Saturday, September 10, 2011

Achron Review

Achron, developed and published by Hazardous Software.
The Good: Time control leads to truly innovative strategies, commander-based unit control, three distinctive sides, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Lacks immediate feedback on past or future orders, tedious and linear single-player campaign, dreadful lack of documentation and instruction
What say you? Unique mechanics give way to confusion: 5/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
So you are playing your favorite real-time strategy game, and you make a really stupid move. Oh, how you wish you could go back in time and undo that errant command and save your troops! But, what if you could? Enter Achron, a RTS that centers around the theme of time manipulation: you can change past orders, or transport units to an earlier (or later) time and ambush the enemy. Obviously, this type of unique mechanic requires an easy way to remember what the heck you changed in the past while you’re in the future. Is Achron a landmark shift in strategy design, or a timeless mess under the weight of its own rules?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
The graphics of Achron are very simplistic, an artifact of its independent roots. The best visual aspect of the game is the unit design: they are nicely detailed and animated well enough to be believable. Explosions and combat effects are repetitive and generally unimpressive. The maps are very bland outdoor environments with commonly dark textures and little detail, save for the occasional tree or mountain, appearing mostly as stark desert-like settings. Some of the layouts, especially in the single-player campaign, are obviously scripted with unnatural ramps and walls to dictate your movement. A little more life added to the maps would go a long way. As for the sound design, things are typical: generic combat effects, decent background music, and acceptable voice acting that’s impressively throughout the entire campaign. Overall, Achron looks like an indie game.

ET AL.
Humans have discovered how to manipulate time, and use this awesome knowledge to blow things up. The single-player campaign is quite extensive: almost thirty lengthy levels covering all three major races in the game, complete with voiced dialogue. However, the missions fall under two categories: completely linear with specific objectives that must be met in succession, or vague objectives that require precise timing (avoiding enemy patrols, for example). Achron apparently thinks you can forgive trial-and-error mission design by allowing the user to go back in time and fix their numerous mistakes. Really, this just makes the game more tedious by requiring you to hit the right timing and surpass the next checkpoint. The campaign is not hard because it involves advanced tactics, it's difficult because it requires exact timing to survive many of the game's scripted encounters. Not helping are the occasionally vague objectives: while locations of interest are plainly indicated, units that must be preserved are not. In addition, Achron lacks difficulty settings of any kind. Now, balancing is tough, which is why you add difficulty levels to appeal to all skill levels. Of course, it might not matter, as most of the campaign missions are linear and scripted scenarios that require narrow solutions in order to advance. I didn’t find anything terribly innovative in the scenario design: the gimmick of going back in time to perfect your movements grew tiresome after the third or forth level, and the high difficulty became stifling on several occasions. Beyond the campaign is the skirmish and multiplayer modes, which support up to four players on seven maps; this is where the game’s unique strategies are more open to flexibility. Learning the game can be difficult: while the campaign features one or two new things to play with in each level with a short text introduction, Achron really needs a standalone tutorial for each race (plus one for the time elements) for those who want to try out skirmish battles and multiplayer first (or learn the races without having to complete the entire campaign). Finally, Achron supports Windows and 64-bit Macintosh and Linux, and mod support is strong.

Achron lets you tie units to a commander in a hierarchy, which makes controlling large numbers of units much easier. All you have to do is issue an order (move, attack, patrol, teleport) to the commander and all of its subordinate units will follow: pretty snazzy. Unfortunately, it can be a bit tough to find the commander when all of the units are bunched together, and I wish there was a list of all the commander units along the side of the screen for easy selection. Also potentially helpful is the ability for units to automatically perform useful tasks when idle (if the appropriate building is placed first), like repairing nearby units or moving towards ammunition or teleporters. This has the most use when you are observing another time period and units in the past/future need to do maintanance stuff on their own.

Achron features humans and two alien races that have drastically different technology trees for building essentially the same types of units (infantry, light vehicles, heavy vehicles, and air units). The two basic resources everybody uses are L-crystal for constructing basic units and Q-plasma for more advanced units; these are gathered automatically by each race’s worker unit. The humans are the most typical side: traditional building-based upgrades provide three levels of units. The squid-like Grekim rely on time travel, and can morph and combine into other units. Lastly, the insect-like Vecgir use teleportation and place infantry pilots into vehicles. The three races are different in their approaches to constructing units, but the results generally fall into the same categories.

