’s prowess as a game publisher and its ability to market the game using its Twitch platform.
Much like how Riot Game's new hit Valorant mashes up Counter-Strike with hero shooter design and aesthetics, Crucible presents a similar blend, but with the ever-popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre. You have a roster of unique characters that move and fight in distinct ways, with a set of abilities that have to be mastered and then combined effectively with your teammates’ abilities to succeed, usually at some long-term objective that takes 30 or more minutes to accomplish.
The crucial difference with Crucible is that you’re doing so in third person within a large, open objective-based map, as one does in games like Dota and League. (Unlike a traditional MOBA, the camera follows your character from an over-the-shoulder perspective, like in Fortnite, so you don’t see as much of the map as you would in a more pure strategy game.)
The game’s hallmark mode is called Heart of the Hives, and it involves two four-player teams competing to strategically capture three items on the map, all while leveling up by defeating AI-controlled enemies and holding capture points to speed up the process of getting stronger.
The MOBA influences are apparent the minute you pick up the game. Each character moves with a discernible speed and rhythm, and understanding how fast your character can get from point A to point B is integral. That’s because you spend less time in a match fighting and more time collaborating with your teammates on where on the map you need to head next, how long it will take to get there, and what types of resources you can collect along the way.
Character movement speed is also vital to winning or escaping engagements with other human players. Faster characters, like the teleport-capable Tosca, can zip in and out with ease, but have low health to compensate. Larger characters, like the hulking machine gun-wielder Earl, move slowly, but are harder to kill.
Crucible’s hallmark mode is the heavily MOBA-inspired Heart of the Hives
Like in Dota or League, you’ll often find yourself making the calculation to either pursue an enemy you think you can take down to give your team a momentary advantage or backing off to focus on objectives. Fights can drag out for a long time thanks to large health pools and med kits, strategic player abilities for healing or invulnerability, and a fair amount of environmental cover and areas for hiding to give yourself room to recover.
In this way, matches represent the drawn-out, methodical competitions you experience playing a MOBA. A lot of time is spent collecting resources and capturing points to level up; leveling up ensures you have better abilities, more health, and higher attack power. When it comes time to engage in battle, typically over one of the three objective items (called “hearts”), the fights can be chaotic and spread out across a wide area. These engagements often result in only one or two enemy kills, but in a way that is explosive and exciting given how high the stakes are and just how difficult it is to land that finishing blow.
Of the 10 heroes available, I was only able to try three during full-length matches in my time playing the game last week: the fast and small animal-like creature Tosca that can teleport and capture points faster; the very straightforward gunner Mendoza who can sprint and drop cover from the sky; the axe-wielding melee fighter Drakahl. I was able to briefly experiment with two other heroes, the sword fighter Shakirri and the pyrotechnic hero Summer, but not in a meaningful fashion.
That said, each one was drastically different in ways that are most reminiscent of Overwatch. Games like Apex Legends and Valorant feature heroes that largely use the same firearms and maneuver in similar fashion. Crucible, on the other hand, has a pool of characters — with their unique weapon sets and movement abilities — that offers much starker diversity of play styles and strategy. It’s a big strength of the game that even while its heroes might be forgettable in name and design — Mendoza looks and feels almost exactly like Solider 76 from Overwatch — they still have a depth to them that warrants trying each one and seeing which you like best.
Of course, Amazon and Relentless aren’t settling for just a MOBA lite. They also want Crucible to offer something for players that like more casual competition. So in addition to Heart of the Hives, the game also features Alpha Hunters, a 16-person battle royale featuring eight teams of two, and a standard deathmatch-style mode called Harvester Command, in which you capture points to increase the score values every time you down an enemy.
Both feel a bit more rough around the edges than Heart of the Hives, and it’s clear these modes are a bit more peripheral to the overall package. But it does seem like a smart play for Amazon to invest in all three in the event one takes off in a big way and becomes a more central draw for players or the more serious-minded Twitch crowd.
Crucible will also feature a 16-person battle royale mode
That said, it’s not a requirement that Crucible become the next big thing. In a Q&A after the gameplay session, Relentless developers said they aren’t yet planning any big console release that would necessitate cross-play or even remotely thinking about mobile. The company also isn’t planning a splashy launch like the Valorant beta on Twitch, in which streamers got early access and gave out keys to viewers while they streamed.
Crucible will simply release for everyone on May 20th. The game also has all the free-to-play business trappings to ensure it can make money over time. There will be a battle pass and a cosmetics store, most similar in overall design to Apex Legends.
The lack of a more in-your-face launch may be surprising given Amazon owns Twitch and could heavily market it or convince streamers to jump aboard early on. But Relentless says it’s taking a more measured approach — the studio understands it’s entering the competitive gaming fray with a new title from a relatively unknown team. Whether it blows up will have to depend, for now, on whether Crucible can manage to stand out on its own, without needing the marketing muscle and resources of its mega-corporate parent.