Achron (PC [Reviewed])
Developer: Hazardous Software
Publisher: Hazardous Software
Released: August 29, 2011
If a friend of mine told me that he wanted to create a multiplayer RTS game in which players could travel through time, I would snort in derision. Surely, the coding behind such an endeavor would be beyond the ken of mortal men, and the computing power required to keep track of multiple cotemporaneous realities — past, present, and future — would only be available to the US military.
O me of little faith.
The geniuses at indie developer Hazardous Software not only created a game engine that allows for time travel, they built a game around it that runs on my system without a hiccup.
Fair enough — the game exists. But RTS games are already complex; would players need a degree in theoretical physics to wrap their minds around the time travel aspect?
As I booted up Achron for the first time, I was about to find out.
The singleplayer campaign opens with a cinematic that provides back story in a manner that borders on info-dumping, but once the game kicks off and you meet the main characters, the story comes into perspective. Hundreds of years in the future, an expanding human empire meets alien life for the first time — and gets its ass kicked. The aliens have inferior firepower, but decimate the human fleets because they’re always one step ahead. The player takes control of the survivors as they piece together what happened and eventually fight off the invasion. Along the way, they learn that the aliens possess time-travel technology and begin to harness its awesome power.
While Achron’s cutscenes are visually simplistic, consisting primarily of still cartoon cutouts of conversing characters, the full voice-acting and professional musical score make up for it. I’m not sure what surprised me more — the fact that an indie game was fully voiced, or the fact that the voice acting was mostly well-done.
Graphically, Achron is unimpressive. Even on the highest settings, the in-game graphics are lackluster; but considering the game didn’t have a AAA developer budget, they’re forgivable. However, there’s something to be said about visual clarity: all units are drenched in your team’s color and can be difficult to differentiate without zooming in considerably. Further, the attack animations lack obvious visual cues, making determine whether a unit is attacking — and who it is targeting — a guessing game.
Presentation aside, we come to the heart of Achron: the gameplay. The time travel mechanics are surprisingly easy to understand and execute — easy relative to earning a degree in theoretical physics, that is. It did take me a few minutes to wrap my head around the concepts, and the in-game explanations are interwoven with techno-babble that serves to obfuscate what could have been clearer instructions, but understanding Achron’s time travel did not turn out to be the onerous task I expected it to be.
In Achron, you can rewrite history. Did your troops walk into an ambush? Hop back into the past and order your units to take an alternate path. Want to know if you’ll fall under attack in the next couple minutes? Take a peak into the future. It would almost seem like cheating, if not for the fact that your enemies wield the same godly powers.
To prevent battles from becoming endless traipses to the past to undo your opponent’s tactics — which would inevitably result in stalemates — players can only travel so far into the past or future, meaning you’ll come to a point when you cannot travel far enough back to undo certain actions. Furthermore, in addition to your standard RTS resources, Achron has you manage “chronoenergy,” the rechargeable power source that allows you to issue orders in the past. Mismanage your chronoenergy, and your opponent can have the power to change the past while you cannot.
This unique gameplay element is where Achron shines. It breaks new ground in the RTS genre and forces even seasoned veterans to completely rethink their approach. However, Achron doesn’t rely only on its time travel — there’s a whole RTS here… A whole RTS that lacks polish.
The game’s pace is slow. At times, frustratingly slow. When you have an entire army and infrastructure to manage, you’re able to keep busy, but for the campaign missions in which you control a small squad of units, you can do nothing but wait as your troops crawl across the screen — only to see them fall into an ambush and have to travel back in time, order them to take an alternate path, and play the waiting game again.
Compound the slow pace with the AI pathing issues and sluggish controls, and it feels as though your troops are marching through quicksand. An input delay between the time you issue an order and the time the unit responds to that order makes micromanaging units next to impossible.
Take the time travel element out of Achron and you’re left with a mediocre RTS. Through playing a Quick Match vs. an AI opponent in a traditional RTS match, I realized that even in my inexperienced state I could beat my artificial foe without using time travel at all, making it a novelty instead of a necessity.
But the heart of Achron is supposed to be its multiplayer. Two human opponents of approximately equal skill can have a lot of fun fighting through time. The possibilities are compelling — Player A sends a scout into Player B’s base, sees his technology, then goes back in time to cancel the order to send the scout. Player B notices that he’s been scouted, goes back in time, and builds different units to render the scouting useless. Essentially, the player that controls the past controls the outcome of the game, so it becomes a matter of who can best manage their chronoenergy and take advantage of the ever closing window on the past.
At the end of the day, the question is: is Achron worth $29.95? The extensive 35-mission campaign — and its slow pace — means you’ll get many hours out of the singleplayer alone, through which you get to enjoy Achron’s epic story arc. However, the lack of a difficulty slider forces players into a narrow skill range — pros will be bored, while novices will be struggling.
The learning curve can be overwhelming for players who aren’t seasoned in the RTS genre, because the time travel element requires an entire skill set of its own, atop the skills expected for any other RTS game. Perhaps Achron’s slow pace was intended to reduce the overall difficulty; however, this could be better handled with game speed options and difficulty sliders — technology that existed in RTS games since the 1990s.
I imagine Achron will have a loyal cult following, but I doubt the game will find mass appeal amongst a generation that drops games with steep learning curves in favor of familiar cookie-cutter sequels. In its current state, Achron serves as a great proof of concept — a tech demo, if you will. If its robust time travel engine could have been incorporated into a AAA RTS like StarCraft 2, it would shake the very foundations of the genre. But unless Achron is quickly polished into a more refined product, it may just be a tremor that goes unnoticed by RTS gamers at large.
- Revolutionary time travel gameplay
- A content-filled singleplayer campaign
- Slow-paced gameplay
- Sluggish controls
- Lackluster visuals and murky visual clarity
- No difficulty options
- AI pathing issues
Final Score: 75/100