Platform: XBLA (Free to play)
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
XBLA's first proper flirtation with free-to-play gaming comes in the form of Happy Wars: a 15 vs 15 multiplayer brawler with MOBA pretentions. Two armies of adorable cartoon warriors face off in a battle to assault each other's castles, bicker over respawn towers and generally make a wondrous mess of things in some expansive maps. You'll use three distinct classes to switch between triumphant attack and desperate defence, constantly earning ranks, items and in-game currency to gamble on new gear.
All for the bargain price of absolutely nothing. Happy Wars is one of the most generous free to play titles I've ever seen, with only the bare minimum of content gated behind its premium currency. So long as you're a Gold Member.
However, I've held off on this review for a couple of reasons following its launch last month. The holiday season/Christmas is always fraught with time constraints for small teams like ourselves, but Happy Wars also released with some of the most horrendous netcode I've ever seen. Now that Toylogic have had time to shore up their infrastructure, can this free fun factory mix it up with the biggest hitters on Xbox Live?
Gameplay-wise, Happy Wars is a straightforward MOBA-esque battle for territory and towers that pays a few nods to Fat Princess. Each team of fifteen warriors has to defend their vulnerable Big Tower, surrounded by castle walls and a sturdy portcullis, while sallying forth to destroy the enemy's stronghold. A number of respawn towers in the central arena become raging battlegrounds, with players doing their best to erect their own bases and deny ground to the foe. In an effort to keep things as simple and accessible as possible, melee attacks are mapped to X, while a small array of skills and a shield are just a button tap away.
New players can immediately jump into the isometric action with little or no learning curve, which proves to be a disarmingly friendly experience brought to life by joyously colourful cartoon visuals. There's a real sense of community and cooperation at play here, helped by some team abilities that can empower up to nine other players with surprising (frequently devastating) effects. That said, pitched battles can quickly descend into incredibly confusing bundles since all players tend to look the same from the top-down perspective.
The three classes, which can be freely switched between during respawn cooldowns, all boast a number of offensive and defensive options at different ranges. As you'd expect, the Warrior deals out melee damage and gains skills that deal direct damage. His ranged counterpart, the Wizard, excels at range; with the ability to cast elemental spells or buff allies with elemental effects (but can struggle to select the right targets due to clunky spellcasting mechanics). Their team skills can turn entire formations into impentrable phalanxes or insane energy-arrow firing bowmen, their power balanced with long cooldown times.
The Cleric is by far the most versatile and useful combatant on the field. Not only does this hammer-wielding healer pack the ability to patch up, buff and resurrect team mates, but he (or she) can summon building materials to construct a number of game-changing in key locations. Ballistas and cannons provide a powerful defensive boost, while battering rams and ladders pose a significant problem for enemy defenders. One skill even erects an enormous wall, perfect for last-ditch area denial. Personally, I feel that there was scope for the healing and building abilities to be separated out into different classes, but at least the three-class setup keeps things relatively simple.
Interestingly, class abilities are doled out randomly as you kill enemies, support allies or secure towers, with persistent levelling only affecting the weight limit and power of equippable gear. This makes for a balanced arena, but it's a shame that the addictive thrill of creating your own character with your own skills isn't borne out through the gameplay.
At least you'll have plenty of customisation options. Each class can be outfitted with a range of facial design elements and equipped with an array of gear, from swords, hammers and staves to shields, helmets and... erm... pirate beards. Most items confer bonuses to attack and defence, alongside buffs to respawn cooldown and other esoteric effects.
All this talk of items and gear has probably riled up your cynical side by now. This is a free-to-play title after all... so where's the monetisation? Brilliantly, I don't really know.
Completing battles and levelling up will reward you with new weapons, armour and Happy Stars: a free currency that can be spent on a roulette wheel for the chance to win more powerful gear. You're also able to spend Microsoft Points on Happy Tickets, the premium currency, but your reasons for doing so are vague to say the least. Premium items only tend to be cosmetic enhancements and visually appealing (but not particularly powerful) armour sets - nothing worth spending money on in the first place. After all, as mentioned, everyone looks very similar anyway.
Unfortunately, Happy Wars made a horrible first impression when it released back in October due to its staggeringly poor netcode. Players frequently had to wait between five and ten minutes to enter a match, and though Toylogic have improved matters over the last fortnight, there's still a lot of work to be done. Wait times of between 1-5 minutes are still the norm, while weak matchmaking frequently results in totally unbalanced teams, often pitting full squads of fifteen players against one or two humans and an army of bots. A free to play title needs to make it as easy and convenient as possible to play, and without wanting to resort to hyperbole, this needs to be fixed as a matter of priority to avoid the player base dwindling and dying before the year is out.
Fix it, Toylogic. Fix it and they will come. Perhaps one of them be the 'whale' you so desperately crave?
- Fun and accessible multiplayer battles
- Vibrant cartoony graphics
- It's free, so very free (if you're an Xbox Live Gold member)
- Sub-par netcode leads to long wait times and unbalanced matchmaking
- Action can become incredibly confusing
- Clunky communication and spellcasting
The Short Version: Happy Wars has its flaws, but this adorable MOBA-lite provides a lot of multiplayer fun for free. Worth a download even if you only play it for an hour.