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Multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA, is perhaps the most-used phrase you’ll hear in gaming this year. Many developers already have or are in the process of making their own free-to-play MOBA, including a veteran studio that isn’t afraid of adding one more game to that crowded list.

Set for release in 2014 (with a beta planned in the fall) for PC, Mac, and Linux, Strife is S2 Games’ second MOBA. Its first, Heroes of Newerth, will live side by side with it. The developers showed off Strife last week at an event in Sausalito, Calif., and gave me an exhaustive overview of their goals and motivations for the new game.

Strife is a MOBA: Two teams of five choose their characters, pick a path or lane to fight in, and try to destroy each other’s bases using their abilities and A.I.-controlled creatures. But the most intriguing part of Strife are the ideas that you don’t normally find in a MOBA. Here’s a rundown of six features that stood out.

Strife

Above: These animal statues symbolize the bond between heroes and their pets.

Image Credit: S2 Games

Creating a deep backstory

S2 Games introduced us to Strife by talking about its extensive backstory, which is usually missing or tacked on in other MOBAs. Strife’s world consists of six different planes: Gale (high-fantasy realm), Tempra (fire and ice), Vorbis (cybernetic and underwater theme), Nestra (astrological), Lyrie (plants and animals), and an evil plane that remains closed off from the rest.

Characters from these different places gather for the Trials of Strife, a training ground that serves as the setting for the many online battles that will take place. Each hero has a specific reason for fighting, and you’ll see some of these tales in short animated clips, similar to what Valve did with Team Fortress 2. S2 is going to explore the plot outside of the game as well. It plans to have a Wikipedia-style site that breaks down the lore and a comic book series from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman.

Unleash the Krytos

Locked away near the center of the map is Krytos, a giant and powerful ape who’ll aid whichever team defeats the boss guarding him. After you collectively decide which lane he should run through (if you’re playing by yourself with A.I. teammates, you can just click one of the lanes), Krytos respawns on your side and smashes his way to the enemy base by attacking and disabling the deadly towers. He’s got a lot of health, but a well-coordinated team can take him down.

The philosophy behind Krytos is to give players the option to “create action” instead of passive gameplay, especially in matches where the winning team ends up playing defensively to protect their lead.

Strife

Above: A boss guards Krtyos’s prison.

Image Credit: S2 Games

A ‘significantly less’ number of heroes

Some MOBAs have hundreds of characters to learn and master, but Strife will have much less than that — the developers would only say that it will not end up anywhere near 100. Due to this smaller pool of choices, Strife doesn’t have rigid specializations, like tanks (characters with high health) or support classes. Characters do have stats and abilities that fit into those traditional definitions, but they’re also flexible and well-rounded enough to occupy other roles.

Part of the thinking behind this is to get rid of the hostility among teams when specific roles aren’t represented on the field, a discrepancy that might lower your chances of winning. In Strife, you can play and customize your hero to whatever style that suits you.

Strife

Above: Pets, like the owl above Caprice, can’t attack the other heroes. But their abilities enhance your character.

Image Credit: S2 Games

Raising Pokémon-like pets

Strife will launch with 10 pets, which are creatures that follow you into battle. They level up if you feed them food (a common resource you earn just by playing), have their own set of abilities, and can even evolve. In their third and final form, you can pick from one of two passive boosts that improves the efficacy of your character’s actions. Pets can also serve as a quick visual reference when assessing your opponents’ and allies’ skill level.

“They combine your options or your out-of-game progression into a [single] package that upgrades, and you feel some attachment, too,” said Jesse Hayes, Strife’s executive director of art. “We like to think that’s just cooler than spending points in a talent tree that you never see or never interact with.”

To unlock the pets, you can either use Shards (also earned from playing) or real money to buy them.

Crafting items

Typically, MOBAs have shops where you spend your hard-earned gold from battle to buy items, many of which are just recipes made up of cheaper materials and increase your character’s attributes. Strife has that, too, but like the characters, the overall number of those items is small. The twist is that you can change how they’ll affect you through crafting. By swapping out the “building blocks” of these recipes (like health and damage components), you’ll create a customized item that you can then use in the next match, assuming you have the gold to buy it.

When you craft an item, you’ll also have the chance to improve them and unlock its common, rare, or legendary bonuses. You can use Essences — an in-game commodity that you can’t buy with real money — to try to improve the item again or to make it permanent (crafted items/recipes only last for a few days).

Strife

Above: Ace is a strong but cocky hero with ice powers.

Image Credit: S2 Games

Preemptive strikes against jerks in the community

If you’ve played any MOBA before, you might have run into someone on your team who got mad at you for not playing your hero the way they want you to. Or they were angry that you stepped into the wrong lane. Whatever the reason, they somehow felt justified enough to barrage you with insults via chat. S2 Games wants to get rid of or at least decrease these instances by implementing some features that, on the surface, sound like a drastic improvement over what other MOBAs have done.

For instance, you can’t see anyone’s death statistics or kill-death ratios, information that some people use to pin the blame on their teammates if they’re losing. Except in the postgame lobby, you can’t chat with the opposing team. You can only use voice chat with people you grouped up with privately for matchmaking. And you no longer keep gold just for yourself — you share it with your team, a practice that encourages players to work together rather than compete for resources.

Strife

Above: Minerva is from Vorbis, the cybernetic/underwater plane.

Image Credit: S2 Games

Strife also has a Karma system in place for rating a player’s conduct: a positive vote if they were helpful and friendly or a negative one if they were just being a jerk. Cumulatively, these votes make up your Karma score. An algorithm searches for extreme outliers from the average and will dole out benefits or punishments. Those who repeatedly have a low score face the risk of receiving poor rewards at the end of a match (such as coal, which has no value whatsoever), being muted, or getting banned from playing for a period of time.

On the other hand, if your Karma score is high, you’ll have better luck at getting rare rewards. However, the score is never permanent: It’ll gradually improve or deteriorate from those extremes. And those who abuse the system and just score people negatively all the time will soon see that their Karma votes will suddenly weigh much less than everyone else’s.

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