Who remembers Herzog Zwei? This free-to-play RTS from Ubisoft is the spiritual successor to the Mega Drive classic, giving you control of a transforming robot instead of a mere mouse pointer. Itâ€™s a brilliant idea, allowing you to quickly transport troops and also directly engage the enemy with some twin-stick shooting. So brilliant, in fact, that weâ€™re surprised no other developer has shamelessly pilfered the concept before.
The transforming robots – known here as AirMechs – have their limitations though. A swiftly drained health bar is one; an energy bar the other. The latter is an integral part of the gameâ€™s design, preventing the opposition from plonking tanks and turrets straight on your doorstep. The heavier the unit, the slower the AirMech travels while transporting. Health and energy are recharged at bases youâ€™ve captured, and this is the focal point of battle – capturing bases to reduce the ground between yourself and your enemy. The more bases under your control, the quicker and easier it becomes to dominate the battlefield.
AirMech Arena has several strokes of genius, one being that robot soldiers – lovingly referred to as â€˜The Creepsâ€™ – are produced automatically. Creeps will head to any un-captured bases, in addition to those currently falling short of the four soldier quota required to retain control. This keeps battles flowing nicely, and also allows your attention to be diverted elsewhere. Base defences can then be bolstered with turrets, tanks, mechs and repair vehicles. Units can be built at the push of a button and then retrieved from any base, again keeping the pace fast flowing.
Only eight different units can be taken into battle, forcing you to choose strategically. At the start only basic turrets, foot soldiers and a small assortment of vehicles are available. After rising up the ranks however, far more become available – the crude repair truck can be swapped out for a mech that resembles something from Robot Wars, while soldiers clutching mortars and flame-throwers can be purchased.
AirMechs too are upgradeable with stronger armour and such, while each pilot and AirMech type – which range from helicopters to flying saucers – has their own pros and cons.
As a free-to-play release, in-game purchases do unsurprisingly feature. Theyâ€™re used to purchase additional currency of which there are two types – kudos and diamonds. Kudos are easily acquired, gained at the end of each battle in addition to completing on-the-fly quests. Diamonds are far more elusive, but worry not – the majority of items purchased using them are purely superficial, including â€˜petsâ€™ that follow your AirMech around, new skins and random item boxes. Somewhat cheekily, a small holding of diamonds is required to use the in-game marketplace as theyâ€™re used to pay commission.
After spending a good ten hours with AirMech Arena, we never felt the need to open our wallet in order to achieve victory. The â€˜ultimateâ€™ versions of unit types – which boast of far greater attack power and defences – do give the opposition an upper hand, but thankfully itâ€™s uncommon to face opponents with these in their loadouts. At the time of typing, the battlefields are evenly matched. Itâ€™s a good thing too, as this has clearly been designed with competitive play in mind – the fact that thereâ€™s a spectator mode makes that apparent from the outset. 3v3 online battles are curiously engaging to observe.
Although there is a tutorial hidden away in the menus, the game begins with a rather unexpected challenge mode. The odd thing about this is that not everything is fully explained by the end of it, leaving you to then work out a few things for yourself. This isnâ€™t a bad thing, but it does result in a spot of trial and error during the first few hours of play. Indeed, when playing against opponents online itâ€™s easy to spot those well versed with the game. Or to be more precise, those who paid attention during the tutorial. Itâ€™s not uncommon to observe newcomers placing anti-air turrets to combat ground troops, or incorrectly placing resource generators. In time though everything clicks into place, and soon the subtle nuances start to emerge.
With skirmish, survival and practise modes available, those flying solo are reasonably well catered for. Playing against the AI however soon becomes tiresome due to their predictable patterns. They rarely attack your fortress head-on, opting instead to simply attack any bases youâ€™re currently trying to capture. When their health gets low they turn and retreat like a coward in a very predictable manner. Incidentally, when playing the survival mode in co-op the AI will fill in if a player leaves. The AI here isnâ€™t great either but it does at least give the remaining players a fighting chance.
We found ourselves favouring the co-op survival mode over ranked/unranked versus battles. To say it offers a challenge would be an understatement – even with three other humans in tow we rarely made it to the final wave. After each failed attempt though, we found ourselves surviving for longer periods. Similarities with cult classic Defense Grid are numerous here, in the sense that enemies attack in prescribed waves and follow predetermined paths. Over time these attack patterns can be memorised, allowing you to plan ahead to stage pre-emptive attacks.
No matter what mode youâ€™re playing, unit types are well balanced which in turn makes the package as a whole feel impeccably designed. The only problem we found, rudimentary AI aside, is that online play suffers from crippling lag and random server disconnections. During one match a message appeared informing us that we were connected to a Canadian server and to transfer to a closer region, but try as we might we couldnâ€™t find the option to do so. A tweet to developer Carbon Games asking how to do this sadly fell on deaf ears.
Hopefully these problems are simply â€˜teething issuesâ€™ – this is a genuinely brilliant game, throwing out the RTS rule book in favour of doing things its own way. The result is something that feels like a breath of fresh air, toppling World of Tanks as our favourite free-to-play XBLA release.
Carbon Games has informed us that ‘Ultimate’ units aren’t usable in PvP matches. That’ll explain why we didn’t see any players with them in their loadouts, then.
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