Toylogic’s Happy Wars recent launch on Xbox Live caught many of us by surprise, as one would think the first free-to-play game hitting the platform would receive more fanfare. The arrival of a F2P title on consoles is arguably the beginning of a larger movement within the video game industry to bring social titles onto what have been traditionally closed platforms. After spending a few days with Happy Wars we can confirm that it’s certainly a step in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go before we reach that destination.
The game is a multiplayer action RPG, much in the same vein as Riot Games’ behemoth League of Legends. Happy Wars’ core gameplay is a combination of Team Deathmatch and tower defense. Players are automatically assigned into two teams who have to make their way across the game map in order to capture the enemies’ castle. At the same time, the team has to prevent their opponents from breaking into their own castle via cartoony and relatively bloodless combat. There are multiple ways into a castle, either by demolishing the main gate or building siege ladders in order to scale the side walls.
Along the way players can construct towers where there are foundations already in place, which can then act as respawn points should a player get taken out. If an opposing tower is already erected, players will need to destroy it before constructing their own.
There are three main classes to choose from: warrior, mage and cleric. Warriors are (surprise) the cannon fodder in matches, charging at enemies and trying to take out as many opponents as possible before they in turn are killed. Mages can launch ranged attacks as well as provide buffs that let friendly characters deal even more damage. Clerics, meanwhile, serve as support in several different ways: they can heal friendly characters, build defensive turrets to use at the castle and can construct the ladders and siege engines used to help take enemy bases.
F2P translates to console better than you might expect…
As characters level up during a battle, they unlock new abilities that are automatically assigned to the 360 Controller’s different face buttons. The higher a character levels up, the more abilities they have at their command and can easily switch between them by holding down on the left bumper and pressing the button with the skills they want to switch between.
The F2P elements, for better or for worse, are present in full swing. Battles allow players to randomly discover new gear during combat, and players can also earn the in-game currency of “Happy Stars” based on their performance during an online battle. These stars allow players to engage in minigames that reward them with random weapons and gear. The game’s hard currency comes in the form of “Happy Tickets” and can be spent on premium gear and extra avatar customization options. The gear one can purchase doesn’t tend to provide unfair advantages, but the items often come with some extra buffs not seen in the gear free players will normally find. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see the highest-scoring players are the ones who’ve shelled out some serious cash for the equipment they’re using.
The game’s single-player campaign has a cute — if shallow — plot for users to enjoy, but the problem is each successive level requires the player to be at a certain level in order to access it. That means users are forced to play in buggy multiplayer matches in order to further their story campaign; there’s no option to spend the game’s currency on unlocking these levels, either, which seems like a missed opportunity.
One of the game’s major strengths is how it’s easy to get the hang of, especially if players wind up spending approximately 15 minutes to play through the three-part tutorial. Doing this will not only give users a thorough experience with the basic mechanics, but it will show them how each of the three character classes work, as well as the basic tactics to employ during battles. In many respects the game successfully recreates the frantic feeling seen in Valve’s popular F2P game Team Fortress 2. Large team battles are fast-paced and more than a little goofy thanks to the visual style.
…But it’s still not the smoothest of debuts
Unfortunately, the fun gameplay is hampered by a number of issues, both on the design and technical sides.
The most immediate problem facing the game is its problematic connectivity. Joining a quick game session can actually take up to five minutes or so due to the game’s desire to match large groups of players together. Grouping 30 players together for a quick battle is fine in theory but it takes way too long to accomplish and the game will eventually fill the empty slots with bots when it can’t find anyone else. It also isn’t uncommon to be disconnected from multiplayer matches. Toylogic is obviously aware this is an issue, as the title screen has a message apologizing for the issues the game’s currently experiencing, but it’s particularly frustrating to be disconnected after a significant amount of experience has been racked up during an especially busy game session. The fact that this happened in about a third of our games over a couple of days was especially vexing.
Because this is an Xbox Live game, the social features are limited by the service’s lack of an open graph. Aside from playing with strangers via a random quick game, there’s also an option to invite one’s Xbox Live friends to get in on some team warfare action, too.
LiveChat is available but never seemed to work reliably when we were playing matches, likely due to the aforementioned server issues. The inability to communicate properly with teammates is another frustration, especially when you are trying to summon aid on one part of a particularly large map when no one’s around. That said, there are some options for basic communication via holding down the right bumper and pressing the face buttons; the commands can get the job done in a pinch so long as one’s teammates aren’t simultaneously doing the same thing.
Still more F2P than social
Additionally, even though Happy Wars is F2P, it’s not exactly a social game in the traditional sense. Although it monetizes through the sale of virtual goods, the game doesn’t allow players to send and receive gifts to one another (which is a staple in most social games and is even a feature utilized in the recent AAA game Darksiders II). There’s also no way to share or brag about meeting milestones in the game outside of the traditional Xbox Live Achievements. However, something that Toylogic took from social games is cross-promotion: The game’s main menu provides links to other games players might enjoy.
Even though this is a F2P title meant to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, Happy Wars is also hampered by the complex leveling system it forces on players. After each battle a player is rewarded with experience points points that increase their overall rank. Meanwhile, gear and equipment can also be leveled up, but the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining how this works and will leave some players likely feeling lost.
Happy Wars is, at its core, a genuinely fun game that gets mostly gets things right. Aside from the inherent problems that come with titles where it’s an option to pay to win, the game proves how much more social games could be on consoles if they weren’t so hampered by the closed systems of platforms like Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. Even though the game proves F2P can work on consoles, it also shows just how much more freedom developers will need before they can create social games for these systems.
A respectable debut for the F2P genre on Xbox Live, but its social features are severely limited by the closed nature of the platform. It also needs some bugs ironed out and the leveling system could use some simplifying.