Sic transit honestas ludorum
I hate microtransactions. They’re a Faustian blemish on modern game design. They’re a perverse attempt at wringing money out of the lazy and unsuspecting by letting them trade money for time, as though games were solely about reaching the end and not the journey itself. In the worst cases, they can single-handedly ruin an otherwise enjoyable game, twisting the mechanics and balance to make the purchase so tempting it’s nearly inevitable.
But microtransactions don’t have to be intrusive. For every ten Zyngas-in-training, there’s a smart, conscientious developer that respects the separation of business and design, that believes a supplementary shortcut should be just that. There aren’t many studios I’d count among those ranks, but Aussie iOS devs Halfbrick (of Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride fame) are one of them.
Well, they were, up until I played their newest release, Colossatron: Massive World Threat.
But before we get into that nastiness, let’s hit the basics. Mechanically, Colossatron is effectively a twist on the basic match-three concept of games like Zuma. Rather than matching up colors to remove them, you’re actually building—in this case, a giant alien-robot-snake-dragon who’s wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting human world. (It’s an ’80s anime–meets–kaiju movie vibe. Just roll with it.) Colored segments called powercores regularly appear in the world for you to drag and drop into Colossatron’s body. Line up three of the same color, and they fuse into a single, more powerful “supercore.” Match three of those, and they fuse again, becoming even stronger.
Each color has its own selection of four offensive or defensive abilities that help Colossatron fight off the military forces and continue his rampage. At the start, you’re limited to loaner powers, with the selection swapping out every 24 hours. If you want to keep them permanently, you need to spend some in-game resources to purchase them. This setup makes it rather difficult to experiment with different strategies, since you’re at the whim of the current selection until you’ve purchased your own set. You’re also able to buy armor to increase each color’s survivability, which proves essential as you progress.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that in principle. Plenty of games have turned lengthy upgrade trees that far outweigh player skill into fun little jaunts. There’s just one problem: those ol’ microtransactions.
Colossatron has two currencies: money, which you earn rapidly by simply causing damage, and prisms, which appear as infrequent random drops in the world. Guess which one you use for the really important, permanent upgrades. Then guess which one you can pay real money for.
Because the difficulty rockets upward at regular intervals, you’re routinely forced to hit a wall, continue pummeling face-first into it until you find enough prisms to upgrade, then make real, tangible progress for a few minutes. When you’re grinding at length, it becomes obvious just how little variety and engagement the different levels offer. Enemies and backdrops change, but your one-size-fits-all matching strategy never has to. Apart from ensuring you’re putting like with like and building a few healing cores, different weapons and configurations have little impact on how things play out. It’s a grind that feels like a grind—the worst kind there is.
And you’ll be doing it a lot. To fully upgrade the armor on every powercore and unlock every possible weapon, you need a grand total of 504 prisms. You can halve that number if you don’t care about the weapons (and you really don’t have to). Based on my average earnings, you can expect to earn roughly one prism per four or five minutes of gameplay. Using those figures generously, that means you’d need to put in around 20 hours to purchase all the armor upgrades, and around 40 hours to purchase everything. That’s 20 to 40 hours of the same two minutes of thin gameplay, repeated over and over again.
Or, if you’d rather, you can shell out $40 and get all the prisms you’ll ever need. See the problem? That’s not a tradeoff. That’s ransom.
Halfbrick is clearly capable of nailing the balance necessary to make microtransactions palatable. Jetpack Joyride and Fruit Ninja were a blast to play, even if you didn’t spend a single cent. In those instances, you were constantly making regular progress by simply playing the game, and that gameplay was a fun, skill-driven end in itself. That Colossatron fumbles both halves of that model reflects either a painful lack of foresight or a shameless newfound greed.
Either way, they’ve made a usually thorny decision surprisingly easy. No need choose between giving Colossatron your time or your money—with the barrier of entry so high on both fronts, it deserves neither.
|Developer: Halfbrick Studios • Publisher: Halfbrick Studios • ESRB: NA • Release Date: 12.19.2013|
Colossatron features a noticeably more punishing microtransaction model than Halfbrick’s previous efforts, and the gameplay isn’t inherently fun or varied enough to disguise the lengthy grind required to advance.
|The Good||Interesting concept and decent production values.|
|The Bad||A terrible grind unless you’re willing to fork over serious cash.|
|The Ugly||Field reportress Katie Hazard’s “American” accent.|
|Colossatron: Massive World Threat is available on iOS and Android. Primary version reviewed was for iOS.|