First Look: The Maestros

I have a soft spot for non-traditional strategy games; particularly, competitive games with non-traditional economies. Over the years, I’ve realized that I have the most fun with strategy-type games that allow me to focus on territory control and combat rather than setting up a large multi-part economy (over the course of several minutes). Whether that’s arcade-y strategy like AirMech, large scale tactical games like Wargame and Steel Division, or more ‘tactical’ strategy games like Company of Heroes 2, I tend to feel more comfortable these days in competitive game systems that don’t feature an extensive ‘back line’ of production, resource gathering, and upgrades.

New to that space is arcade-y strategy game The Maestros, which went into Steam Early Access on October 5, 2018. The Maestros is the flagship title of indie studio Systence Games, and it’s fast-paced and light-hearted, and takes some hefty nods from MOBAs. Let’s take a look at the specifics, and what this game does well, and where it has issues.

Disclaimer: Wayward Strategy was gifted a copy of this game through Steam Curator Connect, and has been given access to in-progress content by the developer.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Alchemists weren’t in the game yet. This has been corrected.

About the Game

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The Maestros is not really an RTS, though it’s not really a MOBA either. It falls into a category I call “RTesque” – it allows players to control multiple units, and shares some common control systems with what players might be familiar with from real-time strategy games, but there are sharp differences that set it apart enough for the differentiation in genre name to be worth mentioning.

In The Maestros, players take on the role of heroes from one of two opposing factions: the steampunk or Dieselpunk Knights of Teutonia, or the more organic Alchemists of Regalis. Much like in a MOBA the player’s hero is the cornerstone of the game: if your hero dies, you’re either out for the round (a la CS:GO)… or, you’re unable to act until you respawn (a la DOTA).

As implied above, the game currently has 2 modes: one where the first team to score 5 kills in a match wins, and the other which declares the team that eliminate all enemy heroes the winner, across multiple rounds. When one team kills off a hero in the second, “CS:GO” gameplay mode, that killed hero must remain a spectator until all their allies are killed as well, when a new round starts and everyone’s progress is reset. The first team to win 3 rounds by killing off all enemy heroes is declared the winner of the whole match.

Currently, the game supports 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3 battles.

Faction Design

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The player starts a round with only their hero unit, and they kill creeps scattered across the map to grow an army. the Knights of Teutonia gain 2 little ranged units called Doughboys per creep killed, to a maximum force of 20. The Alchemists gain a single melee attacker called a Rambam per kill, up to a cap of 10.

The game’s core mechanic is upgrading these basic units into advanced forms. Scattered around the map are little upgrade discs – Knights of Teutonia can feed their Doughboys into them to return advanced units, and each disc only combines into a single unit type. It often costs 3 or 4 Doughboys to combine into a stronger unit, so your fully upgraded army typically ends up with 5 or 6 units of various types.

Alchemists have a different mechanic: The upgrade discs don’t directly upgrade units for Alchemists: instead, they grant charges of upgrade potions. the Alchemist hero then spends the potions whenever they want to transform one of their core units into its specialized form.

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You start out with a single hero, and gain a new one every 2 levels: levels are earned by AI skirmishes, or playing against actual players. The developers provided me with access to try the Alchemists out on my own, skipping the grind to earning them. Honestly, I’m not sure which faction I prefer at this point, but I’m glad there’s work being done to make the factions experientially different, which I really prefer in strategy games.

Currently, there are 3 heroes per faction. Each hero has a unique weapon and a single special ability: be it stunning enemies nearby the hero, shooting an AoE missle anywhere on the map, or dealing AoE damage and knocking back the hero an all affected units. I really hope that the developers focus on balance of heroes and abilities, since in a game with comparatively few parameters to tweak when trying to achieve victory, you need the ones available to players to be pretty balanced and interesting to ensure a fun player experience.

Gameplay

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So… ah, where was I? You start a match with your hero character. Right off the bat, the players must rush off to attack creep camps to build up an army. Units are your primary method for interacting with the game – Heroes can’t do much alone and without an army to support a hero, they’re doomed.

Right now, there are only a couple of types of creep, and you’re mostly just trying to burn them down as fast as possible so you can move on to the next group of creeps. There’s not a ton of strategy in taking down creep camps, that I’ve noticed: micromanaging your units can help you build up your population faster, but there’s (currently) not the variety of neutral enemies you’d see in WarCraft 3 or DOTA2, and I definitely feel that more variety would help. Even if there’s only 2-3 different creep types per map, having a couple more creep types would make this part of the game more interesting.

Once you have a good stock of basic units, it’s off to the upgrade discs to get some more powerful units.

One of the things The Maestros does best is to make it really easy to manage your army. There’s quick hotkeys to select your hero alone, all of your forces, or all units of a particular type. Also, there’s a World of Warcraft-like action bar at the bottom of the screen that provides you with constant instant access to your unit and hero abilities, regardless of whether you have them selected.

