Fed on a diet of HG Wells novels and Back to the Future films, that video game developers have used time travel as a game mechanic is not new, but it is often limited or constrained, not amounting to more than scripted events or re-do functions. Hazardous Software‘s Achron is a new breed which sports the most ambitious implementation of a time travel mechanic to date – true free-form manipulation and resolution, and despite a few slip ups it delivers on some unique gameplay experiences.
True time travel may sound complex, but Achron does an admirable job of easing you into the mechanic through the single-player campaign. Narrative-wise the game is intriguing, putting you in the middle of a multi-layered human and alien war, with each side on the conflict containing internal warring factions. The sudden barrage of acronyms and government agency names may leave you dumbfounded, but text logs and intercepted messages will get you up to speed. The voice acting is a nice touch with, good actors generally outweighing the bad, but there are few really poorly delivered lines and some very awkward dialogue which will pull you out of the experience.
Early in the game you’ll discover the “chronoportation” technology, and each subsequent mission will introduce a new function or concept for its use. For example, you’ll use your ability to change the past to jump back a few seconds to guide a special operations team into an area without being detected. If you fail, and they are discovered, all you need to do is undo that order and wait for a better time to cross. As you progress, you’ll be introduced to more advanced tactics like sending a unit back in time to disable a bomb while simultaneously defending your base in the present by switching back and forth between the two points in time or even “chronocloning” your units by doubling your army with copies of themselves from the past or future. Eventually there is going to be a moment during those first few missions where it finally clicks together for you and you’ll start using the system without the game prompting you to do so. I even found that this naturally solved an issue plaguing many real time strategy games, allowing you to take risks with important story driving hero characters that would normally be too valuable to commit to combat for risk of failing the mission on their death. This in turn kind of ruins the cool factor of having these heroes if you are afraid to use them. Not so in Achron, if my hero dies I can easily save them in the past by holding them back a bit or arranging them to get some healing. It was satisfying to use my field commanders to actually lead units not simply as a benchwarmer at for the barracks.
What ties everything together are the timeline and “chronoenergy.” You can view any point by clicking the timeline itself which takes you back to that point in time, but you have to use chronoenergy to give orders when not in the present. Certain actions are graphed onto the timeline giving you warning to events occurring. You’ll see the spike of combat as your opponent moves a force to attack you in the past, which lets you counter before suddenly your base disappears in the present. Time waves also carry the events forward, so cause and effect is further delayed to give you room to react to a changing battlefield in more than one place in time. Chronoenergy quickly refills over time, but the farther back you are and the more units you try to control the more energy is required. This really helped to keep the games tight given the scope of its applications and frees you up to do some things that have been previously unheard of in the real time strategy genre.
You can, for example, pause the action and individually micromanage your troops without needing the actions per minutes of a professional Starcraft player. Or surprise your opponent with a sneak attack in the past using units from the future. Even something as trivial in any other game as race selection takes on a new meaning with Achron‘s time travel, in multiplayer or quickplay matches choosing your race occurs during the match so it’s an action you can go back to and change with time travel like any other. Things like this really takes Achron‘s strategy depth beyond rock, paper and scissor units.
There was one aspect to time travel that I found rather vexing though. If you go back in time, your units will continue to follow your orders as they are given in the future unless you use the undo command to clear them, which requires you to select the unit and then select on the timeline where you want commands deleted from. Maybe I’m not seeing the broader picture, but when all I want to do is keep my hero unit from dying by moving him slightly away from the front line, it would be so much more intuitive if he simply ignored future orders once I started commanding him in the past.
My only other issue with the game is the lack of polish in several areas. This isn’t simply an issue of indie developer versus triple AAA as we’ve seen plenty of “count-on-one-hand” sized teams deliver high quality. I mentioned the voice acting earlier, but other areas like the UI could use a bit of an overhaul. While the game needs to dedicate a good deal of space to the timeline, the rest feels crowded and makes it less intuitive to find information. The graphics from the game itself to the voiceover cutscenes could likewise use some visuals that actually live up to the gameplay. We have seen some truly stunning indie games lately, so it’s a shame that Achron‘s brilliant mechanics are tied to game that compares graphically to its genre a decade ago. The biggest problem though is the AI’s pathfinding which can be particularly frustrating almost to the point of being game breaking. I want to be playing the game and bending time to my will, not babysitting my tanks around a corner because their too dumb to do anything but rub up against that wall endlessly.
Bottom line: Achron will probably be the most unique RTS you’ll play this year. The implementation of free-form time manipulation really takes the genre in some new and interesting directions, but only if you’re willing to work through some flaws.
Recommendation: If the mere promise of true time travel gameplay intrigues you and you’re forgiving enough to overlook other areas than Archon is worth a look. We are not likely to see something similar any time soon, but if the $30 price tag seems high to you, the devs have promised a demo in the near future.[rating=3.5]
Justin Clouse would probably just use time manipulation to continually roll 20s in D&D.