In a candle-lit room in 1500s France, a man named Michel de Nostredame makes a bold (yet expected) prediction: Some day, free-to-play games will come to Xbox 360.
So we waited for that day to come. Sometimes we wondered if it ever would, sometimes we decided it would come sooner than we thought, and sometimes we reported on it actually being announced, but today it is finally here. Happy Wars, the first completely free-to-play game on Xbox 360, is now available.
But is this the beginning of the end for full-priced console games, or just another fad?
WHAT YOU’LL LIKE
It’s cute and exciting
Developed by Toylogic, Happy Wars is a third-person fantasy-themed multiplayer action game in which two teams of 15 people battle for control over a series of towers, all drenched in an extremely cutesy art style that belies the constantly growing pile of corpses you have to march over in order to reach your next objective. Think Battlefield or Team Fortress 2 combined with Dynasty Warriors and Saturday-morning cartoons.
At the beginning of each match, you choose from one of three classes (close-range, long-range, and support), and then join the rest of your team as you try to claim as many of that map’s towers as you can before coming head-to-head with the enemy team. That’s where the exciting part comes in. Not every minute will be completely thrilling (remember when I mentioned Dynasty Warriors?), but when you turn a corner and see a crowd of over a dozen enemy soldiers running toward you — any number of which might be charging up a special attack that could kill you before you can even bring out your shield — it’s impressive in a way that very few games can match. It gives you that feeling of being a small part in a much larger conflict, like the team needs your effort for victory, but you’re still not the Master Chief or whatever. One player in Happy Wars probably won’t be able to turn the tide of a match, but 10 players, all trying to meet the same goal through sheer brute force, can. It’s a very cool situation to find yourself in, and it makes me wish the game’s limited built-in chat options allowed your character to yell out badass lines like, “Death to the Red Team!” so you could strike fear in the hearts of your enemies as you start beating down their castle walls with your tiny, adorable weapons.
Although, those limited chat options that I mentioned were actually the first thing (other than the graphics) that tipped me off on how cute the whole operation is. At any point, you can hit the right bumper and four context-sensitive communication choices will pop up, each mapped to a face button. Before a match starts, you can choose the “Rally” option and say things like “We can do this!”, or you can compliment your fellow Happy Warriors on whatever goofy gear they’re wearing. But, if you’re like me, you’ll choose the “Negativity” option and greet your teammates with an uplifting chant of “I think we’re going to lose!” Maybe bleak cynicism isn’t cute to most people, but it feels very absurd (in a good way) when paired up with a bunch of tiny cartoon knights and wizards.
Also, I once saw someone online who had a helmet that looked like a cat sleeping on his head, and it was amazing.
Well, sort of. It’s as free as any game that requires an Xbox Live Gold subscription can be, but for all intents and purposes you don’t need to spend any actual money to enjoy Happy Wars.
However, if you choose to do so, you can pay for microtransactions that function in the exact same way as every other game’s microtransactions. There’s an in-game currency (called “Happy Coins”) that you earn simply by playing, and a real-money-based currency (called “Happy Tickets”) that you buy with real money. The in-game store (which sells extra customization options and special equipment) only accepts Happy Tickets, while you can use Happy Coins to bet on a roulette-style wheel that awards prizes based on how much you’re willing to gamble. Both forms of currency can then be used to upgrade the equipment you already have.
What this all means is that there’s no shortage of ways to get items in Happy Wars, whether you want to pay for them or not.
Who needs friends when the AI is this good?
When Happy Wars’ matchmaking system fails to find enough human players to fill a room, it gives the remaining spots to AI-controlled bots. This is nothing special on its own (though it is a welcome and easy way to keep the teams from being completely unbalanced). What’s interesting about this is that it took me an embarrassing number of matches to realize that the players I kept running into with improbable gamertags like “Roy” and “Leon” weren’t actually humans. It’s not that they were behaving in a particularly human-like fashion, it’s just that your goals in Happy Wars are so simple (capture these towers, kill anyone who gets in your way) that all the AI has to do is keep pushing forward and not only will they be doing the same basic things that the human players are, but they’ll be doing them well.
