Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hero Academy Review

Hero Academy, developed and published by Robot Entertainment.
The Good: Approachable game mechanics, cross-platform multiplayer, satisfactory unit variety
The Not So Good: Simplistic game mechanics, needlessly drawn-out games, bare settings options, abbreviated single player content, must purchase additional teams through DLC (or pay for the gold version)
What say you? This accessible online turn-based strategy game lacks the depth and PC-friendliness similar competitors offer: 5/8

The new online buzzword in turn-based games is “asynchronous multiplayer”: the ability to play multiple matches at one time, submitting turns when available to a central host. Of course, this feature has been around for quite a while in the form of play by e-mail, but most (if not all) gamers don’t like messing around with extra steps: why not have the game process the information for you? A handful of recent games, such as Frozen Synapse and Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue have used this kind of system with good effect. Next in line is Hero Academy, a turn-based tactical game from the Orcs Must Die! developer that was originally designed for mobile platforms but has now appeared on the PC. This particular entry features one-on-one battles with randomized characters of various classes attacking each other on a grid layout. Does Hero Academy offer satisfying tactical gameplay?

Because of the game's mobile heritage, Hero Academy features decidedly bland graphics in some areas. The character design is pretty decent, with cute 2-D portraits for each unit that are animated well during movement, attack, and when units are damaged. The maps are boring to look at, static backgrounds with poor detail serving as the battlefields for your destruction. The sound effects are basic and the music is generic. There is no voice acting, which is disappointing considering the Team Fortress license. Hero Academy does not let you change the screen resolution or alter the volume levels, two features so common in PC gaming that their exclusion is startling. Overall, Hero Academy looks and sounds like a $5 game.

The objective in Hero Academy is to kill the entire opposing team or destroy their crystals. Each team has twenty-eight units (twenty-four for the Team Fortress team) that randomly appear six at a time to be placed on the battlefield. Joining matches is easy: you can play against random individuals, people in your Steam friends list, Twitter followers, or search for a specific adversary. You can play multiple games at one time, and the game will let you know through the notification area (and the flashing taskbar icon) when it's your turn. The $5 game ships with two teams (the council and Team Fortress) and the rest can be purchased with the $15 gold pack or individually for $5 each. Yes, a single team is worth the same amount as the entire game. Oh, and you would like to change your team color? 99 cents, please. While the base price of Hero Academy is reasonable, the $15 required for unrestricted enjoyment is a bit steep for what you get. Each map layout (there are a handful that are recycled for each match) consists of deployment squares where new units may be placed and spaces that add attack or defense bonuses. The interface is straightforward, and helpful tool-tips describing each unit appear with a right-click. The tutorials describe the basics but are a bit too brief. Hero Academy focuses on multiplayer, but there are a series of single player challenges for each team (accessible even if you haven't purchased the DLC) that require you to eliminate the entire enemy team in five moves; they are exceedingly difficult and usually require one specific set of moves to complete.

There are five (if you buy them all) team in the game that focus on different strategies: you get the flexible Team Fortress and healing Council for free, and can buy the vampiric Dark Elves, area attack Dwarves, or offensive Tribe. Each team has the same types of units: melee, ranged, magic, healing, and tank, along with a couple of spells and items to buff or heal friendly units and damage enemy ones. Each unit has a movement and attack range, along with an attack type (physical or magical) and defense rating. Once a unit is knocked out, you have one turn to heal them, or the enemy can stomp on them to remove them immediately from the game. Overall, the unit variety is decent and allows for varied tactics during each match.

You get five action points to spend during your turn moving units, ordering an attack, calling in reinforcements, or using an item. This restriction requires very detailed planning so you don't waste moves or leave units in vulnerable positions. Key is using items that buff units at the right time, conserving them until you can eliminate troublesome units in one turn, and using the right units against the right opponents. Units cannot attack or move diagonally (that counts as two spaces), which is initially confusing (hex-based maps would have been more intuitive). Games last quite a long time, since there are so many units to go through, typically lasting one to two hours. This is certainly not the quick under-ten-minute matches of Frozen Synapse that I was expecting, and the game definitely drags on towards a conclusion. Getting stuck in healing loops (defeated units get revived the next turn by shielded healers) is a common afflicition, and the ability to stack units with several items can make powerful troops very hard to defeat. Five moves is just not enough most of the time to fully execute your plan, especially when both sides camp on their side of the map, not wanting to expose their units to powerful ranged attacks.

With only five moves per turn, Hero Academy really requires you to plan out what you want to do. You need to pay attention to the two types of damage in the game: each unit can deliver one type and sometimes defend against another. A lot of the planning involves fast math, calculating how far you can move and how much damage you can cause against specific units in the short time limit. A match can come down to using special abilities and items at the right time, and the map layouts, with their attack and defensive bonuses, can dictate where to camp. I found most games to last quite a while (longer than I had expected for a mobile title), and the propensity for some units to become overly powerful through stacked items can become annoying. Games certainly drag out longer than necessary, with stalemates developing when healing units are shielded behind strong attacking units. While the relatively simple nature of Hero Academy does make the game more intuitive (and ideal for those mobile devices), on the PC, increased depth is for long term enjoyment. Hero Academy works as a light strategy game, and the $5 price tag certainly warrants this level of involvement, but the priced DLC (or $15 all-included cost) is a bit distasteful. Hopefully DLC will be added that will allow you to change the screen resolution or volume within the game (only $20!). The online matchmaking works well and the single player challenges are, well, very challenging. While Hero Academy works as a good, inexpensive introduction to turn-based online strategy gaming, advanced tactics, quick game speeds, robust single player content, and PC-specific features are all lacking.