For crying out loud Robot, why do you have to keep shooting yourself in the foot like this?
Like OMD 2, Hero Academy is another example of Robot having a great idea – in this case asynchronous tactical multiplayer strategy with unit powerups and items – implementing it almost flawlessly, and then taking their eye off the ball when it comes to the UI and buggering up elements so basic and fundamental you’d think they’d be inscribed on stone tablets somewhere in the Temple of Game Development. In Hero Academy’s case the ultimate cause of this shoddy implementation is at least obvious: it’s an iOS port, designed to run in an iPad-like environment (i.e. with touchscreen controls designed for people who cannot cope with the high technology represented by a computer mouse), but the sad thing is that this shows at nearly every single turn. It’s a really bad port.
Let’s start from the beginning. Boot Hero Academy up for the first time and you’ll likely be struck by the sheer amount of time it’ll take you to get to an actual menu. This isn’t because of the usual PC malaise of splash screens and developer logos, but rather because it takes so goddamn long to load. A brief test just now shows that a delay of 29 seconds separates my clicking on the Steam icon and actually getting into the game itself. Perhaps this would be understandable if Hero Academyfeatured the latest 3D graphics and had to initialise a bunch of drivers and physics engines and other technical gubbins; as it stands, though, it’s basically a glorified Flash game. There’s absolutely no call for it to run this badly, especially when even my aging PC outclasses the typical iPad by a factor of two in terms of raw power. To be fair to Hero Academy it’s not the only iOS port to do this as Ticket to Ride had the same problem, but once you were over that initial barrier Ticket to Ride’s presentation was very smooth and painless to use. Hero Academy’s… isn’t.
The second thing that will strike you about Hero Academy is how absolutely bloody awful the menu music is. Seriously, it’s really bad. I devote Sundays to exploring old game music on this blog, which should tell you how seriously I take the audio aspect of these things, and Hero Academy’s sounds like somebody tried to compose it using a selection of instruments usually only found in the hands of drunken England fans at international football matches. It had me scrabbling around for a way to turn it off within seconds of actually getting into the game proper, only to discover that because this is an iOS port the idea of a “Music off” button is also deemed an unnecessary feature that only power users will be interested in, and so all you can do to escape this aural stream of vomit is turn off all the sound in the game. The only good thing about it is that as long as you’re not in the main menu it doesn’t play, and once you’re in a game you can access your other games in progress straight from the play screen, so if you’re reasonably quick off the mark clicking the big “Play” button you have a chance to smother it before it draws breath.
If this is genuinely the first time you’re booting up the game then that’s it for the bad stuff for the moment. Once you’ve found an opponent and gotten into a game you will discover a pleasingly well-thought out pseudo-tactical experience. Hero Academy is played out over a small game board divided into squares and scattered with powerup tiles and crystals. The powerup tiles confer a bonus to anyone standing on them, increasing their armour or boosting their attack and so on, while the crystals are the point of the game. There are two or three of them per side, and your objective is to smash the enemy’s crystals whilst keeping yours (relatively) intact. To do this you grab little men (and women) from your deployment bar at the bottom of the screen and dump them into one of the deployment zones at your end of the board. They can be boosted by equippable powerup items that increase their health, armour and attack, and in one of the game’s few decent presentational touches these powerups are all represented by visual updates in the character’s appearance. Give a knight a helmet and his lunatic grinning face will be encased inside a visible metal tomb; upgrade an archer’s weapon and her bow takes on an elaborate golden tinge. This allows you to take in a given unit’s potential level of threat at a glance rather than having to pore over stat cards half the time.
Anyway, once deployed you must send your little minions into the attack. You have five actions per turn which can be used any way you want. You can move five units once, or one unit five times. You can use the actions to attack, heal, equip hats or deploy spells. Being able to do a lot with one thing — or a little with lots — allows a certain amount of flexibility in how you use your available resources, even if it does place undue emphasis on using all five actions as attacks to alphastrike an opponent’s unit. This potential weakness of the system has been noted by Robot and partially countered by the unconsiousness mechanic; take out a player’s unit and they won’t die, they’ll just collapse to the ground unconscious and can potentially be revived by a healer unit or a potion item. In order to permanently remove a unit from the battlefield you have to stamp on it by moving one of your units onto its square; since enemies tend to come in clumps, sending a unit out to stamp on a fallen enemy carries the risk of the stamping unit being overwhelmed by vengeful enemies and getting stamped on itself. This vulnerability of isolated units provides the first part of Hero Academy’s strategy, as the most effective way to fight is to use spells and abilities to push/pull enemies out of position and into a place where they can be stomped at leisure. Hero Academy is at its best when it’s about manipulating positions rather than stacking all your powerups on one superunit and hoping brute force will get the job done.
