In a witch’s cauldron, Amazon Game Studios has stirred together contemporary gaming’s most beloved tropes: a rag-tag team of diverse heroes, mining for shiny resources, a fight for survival, sci-fi weaponry, a wild-west alien terrain—all free-to-play but monetized with a battle pass. The brew is Crucible, and it goes down easy. The magic is that it works.
Released last week, Crucible is an amalgam of great things. Playing it, or describing it to others, the modifiers “like Overwatch,” “like League of Legends,” “like Fortnite,” or “like Heroes of the Storm” flow off the tongue. By now, among gamers, these sorts of comparisons are compulsive. With wildfire design trends like battle royale lending familiarity to their debuts, new games are often seen primarily as exercises in compare-and-contrast. There’s big money in a good brew, and labeling counts for a lot.
Despite some pretty bold signage pointing to other games, don’t think of Crucible as reductive. Crucible magicks the familiar into something entirely its own: a strategy-grounded team shooter with undeniable charm.
The game is named for where it takes place, a rogue, junglesque planet that is the only known source of a substance called essence. A small mining colony was erected to extract the precious resource, but reptilian beasts called stompers leveled the initiative. Toxic gas proliferated after the attack, making the world uninhabitable. But when small holes appear in the cloud, parties of hunters rocket down and compete against each other in a sci-fi gold rush.
Free for PC on Steam, Crucible offers three multiplayer modes, all of which riff on survival-shooter or MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) mechanics. The main event is Heart of the Hives. On a vast, lush-green map, players wind around trees and craggy rock formations to capture three hive hearts before the other team. Hives spawn on a timer, appearing as bulbous monsters that spit out dangerous drones. Players have to wear them down to reveal capturable hearts. To gain an edge over the team fights that materialize around the hive hearts, players collect blue-glowing essence around the map to level up into upgrades. You gather it by killing hissing reptilian mobs, capturing essence harvesters, and killing opponents.
In a typical match, players organize little missions to capture essence-harvester points and gun down stompers to level into a competitive advantage. A little before the hive spawns, teams coalesce to chase each other down, scaling cliff sides or weaving through green valleys. Once most of the enemy team is down, and the hive has been destroyed, one player rushes to capture the hive heart in long, suspenseful seconds.
Heart of the Hives feels like a general-audience pitch for today’s most beloved competitive gaming mechanics. If you’ve played a hero shooter, like Overwatch or Team Fortress 2, you’ll understand the theory behind the team fights. If you’ve played a MOBA like League of Legends or Heroes of the Storm, you’ll get the gist of the strategic elements. If you’ve played none of the above, you’ll only need a couple of rounds to get up to speed.
Heart of the Hives is invitingly simple to get the hang of, although over time layers of complexity reveal themselves. Gameplay constantly forces the player to make compromises. There’s a herd of dinosaur mobs, bloated with essence, between you and the three-vs-three teamfight. Do you harvest and level up or rush to join your teammates? Or maybe you’re dead and the enemy team has nearly defeated the hive; do you spawn by your dwindling team or far across the map, near an uncaptured harvester? There’s a constant tension between the need to level up and the win condition of three captured hearts. To gain an edge, good players think about area control, resource management, positioning and, of course, fighting mechanics. These calculations equally engage reflexes and brainpower for a satisfying end-of-game feeling regardless of whether you win.
Crucible’s two other modes are less standout, but not at all forgettable. Its battle royale mode, Alpha Hunters, pits eight teams of two players against each other in a rapidly shrinking map. The last one standing wins, and often, that’s the person who’s best at balancing teamfights and resource-mining. If your teammate dies, you may form a pact with another solo fighter to increase your chances of victory. Last, there’s Crucible’s arcade mode, Harvester Command, in which two teams of eight race to earn 100 harvester points.
The map for all of these modes is the same, and in an interview with WIRED, Crucible’s combat designer Jon Peters said that Amazon Game Studios doesn’t currently plan to add more. After hours and hours of playing, I don’t blame them. The map’s winding roads and geographically interesting formations present their own learning curves. Buffs to experience or damage spawn around the map at random, presenting more to fight over. And scattered amid flora are interactive plants of many colors, which explode to create temporary invisibility, floor spikes or health.
