The notion of a mixed RTS/Action game has been around for a while now...
...with a few notable contenders like the Natural Selection Series, and, I must admit, it's something of a recurring fascination of mine. Abatron is another stand-alone entry in the library of such titles, so I naturally had to jump on it once I saw what it was. Overall, I have to say, I'm not disappointed. With strong graphics, fun, fast-paced gameplay, and the potential for some strategic depth, I'm looking forward to what Abatron could be. Take everything I have to say with a grain of saltthough, because Abatron is slated for an August 2017 release, and plenty could still be up for change!
Now, as a matter of first impressions
Abatron has an aesthetic I quite enjoy. The environments immediately caught my attention with their great detail and high-resolution textures; it always does a lot to bring me into a game if the environment is attractive, and I was not disappointed with the showing here. I can say I was equally pleased with the modeling and texture work on the pawns and structures, though the animation seemed a bit rough at times. I think the only real complaints I might have with Abatron's look and feel are that the team colors are laid on thick, and stick out as garish, neon glow, and the aforementioned weakness in animation. That point is especially notable on reaction animations, as some moves knock units into the sky, but they don't seem to react to it at all physically (aside from the flying through the air part, I suppose). A bit nit-picky, perhaps, but given how striking the rest of the game is, I think they can and should bring these aspects up to a beautiful polish.
Something I think needs some more attention as well is the audio. It's not terrible, the music is good, not extraordinary, but a pleasant sampling of drum-n-bass and the individual sound effects seem well done. No, my main gripe is that the way sound clips and loops stack up quickly makes it a pain in the ears when you have a lot of units fighting at once. More than once I found myself having to turn the volume down to avoid pain in my ears. Perhaps part of that is intentional — a battle should sound chaotic and brutal, not melodic, after all — but in the interest of their player's ears and sound systems it could do with some adjustment.
But that's all surface level glitz, downright bad graphics and audio I can mostly forgive if the heart of the game is strong. What's the heart? The same thing I always love to go in depth on in my reviews: the mechanics. Right out the gate, Abatron is coming to the table with a premise that demands some fairly careful consideration of the mechanical aspect of their title. By hybridizing they mainly need to have working, smooth, and enjoyable mechanics in two different kinds of game. I would like to say they've achieved that, but it's somewhat difficult to judge. The pre-release copy I was given is a demo, of sorts, and thus comes lacking not just some, but quite a bit of content that appears will be available in the final game. As I said before, the game is slated for a mid to late 2017 release, so this is easily forgivable, but it does make my job harder. Still, I'm not here to whine, and there is enough to gain some inkling for the quality on display.
Right away I realized that this would be predominantly an online game, a home menu offering to host or join a game in a manner reminiscent of the multiplayer source titles offering no mistake of it. That said there was still an A.I. available to play against, though it offered almost no customization (you were able to change their color and the number of players versus A.I.). Still, as there were not servers online, it was my only option, for the time being. I fired it up and was struck first by the Starcraft-esque vibe, and then by exactly how much was locked content. While the game promises three races, only one is available in the demo: the Haagenti, a kind of mash-up of the Zerg and Protoss, to give you an idea of their feel. This is fine in and of itself, but once I was actually in I found some units were locked as well. So many, in fact, that I was left with exactly four producible units.
“It is a demo,” I thought to myself, but honestly I was, and still am, a bit disappointed, as I would have loved to give a more in-depth analysis of how the game plays. Alas, I work with what I can. The units available include a jump-enabled melee assault unit, a twin blaster wielding ranged fighter, an engorged land-toad-come-siege-tank, and a little spider drone for construction and repair. Of these, the melee and blaster troops were pilot-able in a third-person mode, while the “Siege Toad” (my name for the things), was not, though I dearly wish it was. Oddly, I was occasionally able to pilot the drone, but I think this was a bug, rather than a feature.
In this direct control mode the fighters become a kind of hero unit, bother metaphorically and towering above their cohorts.
The health pool, damage output, and rate of fire go way up to begin with and increase more as the player levels up in this pilot mode. It was certainly fun running around blasting through swaths of enemy units, I'll give it that, but what impressed me was that the units had special abilities available to them in this mode that didn't appear in the RTS format. This is something I believe opens up the field for a fun and unique FPS/TPS experience. Saying that, I don't know how thoroughly utilized this potential is.
