With Dead Star and Battleborn having been released earlier this year, it’s worth asking how long until MOBAs become more ubiquitous within various videogame genres, and condition the larger player populous into becoming more fluid with terminology such as “ganking”, “feeding”, and “jungling”. As part of this narrative, Killstrain is yet another interpretation on the genre’s rule sets. It introduces a unique three-way PvPvP dynamic that hosts firm replayability despite the game’s narrow free-to-play scale.
At face value, Killstrain looks as if it’s not worth the alternative fee of $29.99 that unlocks all 10 Mercenaries and 3 Mutants, as well as future characters in the game. The music, artstyle, and menus look and sound decidedly low-budget. This seeming lack of effort also translates into the character design and voice acting themselves. Each one fits into some off-putting stereotypes including Diesel’s forced use of the word “Fool!” like Mr. T, Rook’s eye-roll-till-you-go-blind line “Is it tea time yet?”, and a pair of female characters who have no fashion sense other than unzipping or adjusting their outfits so that their bosoms pop out. What’s unfortunate is that earlier versions of Killstrain boasted a much more striking comic book-esque artstyle, however it’s final release has been reduced down to a cheap presentation that initially presents the game as something not worth putting money into at all.
Killstrain is competently accessible control-wise as another twin stick shooter, where every character has an instant repositioning ability to get out of danger fast, and their silhouettes speak fairly clearly as to where their strengths lie. For example, Katrina’s slender figure with a long rifle communicates that she’s a ranged character, whereas Rook’s bulky size immediately makes you more comfortable tanking him in the middle of battle. However, Killstrain has yet to solve the egregious issue MOBAs have with introducing new players. It’s less successful in this aspect than Armature’s Dead Star, in that it spends far-less time explaining its even more obtuse systems. In fact, the only comprehensive wiki on Killstrain today exists on the game’s site itself, which makes it unusual to see a developer having a multi-page explanation on how the game works. Sure, it’s opening tutorial will teach you how to collect ARCCs at a captured base, and use them to speed up your MEC Suit availability, but it’s completely disingenuous to a full match of Killstrain.
To fully explain how Killstrain plays, it’s worth starting with the Mutants themselves. Following the traditional format of MOBAs, Killstrain’s matches begin with spawning two teams of four human players on either side of the map, whose main objective is to destroy any enemy team’s base. The Mutants, however, spawn with only a pair of players whose primary goal is to contaminate the entire map with the Strain, a nasty substance that coats the ground immediately after they’ve planted a Strain pod. The effects of the Strain render Mutants near invisible while granting them increased mobility and health regen; alternatively, it has the complete opposite effect on Mercenaries.
The Mutants’ infectious colonisation is one of the many factors that Mercenaries have to worry about in a game of Killstrain. At the beginning of each match, both teams will have to start by making their way to their ARCC Generator: the two armed bases that produce the cylindrical canisters which are key to the human teams’ success. ARCCs’ simpler function is that they can be used as grenades to destroy Strain pods which block their path at the beginning of the game. But they also serve as a type of fuel that accelerates each team’s turret upgrade-rate which defend their respective bases, as well as allow humans to call in MEC Suits faster once they’re carried to the Drop Zone (more on MEC Suits later). The Drop Zone is smartly placed at the centre of each map where all three teams converge and most of the action takes place. The Drop Zone is the only neutral point on the map, which has both human teams fighting over who will have control over it to dispense ARCCs. While the Mutants have no use for the Drop Zone, attempting to deny the Mercenaries access to it ultimately helps them protect their own base.
The big hook of Killstrain is ‘turning’. As Mutants score points throughout the match, they’ll eventually gain the ability to turn Mercenaries onto their side as Mutants after downing them and dragging them into the Strain. It’s a dramatic moment for either team, as the Mutant player must position themselves to successfully pull the kicking and screaming Merc into the abyss. The Mercenaries’ MEC Suits are a good counter balance to the Mutant’s superior strength and potential increase in population. MEC Suit drops only last for about 30 seconds at a time, however Mutants don’t stand a chance in a one-on-one fight, and MECs can cut through the Strain quickly to get to the Mutant’s base. This is a risky move though, as moving deep into Mutant territory leaves you vulnerable to being turned once the suit runs dry. There’s a constant push and pull on all sides that’s routinely spontaneous and satisfying, though the satisfaction only exists in battle rather than the outcome as well. There’s almost never a clear winner in Killstrain – only losers, as the game simply ends once a team’s base is destroyed. This lack of recognition carries on to the post-game scoreboard, where top killers reign supreme.
Killstrain’s replayability runs deep, but it only gets so much mileage as a free-to-play game with one map and 13 characters. Diesel is the only playable character once you boot up Killstrain. The next character, Sylvin, is within relative reach, costing 4,000 Silver Dollars – Killstrain’s grindable currency. But by the time you’re looking to save up for Vincent – who costs 6,000 silver, you’re just wasting your time, as the average match awards between 100 to 200 silver per game with the occasional daily mission that awards extra cash. You’re better off plunking the $30 for full access to all characters.
Slightly more reasonable purchases reside in Masteries and Augments. Masteries are self-explanatory in how they boost character abilities by incremental percentages as you upgrade them, while Augments are active bonuses that have to be triggered by certain match activities, such as earning kills or completing objectives. This is the other half of Killstrain’s free-to-play model where there are an impressive amount of customisation options for your character. Although there are four additional tiers to every Mastery ability, and roughly 300 Augments available, the grind here is a bit daunting, as all upgrades also need to be purchased. And with the option to spend real money for the game’s alternate currency, Gold (which thankfully cannot be used on Masteries), Killstrain walks dangerously close to a free-to-win model.
Killstrain is an odd MOBA spin that manages to engage players in a neat style of competitive play. Its three-way dynamic is buoyed by the Mutant’s Strain and turning ability, as well as the Merc’s MEC Suits and reliance on ARCC production. It’s a respectably deep and replayable multiplayer game, but one that doesn’t fully eclipse the pitfalls of its free-to-play model. A $30 purchase, and perhaps some small investments here and there makes Killstrain far more digestible than trying to tough it out without spending a dime.
A Small Investment
Killstrain would have been and ideal MOBA alternative if only it was worth actually playing for free.