Happy Wars review: Xbox’s first free-to-play game
Remember kids, you can’t spell ‘slaughter’ without ‘laughter’.
According to the press stuff, Happy Wars is Xbox LIVE’s very first free-to-play multiplayer game, except it’s not exactly free because – like every other Xbox LIVE multiplayer game ever – you need a premium subscription to play it. That bit of obfuscating marketing out of the way then, Happy Wars is a third-person, class-based, 15-vs-15 mash-’em-up that looks a bit like South Park and plays a bit like Battlefield’s Rush mode.
The big idea is to capture points on a map (these then serve as spawn locations while remaining under your team’s control), and push the offensive forward until you reach the enemy team’s castle. Then you storm the castle gates and walls and destroy a statue for the win. If neither team manages to accomplish this in 15 minutes, a victor is determined by the number of points held on the map instead. In the (somewhat unlikely) event of a tie, there’s a sudden death playoff and the first team to capture an enemy point gets the conqueror’s cookie. Whatever happens, there’s a whole lot of chaos.
There are three classes to choose from, including a mêlée-oriented warrior, a mage specialising in mid- and long-range spellcasting, and a cleric whose job mostly involves healing and resurrecting allies, and supplying building materials for things like ballistas and siege equipment. All classes can assist in construction of these once materials are supplied, however, and the more players helping out, the quicker things get done.
Much like Battlefield, coordinated cooperative play that prioritises support classes will give a team an enormous advantage over the other, but also much like Battlefield, most players prefer to ignore this totally obvious aspect of the game and choose to play the warrior instead.
Although gear is persistent throughout all game modes, every player starts a match at level 1 and class-specific abilities are randomly assigned from a list each time. During the course of a match, a class can grind up to level 5, and additional, increasingly powerful class-specific abilities are unlocked at each level. You can also change classes whenever you respawn to respond and adapt to changing circumstances out on the battlefield.
Close combat is a mostly mindless and somewhat imprecise button bash, and veteran players with better gear have an instant edge (as it were) against everybody else out on the frontliness, which can make this game somewhat frustrating for new players. This would be partly mitigated by support play, but again, this sort of mutually beneficial collaboration is apparently quite beyond the conceptual scope of those people who think getting the most kills is the most important thing in the game.
By comparison, the AI in the single-player campaign and four-player co-op easily out-performs the average self-interested adolescent, and might even be mistaken for human players if it weren’t for the fact that they’re, you know, actually doing something useful. That’s also a compliment to the game’s AI – it’s surprisingly reliable, and even if they’re not doing what you think they should, you can issue orders via a popup UI.
In between matches, you can customise your classes and improve your gear using a kind of forge that turns unwanted gear into scrap that can then be assimilated into other gear to upgrade its stats.
Happy Wars is inevitably backed up by micro-transactions, although it’s largely limited to cheap aesthetics like haircuts and charmingly twee helmets, and – perhaps unexpectedly – the whole PAY MONEY FOR THINGS system isn’t shoved all up in your grill. You can buy randomly rolled gear, but because you can get gear simply by playing matches online, there’s no good reason to do so unless you don’t want to invest the time. I’d also question the rationale behind paying money for gear if you don’t plan to invest that time in the first place, so there’s that. How much time you’ll actually invest in the game is another matter altogether, because while Happy Wars is loads of frenetic fun for a couple of hours, maybe, its repetitive gameplay probably won’t keep your attention much longer than that.
With a pricetag of absolutely nothing (and free Xbox Achievements as a bonus incentive!), Happy Wars is definitely worth a go now, but unless ToyLogic adds to it – and soon – I don’t expect the game to maintain any real popularity in the longer term. There’s potential for Happy Wars to be something great, but for the moment, it’s just quite good.