Once in the pilot mode, the fighters were surprisingly similar after the distinct differences afforded a melee only and ranged fighter. One runs up and claws things with a small area of effect in a short cone in front of them, while the other shoots two blasters at a single target from a range. Very different, true, but the two class-specific abilities unlocked by leveling up in this pilot mode are the focus of this particular critique, as these, a veritable wellspring of possibility from a mechanical perspective, were more or less the same. Both classes had a dashing charge attack on a short cooldown, and both had a more powerful AoE as their ultimate ability. The dashes have some minor differences, but they both essentially knock down or knock away the enemy while covering ground and doing minor damage, and the AoE attacks only differ in appearance and concentration of area.
Fair enough, mobility and crowd control are likely to be fundamental desires in a game where you're likely to be fighting hordes, but I believe the devs could certainly bring some greater variation to the abilities. Perhaps instead of a charge on the ranged unit give them a sprint, say, or instead of an AoE burst give them something to stun a large number of foes. There's a lot of room for potential here, and, unlike some of the titles I've reviewed, time to utilize it before Abatron goes live.
To continue with the pilot mode, there doesn't seem to be any way to interact with your units at all once you're piloting one, you can just kind of focus on key targets and hope they don't get chewed up too much in the meantime. Would it make the game a bit unfair if players were able to control their hordes while functioning as a powerful hero? I would argue no if everyone was able to do it. Still, perhaps that feature will be added down the road, or perhaps it's already in, in a test version not yet released to the press. I can only hope.
Speaking of commander mode, I think it may be the weaker of the two modes.
Obviously you do most of your base-building and unit recruitment in this mode, but controlling these units proved to be somewhat clunky. The player has no direct control over the units' special abilities, and, worse, it's actually somewhat difficult to keep the units from teetering off cliffs, as the free terrain that helps make the pilot-able mode so interesting as you can jump and climb makes the AI run units off ledges if there's too much crowding. This is noticeably less present with the AI players, so perhaps some of it was how I commanded my units, but less present does not mean absent, and in a match where it's all human players I can practically see a mini-map cluttered with multicolored dots representing lost stragglers.
On top of this, there's very little control over how your units group and organize themselves, and while the requisite group–hotkey binding is available, that's about as complex as it gets. There are no formations, nor variable move commands, nor even a hold ground option (watch helplessly as half your army trickles off chasing random critters every few minutes). Overall this lends itself to an extremely micromanagement centric experience without even offering the special abilities that usually push an RTS in that direction.
That's a fairly big issue, though I have to admit it was balanced out by seemingly unlimited population caps and a more or less thoughtless economy and production system. I find that to be a huge boon, as I spent much less time fussing with harvesting another bushel of pig-snouts or mining nonexistium, and much more time fighting or exploring in pilot mode. In keeping with that, the simple is fairly simple. There's one core resource harvesting structure at the center of your base which can be upgraded with up to five resource harvesting addons. These will increase gather rate of one of the three resource types (Essence, Dark Energy, and Dark Matter) by a certain amount for each addon built of the correct type. Once built the process is automatic, and you can more or less forget about it unless you want to change the rate of gain for a certain resource. While I must admit essence, seemingly the key resource, felt like it harvested very slowly compared to how much it's used, overall, I very much enjoyed the resourcing as a whole.
Here, though, is where I feel I run up against the limitations of the demo: I have no idea if this system will be the same for the other two races. Moreover, I have no idea how most of the Haagenti units play, just those three combat units and the seemingly defunct drone (I never could get it to repair structures at all). The locks on units also prevent me from confidently getting deeper into the meat of strategy and balance available in Abatron. Perhaps the only thing I can say on the subject is that currently the melee unit doesn't seem to have any hard counters available as of this writing, and it makes little sense to do anything but mass produce them with a few ranged fighters as a backup for picking off turrets in pilot mode. That said, I doubt the tactic will have much merit in the final game, but this one small balance observation is all I can make at the moment.
Perhaps, in the future, I'll be able to give a more in-depth run-down of strategy and tactics.
I hope so; I also hope that some of the issues I've highlighted here are addressed before release. I haven't seen anything game-breaking, and the only thing that may be truly challenging to deal with is the AI pathing issue, but what I have seen is a lot of potential to have a fun, compelling, and even unique RTS and FPS/TPS title all in one package. I didn't really get into it before, but the thing that really sets Abatron apart from other games of the kind (what few there are), is the scale. I don't think I've encountered another like this where you can have the usual RTS mass-battle fracas where you can jump into the chaos of the fray.
Overall I'm extremely excited about this project, this amount of polish is rare for an indie developer working in 3D, and with some ironing out, this has the promise of being one to remember for a long time to come. As of this writing, Abatron is up on Kickstarter and has a free demo available on Steam, so get out there and check it out, this reviewer thinks you won't be disappointed.