Time for time. Achron allows you to control units into the past (around five minutes) and the future (around one minute), which allows for all sorts of strange tactics. The bottom of the screen indicates events taking place in the surrounding time period: attacks, resource levels, units being created, and chronoports (units being transported to another time). The way the game works is that changes in the past are slowly (about twice the normal time rate) propagated forward to the present by time waves (meaning that a change one minute ago will appear at the present in about thirty seconds), rather than all changes happening instantly. You can’t go all crazy issuing orders in the past, though, as each command uses up energy, and the further back you issue an order, the more energy is used up. This makes you a little more careful in selecting which orders to issue deep in the past. I’ve found that, while the time game makes “sense”, it’s still bewildering when you are dealing with orders. Confusingly, issuing orders in the past do not automatically cancel orders in the future from that point, so units can have conflicting instructions that won’t be resolved until the time wave sweeps through. You can, in essence, have the same unit doing five different things (one for each time sweep) at five different times during a game. The game does not project orders fast enough, in my opinion: you can issue orders, and jump one second later, and your units remain stationary until a time sweep moves through and resolves the order you issued a second ago. Any orders effectively “disappear” until they are picked up by a sweeping time wave, so you can easily forget what you did if you are quickly bouncing around viewing different time periods. I routinely had to sit there waiting for the orders to sweep through time so that I could remember what exactly I did.

Confusion aside, there is a lot of really cool things you can do with the time controls. For example, you can send a unit on a scouting run, see where the enemy is, and then go back in time and cancel that scouting run, sending the same unit on a different mission. You can also spend resources in the future, destroy buildings in the past (eliminating the units that were produced there in the process), or teleport units into the past to fight alongside themselves, effectively doubling your army size for a while. I’m sure there are plenty of other strategies I haven’t even thought about. You can imagine the various oddities that the game can produce when humans are involved on both sides: your enemy moving their army in the past so that the current battle they are losing never takes place, for example. Still, the potential of time manipulation is limited by just how confusing it can be to keep strategies straight when things are changing all the time at multiple times. Maybe there is a reason nobody has made a time-based strategy game before.

Actual combat is pretty traditional in nature: classic rock-paper-scissors counters to other units. There are some advanced abilities that units can be upgraded to possess, like jamming communications, controlling enemy units, cloaking, and invulnerability. Generally, the pace of Achron is quite slow: even though you can move around time, you still have to wait for units to slowly move and resources to slowly accumulate. You really need to invest in teleporters (for both space and time) to make the game more dynamic. I’ve found the skirmish AI opponents to be pretty good, especially when you consider how foreign the time mechanics are. I have experienced some pathfinding issues when moving friendly units in restrictive terrain (they like to block each other in a giant traffic jam), but otherwise the game is issue-free.

IN CLOSING
In theory, Achron is a very intriguing game. In practice, the difficulties of handling multiple timelines becomes readily apparent. Namely, issuing orders in the past or the future becomes an absolute mess as old (or is it new?) commands aren't automatically overwritten, and if you change times, your new (or is it old?) orders might not be executed yet. The confusion is a direct result of the game's primary draw, and I'm not sure of a way around it. While I certainly commend the game's ability to introduce new, novel strategies thanks to time manipulation, the act of issuing a simple move order in the past and then having to wait to see the results sweep to the present will frankly befuddle a lot of players, especially as you are trying to issue different orders at other times. Still, there’s a host of strategies that you’ll only find in Achron. For a game where you are able to move forwards and backwards through time, though, there is certainly a lot of waiting for troops to move, resources to accumulate, and orders to refresh down the timeline. The game's three races play differently, at least in terms of building units and structures (all have the same basic types of units). I like how Achron allows you to organize your units into a hierarchy by specifying a commander, but it doesn't provide a list of commanders in a handy location for quick reference. The single-player campaign is painful: specific, mandatory objectives and lots of scripted events are meant to make you manipulate the timeline, but usually they just require trial-and-error repetition to navigate past whatever tough obstacle comes next. Achron also has a dearth of documentation; the game really needs brief, to-the-point hands-on tutorials for all the races and the unique time mechanics of the game. Achron features skirmish and multiplayer battles that are more appealing, and I found the AI to be decent enough to substitute for human opponents if you can't find any. In the end, though, Achron is a bright idea that falls short of enjoyable execution.