Crucible pulls off these game-mechanics cameos, in part, because it feels elevated. And what elevates Crucible most are its characters, called hunters—eclectic, imaginative creatures of all ages, races, and builds. Because the game takes place in the far future, where a hunter’s background is more likely to read “Tau Centi Shipyard Belt” than “Oahu, Hawaii,” their range of skin tones and accents evoke a multiracial sci-fi society. It’s an uplifting vision, and one executed with immense creativity.
There’s Summer, a beefy, free-spirited spaceship builder who abandoned the family business to hunt essence on Crucible with welding flamethrowers and torches. When she’s not in close-up fire fights, a lot of the time, her avatar is dancing. There’s Shakirri, a debonair, honor-bound black woman who slices enemies with a precise rapier. Earl, a beer-bellied alien with a quad-cannon and a trucker hat, drawls about the simple life with a southern accent. Rahi and Brother are an altruistic man-robot duo who earned galaxy-wide celebrity distributing potable water and farmable land to those in need. Their relationship was inspired by sci-fi crime drama Person of Interest. It adds a little something that every hunter has their own custom intro music.
Crucible’s designers didn’t want players to feel overly constricted in their choice of hunter in a given game. There’s no rigid notion of a tank, who absorbs damage, or a plain old damage-dealer. It’s decidedly freeing. With that said, some hunters’ mechanics interlock well for situational strategies. Shakirri can drop a forcefield that traps opponents, and inside it, the ferocious shark-man Drakahl can spin his sonic axe against trapped enemies. While Summer distracts opponents with her flamethrowers, the graceful blue amphibian Ajonah can snipe from afar. The happy little robot Bugg’s mechanics are some of the most interesting; it drops flowering turrets that zap opponents for mass amounts of damage.
Before each game, players have the option to customize their hunters’ upgrades, which they’ll earn as they level-up in the match. This small bit of personalization can mold a hunter you like into a hunter you’re passionate about.
Crucible’s most controversial swerve from the norm is its total lack of voice or text chat at launch. On the game’s launch screen, players are prompted to join Crucible’s Discord group, where users post and request group invitations by region. While it takes just seconds to find a four-stack for Heart of the Hives, actually grouping up in-game requires some Steam gymnastics: requesting a stranger’s code, friend requesting them in Steam, and inviting them in-game. Amazon’s reason for not including in-game comms at launch is simple. “Some of those more common forms of toxic encounters won’t be there because we don’t have the means for that in the beginning,” says Amazon Game Studios franchise lead Colin Johanson. While they’re building voice and text chat, developers want a robust anti-toxicity system before they would launch it. Players rely on a ping system to demonstrate objectives, point out med kits, or identify enemies.
I was initially put off by the decision. Crucible games are noticeably less fun, less coordinated and less competitive without voice chat. If even one teammate isn’t in comms, and they’re just wandering around digging in the dirt, that can mean consistently uneven fights and certain loss. And yet, even through multiple Discord-facilitated groups, I have encountered no toxicity in the game so far—something that can easily put off women and minorities from digging into a new game’s mechanics and grinding up the skill ladder. As a woman who mostly plays multiplayer online competitive games, it feels worth the trade-off for now.
Because Crucible is so something-for-everyone, it’s hard to say what role it will play in the constellation of today’s biggest multiplayer competitive games. There are no plans for publisher-run esports leagues whetting competitive players’ palettes. There wasn’t much marketing to draw up interest for casual players. It’s not enough of a MOBA to capture mass attention from League of Legends players and not enough of a shooter to capture mass attention from Overwatch players. While queues for games aren’t long, indicating that lots of people are playing, the game feels still like a delightful secret.
Crucible is good, but I’m not sure it can draw people away from the refined, solid-feeling games that have captured MOBA and hero shooter fans’ attention for years. It’s the kind of thing I’d play occasionally, when I need a break from Overwatch.
Hopefully, Crucible’s genre-agnostic pitch won’t provoke gamers to toss it in the same bucket as looked-down-on free-to-play games that dried up in months. Crucible has style and substance, and ideally its more familiar qualities will be considered pillars for what makes it original. On the other hand, nothing makes a game sound more generic than the impassioned argument that it’s not.
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