Free-to-play games have boomed to unprecedented levels of quality over the past couple of years. It’s hardly even a gamble that starting one will be time well spent at this point — it’s just a matter of deciding which game is the most worthy of sinking a boatload of hours into. Whether you’re a MOBA fan, an MMO connoisseur, or an FPS master, there’s something out there for everyone, all at the low, low price of … well, free.

Free-to-play vets Hi-Rez Studios may be best known (at the moment) for their success with third-person MOBA Smite, but that might change with their new team-based shooter, Paladins: Champions of the Realm. The game is currently in closed beta on consoles and open beta on PC, and pits two teams against each other in a competitive battle filled with strategy and technique, giving the FPS market yet another gem to add to its expansive arsenal.

At first glance, Paladins seems like the lovechild of Overwatch and Team Fortress 2, but underneath the surface it goes much deeper. The art style and some of the special abilities of characters are undoubtedly similar to the competition from Blizzard, but it’s hard to care if the two have anything in common seeing as Paladins does enough to separate itself when it comes down to the addictive gameplay.

Whether you’re playing Siege or Payload — Paladins‘ relatively similar game types — strategy runs rampant in both. Each champion features a unique set of ability cards which can be unlocked from loot chests, and you can create a deck of five that will improve your character from the get-go. If you decide to run with a defensive character, these cards give you the chance to either become a bullet-sponge brick wall, or the opportunity to be a hybrid that also sports some offensive oomph.

In-game, doing useful things like scoring kills and capping objectives grants gold which can then be used to buy upgradable items. Though similar to the cards, these items are different because every player in the game has them — it’s up to you to decide which item suits your playstyle, and which will also help the team the most.

If you find yourself frequently dying, you might want to invest in a speed upgrade for your mount so you can get back into the action ASAP. For those playing a healing character, maybe the item which grants health for every kill will be a smart buy. Items can also create a fun level of chaos — a player who is dying constantly may be the only one who wants to do something about the opposition’s super powerful shield, so will they get a mount upgrade or a buff that’ll help take the juggernaut down?

Teamwork in Paladins is essential, especially if you plan on playing the competitive mode. No mirroring in matchmaking means that if the other team picks your favorite champion first, you’re going to have to choose somebody else. Furthermore, once you lock someone in, you’re stuck with them for the duration of the game, so it’s important to counter the enemy’s team based on the type of champion they choose. On the bright side, this does happen to raise its allure in the eSports scene — it’s much easier to follow a match when there’s only one character per player, and given how big Smite is competitively, you can expect the same amount of attention in the years to come.

While strong in many aspects, Paladins can improve on some things before it officially leaves beta. Though its card system is inventive, there’s not much variety when it comes to character-specific upgrades. The amount of items available in a match are barren — even though they can counter a team’s technique, that team could also know which item may be coming, making a match between professionals predictable. It’s also a chore to get to the game’s ranked mode; to qualify, you need to level twelve different champions to rank 4, so even with XP boosts it’s not going to be a quick task.

Given the fact that Paladins is still a work in progress, it’s impressive how often it doesn’t feel like beta. It’s a little rough around the edges at times — things like blurry textures and a lack of varied sound effects can dampen the immersion a bit — but then again, plenty of triple-A titles have released to retail in far worse condition. Most importantly, Paladins is just a massive amount of fun, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more engaging FPS with zero money spent.

— Joe DeAndrea

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XCWarrior

Any idea of what the beta will end? Looks interesting but I’m not one to play games in the testing phase.

Brad Gallaway
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Last I checked, no word on that yet. It probably won’t be for a while…