Although, considering how often I would get healed or resurrected by bots, I should’ve realized they weren’t humans sooner. The allure of the sword-swinging soldier class or the fireball-launching wizard is a little too hard to resist for most players (myself included), so the healer tends to be neglected. Good thing you can count on empathetic robots to watch your back.
One character across all modes
Happy Wars features a few different gameplay modes: traditional multiplayer, co-op, and a story-based campaign. Co-op is just like multiplayer, except one team is all AI-controlled, and the campaign is just like that except everyone is AI-controlled (other than you, obviously) and there’s some wacky plot conceit to explain why you’re trying to kill an army of robots, or tomato people, or whatever.
The best thing about these modes is that the characters you create for multiplayer stay consistent throughout all of them. That means you can level a character in co-op to give them a better chance online, or you can take that same character into the campaign and unlock special items for them that might give you more of an edge against real opponents.
It’s not ground-breaking or anything, but when games like Call of Duty are so clearly delineated between their modes, being able to grind a character against bots and then see how they fare online is a good way to ease in newer players.
WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE
You’re constantly doing the same thing
Unfortunately, those different modes you can take your characters into all end up being the same basic thing. What I was tip-toeing around up above is that the only major difference between the multiplayer, co-op, and single-player is how many of the other people playing are, you know, people. No matter what, you end up charging out of your starting castle, running to claim the towers, and then killing everyone on the other team as fast and often as you can. The campaign will shake things up a bit, asking you to kill specific targets, but it’s not enough of a difference to actual feel like you’re doing something new.
The control points-style multiplayer game is very popular these days, and with good reason, since it combines the simplicity of deathmatch with some very manageable goals to create an objective-based style that can still be enjoyed by the players who would rather just kill everyone in their path. It’s like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of multiplayer modes. Sure it’s delicious, but when it’s the only thing you have to eat you’ll get very sick very fast.
It’s important for any game to hold your attention, but it’s especially important for one that’s free-to-play. More people playing for longer periods of time means more people who are likely to spend money, but when it’s too easy to get bored, it’s very easy to stop playing.
The action gets hard to follow
When you and 14 other people are all trying to whack another group of 15 people with weapons, it can get a little confusing. It’s hard to tell which one you are and which ones you’re trying to murder. Throw in team identification in the form of a red or blue name and arrow above everyone’s head that is just a little bit too small and it becomes even harder to discern who you’re supposed to attack.
It’s reminds me of the great triumph of Team Fortress 2, which is the way that you can instantly tell what team someone is on and what class they are. In Happy Wars, it may only take you half of a second to figure out the same information, but that’s a half of a second that you will probably spend dying, so it’s an issue.
Also, this is a problem that the bots won’t have, making their competence a little frustrating.
You might want to keep your iPod handy
The soundtrack in Happy Wars is the usual generic fantasy-type score that wouldn’t seem out-of-place in a ripoff of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. It’s not bad, but like sameness of the gameplay modes, it gets pretty tiring when that’s all there is.
In-game, the expected array of sound effects (screaming, whooshing swords, exploding fireballs) break things up, but I ran into a bug several times that muted everything except the music and added a certain eeriness to the battles.
Unless you have friends and can talk to them while you play, these issues with the audio make Happy Wars excellent for listening to podcasts. I thought this was great, since I had a big backlog of This American Life episodes I needed to get through, but that’s hardly a mark of quality for any video game.
Happy Wars won’t change the world, but as the first shot fired in Microsoft’s push to bring free-to-play gaming to the Xbox, there’s a lot here to like. There’s minimal pressure to spend any money, the AI-controlled bots are intelligent enough to fool particularly stupid game reviewers, and the battles manage to be adorable and epic at the same time. Unfortunately, the repetitiveness in the sound design and gameplay makes the excitement level drop too quickly, but not enough to make it hard to recommend giving the game a try. It is free, after all. The only thing you have to lose is hard-drive space.
Happy Wars was released October 12, 2012 for the Xbox 360. The publisher provided GamesBeat with an early download code and free in-game money for the purpose of this review.