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Unfortunately, at the moment there’s not a lot of feedback as to the strengths and weaknesses – or even the function – of any particular unit type, and learning them is a matter of trial and error, which is a potential risk for the game. If players aren’t able to quickly grasp the basics of the tools they’re using to use, they’re gonna get frustrated. Also, unit balance feels like it might be a little iffy: some units clearly feel superior to others. My biggest issue, however, is that right now a bad engagement is almost assuredly a loss.

So, you have to go hunt creep camps to gain units. You need units to fight your opponent. Lacking escape options, if your opponent crushes your army there’s almost no way to flee and attempt to raise a new army to fight again – this is most prevalent in 1v1, but also applies in 2v2 and 3v3 mode. A smart opponent will chase you until they manage to catch up, at which point it’s basically over. There is a retreat function, but I noticed that persistent enemies can often keep up with your fleeing army/hero, certainly before you’d be able to build up a force with which to defend yourself.

This leads to circumspect playing, keeping away from opponents until you’re maxed out, followed by all-in brawls that end in a definitive defeat for one team.

Combine this with maps where, with all players constantly moving, it being occasionally difficult to track down your opponent, there are some weird edge cases that get frustrating: not being able to locate opponents, and not being able to get away from them after a bad fight, feel like problems that should be addressed: either solved or mitigated, before the game leaves Early Access.

The Upsides

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I’ve spent a decent portion of this article leveraging criticism at the game. And yet… I’ve been having fun with it. It’s a game I could play with non-RTS gamers, and that’s important to me as many of my real-life friends can’t keep up if I want to play Age of Empires or Company of Heroes. This? Its core concepts are straightforward enough to introduce my dad or my kids. That might sound a bit like ‘damning with faint praise’ to you, but such a game is something that’s long been on my docket to find.

The unit abilities, too, are pretty enjoyable for the most part. The Knights of Teutonia hit a couple of good spots for me: they have a unit that can drop a pool of oil down to slow enemies, a second application of which (from another one of these units – you need 2 to pull the trick off) will burst the pool into flames to deal respectable AoE damage. That ability also helps land some of the other Knight’s abilities, which include a sniper unit that can throw land mines and a unit that can leap across the map and crash down on enemies from above, dealing area damage.

There’s a fragile unit whose ability connects it to others of its type, dealing damage to all units caught within the beam. A couple of these surrounding your enemy (should they allow that to happen) will kill them almost instantaneously – a high risk/reward play that can be hilarious if it pays off. While I hope each faction sees a couple of additional unit types before launch, perhaps with a bit of thought to new strategies and synergies, I think the current roster.

There are also 2 additional win conditions in the game. Both are lifted from the MOBA design playbook (but that doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad – I think they work in The Maestros): there’s a ‘super creature’ that spawns, and whoever kills it gets to control it. It loses health constantly after you acquire it, meaning the longer you wait to take advantage of its power, the less it benefits you.

The other is a must-have for a game with CS:GO style elimination, and is also useful in a team game if you’ve fallen behind: a structure spawns that, if you kill it, wins you a round or counts as a kill. If you’re in a 3v3 and your 2 teammates are dead, this is a way to secure a win without trying to take on a team of 3. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a sight better than nothing.

MOBA Madness?

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So, is The Maestros a MOBA? Is it an RTS? Well, I hate to cop out, but… it’s not really either. There’s no hero leveling, no bases of any description, either to build or defend. In fact, heroes aren’t as potent in this as they are RTS like WarCraft 3. Heroes are almost a liability in The Maestros, since you’re set way back if they kick the bucket. There’s nothing like itemization from many MOBAs. The only ‘resource’ is units and ability cooldowns, making the game not really a strategy game by my definition.

There’s definite MOBA energy going on in the game, for sure, though, and RTS players should be aware of this before jumping in.

The important question is, who is this game likely to appeal to? What’s the audience for something like this? Well, as I already said, I have kind of a thing for combat-driven games. I’m set apart from a decent section of the RTS community by preferring games like AirMech or Dawn of War 2 over more economically-driven fare (e.g. Age of Empires or Command and Conquer Generals, for instance), but I think with some polish I’d be happy playing a game like The Maestros.

Players who appreciated deckbuilding RTS BattleForge, or fellow MOBARTS (how’s that for an acronym?) Guardians of Atlas are likely to see similarities in The Maestros. Anyone who remembers End of Nations fondly might find something to like here as well, and, potentially, players of AirMech. If you liked Halo Wars 2’s Blitz mode, you might find this enjoyable (more enjoyable, perhaps, since you don’t have to worry about deckbuilding or card levels?).

Moving Into the Future

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I’ve had fun so far in my time with the game, despite the issues I’ve presented in this article, and I’m looking forward to its continued development. But, as I acknowledged at the opening of this article, my tastes tend to not align with what I see as the broader ‘RTS enthusiast’ community.

The Maestros is a very focused, streamlined game (make of that what you will – it can be hard to grow depth into systems which are too simple). It wants you to smash down some creeps and throw volleys of unit abilities at other players in a game of teamwork and fast army battles. It has growing to do, in terms of balance and content and polish. More importantly, probably, is for the game to sell its vision to potential customers. MOBA gamers and RTS gamers alike are liable to look askance at its deviations from their formula. It’s a tough path to navigate, and I wish them the best moving down it.

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