The second part of Hero Academy’s strategy comes from the crystal damage powerup tiles. These are tiles that give a flat damage bonus to every single attack made on a crystal by any unit on the occupying side. Crystals are very, very tough, and even upgraded units can only gradually chip away at their ginormous stack of health points. In order to do any appreciable damage you’ll want to control as many crystal damage tiles as possible, which is why these tend to become the focus points around which the battle concentrates. If there’s an enemy on it, you want to push them off it. If there’s no-one on it you want to take it for yourself. You can usually tell who has the upper hand in a match just by who is currently sitting on the crystal tiles. If you can succeed in stacking two or three of these damage bonuses any crystal that comes under attack will start to fold alarmingly quickly, and since crystal damage is permanent it means you’re that much closer to winning the game.
So that’s the actual game part of Hero Academy. It’s pretty good. Unfortunately I now have to talk about the mechanics of the asynchronous multiplayer, which means delving down into that horrible, horrible UI functionality issue again. The way it works is that there’s a list of your ongoing games in the left sidebar of the game UI. To take a look at any active games where you (or your opponent) have turns pending you just click on the relevant game in the sidebar. Or at least that’s the idea; in actuality what happens is that you click on the relevant game in the sidebar only to be greeted by a giant hourglass accompanied by the word “LOADING” in large capital letters to underline the point. There’s a delay of about 9-10 seconds before the game actually opens. I thought this might be because it was getting the turn file from the central server but then I remembered that Frozen Synapse – a game which rubbed me up the wrong way but which even I will admit had a damn near flawless implementation of asynchronous multiplayer – loaded active games pretty much instantly. There’s no reason that I can think of why it would be so sluggish, and this has knock on effects for the rest of the game.
For one thing, there’s effectively no real way to play a game of Hero Academy in real-time. Even with both participants communicating over a Teamspeak channel there was too much of this:
‘Okay, it’s your turn.’
‘I can’t see the game.’
‘Click the refresh button.’
‘I am clicking on the refresh button, nothing’s happening.’
‘Well I sent it just now, it should be there. Try accessing it from the opponent turns pending list.’
‘It still says it’s your go.’
And then when the turn file does arrive there’s that ten second delay before you can actually take it. Another issue is that the game has no options for out-of-game alerts to tell you that it’s your go. Frozen Synapse let you know via email when there was an opponent waiting on you to take your turn, but if you want that information out of Hero Academy you actually have to go through the thirty-second rigmarole of loading up the damn game. You can get real-time updates when it’s your go by keeping Hero Academy open (it minimizes to the system tray) but the fact that it’s a Steam game makes this massively impractical as you can’t load anything else while it’s hogging all the Steam resources. Again, it’s a case of the direct translation over from iOS – I imagine this all works quite well on an iPad or a phone, where everything takes ages to happen anyway – cripping all of the thought and good design work that’s gone into the actual game part of Hero Academy.
Finally there’s the DLC aspect, which isn’t bad as such, it’s just a bit of an extreme model. Hero Academy costs just £4 on Steam, but the reason I’m not cutting it any slack for being cheap is because your £4 is only getting you a quarter of a game. There are four different teams in Hero Academy (as well as the gimmicky-as-fuck TF2 team which tosses balance out of the window in favour of aping the mechanics of a completely different game). Paying £4 for the base game of Hero Academy gets you just one of them, the Council. They’re reasonably well-balanced and the game doesn’t stick a gun to your head to force you to part with any more of your cash, but the fact remains that if you want to play with a team that isn’t the Council (or TF2) you’ll have to fork out another £4. And another. And another. Each additional team costs as much as Hero Academy itself, and based on my time with the DLC Tribe team it really isn’t worth it; the mechanics of the game simply do not permit enough deviation from the core gameplay to make additional pay-for teams worth the money. It’d be like trying to add a third team to chess or something.
There used to be a time when I looked at all the cool games being released on iOS and Exblah with envious eyes. Hell, I’m still waiting for a PC version of Carcassonne, while the inevitable PC release of Spelunky HD is going to be a buy-on-release for me. If I have any doubts in my mind about that being a good idea it’s games like Hero Academy that seed them; it’s a textbook case of how a half-arsed port from a different OS can ruin even the best-designed of games. Making it work for the native OS is important, guys; if it doesn’t then the person who bought it will get the impression that they’re playing an inferior version of the game, and they will be reminded of this at every single turn. It’s not the sort of thing that breeds a healthy respect for a game or a developer, you know? I’d avoid Hero Academy for now. It’s not even a question of cost, here; Hero Academy is cheap enough that that’s not really a factor. No, it’s a question of time. Your time is valuable. In Skyrim you spend your time punching dragons in the face while this plays. In Saints’ Row 3 you spend your time committing insurance fraud while this plays. In Hero Academy, though, you spend your time staring at loading screens while awful music is piped into your ears. In short, Hero Academy is a game that has no compunctions about wasting your time. It really doesn’t deserve it.