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The war over whether the free-to-play model is the future of gaming – or even a viable alternative to traditional retail releases – has finally reached the Xbox 360 with the release of Happy Wars. Unfortunately, while the lighthearted hack and slash title offers a good bit of pick up and play enjoyment, those that argue free-to-play really means pay-to-win will have plenty of ammunition for criticism.

Happy Wars features two main modes: A thinly-plotted story mode that follows various battles between two kingdoms and an online multiplayer mode that pits teams of 15 players against each other as they struggle to take down the opposing army. You accomplish this task through real-time battles to control spawn points – in the form of towers – and matches end when one team eventually breaks in to the opposing army’s castle and destroying its last and largest tower. The multiplayer battles are very clearly the meat of the package, with the campaign adventure serving little purpose beyond fleshing out your combat skills.

At the beginning of each skirmish – as well as each time you meet an untimely demise – you are given the option to choose between the Warrior, Cleric, and Mage classes. Warriors specialize in brute force attacks, Mages can utilize ranged magic spells, and Clerics have the ability to construct large offensive and defensive structures. A successful siege is reliant on a healthy mix of these classes within your army’s ranks, but when playing online with 14 strangers this is all too often not the case.

It can be frustrating to see your fellow soldiers playing without regard to the main objective. Having a competent crew is entirely based on matchmaking luck, unless of course you have 14 friends willing to team up at the same time. Expect to see your teammates running in the wrong direction, getting distracted by objects in the environment, and just generally disappointing you in every way imaginable. It’s hard to hold the game accountable for the ignorance of your randomly-matched teammates, and when placed on a competent team the frantic battles can be fun and fast-paced. Unfortunately, Happy Wars has several gameplay issues for which there is no excuse.

As simple as the concept may seem at first glance, it actually takes a good amount of strategy to play the role of a successful soldier. Every class has a number of special attacks that require action points to perform. These points automatically regenerate over time, meaning that you’ll constantly have to keep an eye on your AP bar. The icons for each special attack become grayed out when you don’t have enough AP to utilize them, and sometimes you’ll get a cooldown animation to show you how long you have to wait before using it again.

I have to emphasize “sometimes” here, because the cooldown animation is just plain broken for many of the attack icons. Most times, the attacks will just pop into color when available, with no animation of any kind. The AP bar has no dashes or measurements to tell you how many points each attack uses, and the icons for these special moves are in the opposite corner of the screen from the AP bar itself. You’ll end up having to glance at both the upper left and bottom right edges of the screen way more often than you should, and in a game where you can be killed in less than a second, taking your eyes off the battle is the worst thing you can do.

The leveling systems are likewise far more tedious than they should be. You will gain ranks within each battle, which will then contribute to your overall rank. Oh, and each individual weapon and piece of armor has levels as well. For a free-to-play game that should be designed for just about everyone to enjoy, this rather complex approach seems a bit off-putting. In the end, it will most certainly lead to some very ill-equipped and useless soldiers standing alongside you in battle.

When it comes to scoring better gear, you have a few options. During the course of your battles you’ll stumble across item boxes that will sometimes offer decent weapons or armor. You can also spend the in-game currency known as Happy Stars – which are obtained in battle – on a spinning wheel minigame that can unlock higher level gear. Or you can just open your wallet and simply buy your way to the top.

The Item Shop lets you exchange cash for Happy Tickets which can then be spent on better gear ranging from giant swords to military-inspired tactical suits. As you’d expect, players equipped with these items fare much better in battle, and in all the online matches I played the top players on each team were the ones with insane weapon and armor upgrades. That’s not to say that you can’t perform well without using your credit card, but let’s just say the odds are pretty well stacked against you.

Now, it might sound like I’m really tearing into the game, and I guess I am, but the battles themselves are actually quite enjoyable. The game’s cel-shaded aesthetic works well and when you have 30 players fighting for control over one point on the map, things get pretty crazy. You’ll see arrows and rocks flying back and forth, giant balls of fire and lightning strikes taking out huge numbers of each group, and perhaps even a massive tornado picking up an entire squad of soldiers and tossing them to all corners of the map.

Bottom Line: When your team is doing what they’re supposed to be doing, besting an opponent can be extremely satisfying. There’s nothing better than seeing your sworn enemies helplessly strapped to planks of wood after you’ve finally taken their castle. However, when you end up on the losing side you’ll immediately wonder just how much cash the other team spent on its gear, or how lucky a particular player got with a high-powered weapon drop.

Recommendation: Being a free-to-play game, there’s really no reason not to give Happy Wars a try. If you’re determined to not send a single cent in the developer’s direction, be prepared to die a lot, especially in the early going. Otherwise, expect to either do some serious grinding or spend a few bucks in order to really feel like you’re contributing to your army’s cause.

[rating=3]

Game: Happy Wars
Genre: Action
Developer: Toylogic Inc.
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform(s): XBLA

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