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'Robocraft' alpha review: Creativity and lasers equals fun

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'Robocraft'

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There’s a certain joy in building things out of blocks that sticks with you even as one grows older, a feeling that games like “Minecraft” and a slew of shameless clones have been eager to milk you for. “Robocraft” is a bit different from the typical mold though. The game openly pays homage to “World of Tanks” and “Minecraft” and attempts to create an experience where players can literally build their own vehicle, equip it, and then ride it out into science-fiction themed battles—in short order, the idea works.

Freejam, the developer behind the game, has built something rather interesting for a five man group out of the U.K. “Robocraft” starts you off in a garage where you have three starting slots to build your machines, with all you need to actually get started available to you. Like its tank-driving influence there’s a tech tree, tiers of battle, and a sort of store where new cubes you've researched can be bought. "RP" earned from battles serves to allow you to buy new cubes and repair your undoubtedly wrecked robot.

The game’s user interface takes a bit of fiddling with to get used to but once you've got it down engineering your masterpiece of mayhem flows quite naturally, and unlike games such as “Space Engineers” one doesn't have to be an actual engineer to figure out how to rotate and place blocks. A simple twitch of the scroll wheel on your mouse and you can flip a piece to your heart’s content. The game also has a surprising amount of avenues for your creation, such as aerofoils to let you fly, hover blades to make vehicles that skim the ground, and traditional wheels for those of us who enjoy making rolling behemoths. All of this is regulated by a CPU system. The more blocks, weapons and equipment you put on the more processing power is required to operate it, which naturally prevents someone from putting five million guns on their craft or making something so large it crashes the game. The higher your player level, which ranges from one to one hundred, the more CPU space you'll have. The more blocks and better equipment you place, the higher the tier your craft will become. You'll be matched with others from the same tier when you enter matchmaking, which is surprisingly quick to get you into the fight.

One of the game's stronger points is how much creativity and freedom it encourages in players. For instance, I've been experimenting the past day trying to make a sort of flying sniper of an aircraft. I took a light, unarmored plane and stuck four railguns on it, which take forever to charge but are highly accurate and can shoot across the map with ease. By the game’s design this has its own unique challenges. Railguns have recoil, and by necessity planes have to be smaller so they can be light enough to lift off. The prototype of my so called “Valkyrie” was a ship that could fly really well but every single time it fired the recoil would throw me off target and send me flying into a wall, which thankfully doesn't kill you in this game but makes you really darn obvious to everyone who is trying to shoot you down. The result was frequent death, but each time your craft doesn't do well you learn a bit more and get to go back to the drawing board.

I spent a few hours just trying to get it right. The craft became larger, more heavily armored. I grafted helium tanks to the plane to give it more lift, many actually. In case my wings got shot off I added hover blades that served to stabilize me and eventually I even put wheels on my little monstrosity of a craft. The result was a creation that became ideally suited to flying up to a ledge, parking, and then sniping. It could take a hit, lose a wing or two, and still be able to run away surprisingly well. Each battle was a lesson learned and in the end you can make something that is perfectly suited to how you want to play. It's a liberating feeling and something the developers should be praised for.

In games like “World of Tanks” the tech tree is rigid. You can decide which way you want to go but there’s nothing you can do if you get stuck with a terrible tank. You just have to grind through it. In this game, if my creation isn't working I can delete its blocks and start over. I can even rename it as much as I want. This is made even better by the fact that researching upgrades is actually enjoyable in this game. That’s right, the game’s grind is actually fun. Research is done through "Tech Points", and is organized by tier. This means if your craft is considered tier one, you’ll earn tier one points to purchase upgrades. Every game guarantees you a tech point, and if you earn kills you get additional points. A good match can net you three to five of them. Upgrades typically cost in the tens of tokens, meaning a few decent games can get that fancy new plasma cannon or the upgraded armor blocks you've been eyeing. In “World of Tanks” you practically had to sell you firstborn to get the one and only gun that would make your ride effective in multiplayer. It’s a nice change.

At the same time there is a drawback to this. “World of Tanks” rigid and inflexible system did make things consistent. At certain tiers people would have certain vehicles with distinct advantages and disadvantages. You could learn these, exploit them, and generally form some really strategic gameplay around it. Some tanks you’d know were so armored in the front that you’d go out of your way to flank them. Others you’d know never to let close to you or your gun depression simply couldn't hit them. Some tanks had great turrets (T-29, am I right?) and could sit behind hills and become invincible. “Robocraft” doesn't have this security and consistency. In fact, sometimes you’ll join games and it’s quite clear that the two buddies on your left haven’t utilized the practice mode designed to test your machines out. They’ll spend the entire match floating around like a drunk honey bee trying to move in a straight line. Then you've got the guy who hasn't realized that his top-heavy machine is indeed top-heavy and will find himself flipped for the whole match unless some wonderful teammate pushes him back upright.

“Robocraft” is a game of design tactics, not team strategy for what I've glimpsed, and while there are items that allow you to scout, block enemy tracking, and endless customization most people in the game can’t seem to resist the urge to run forward in a blaze of laser-hosing glory. The game wants you to design your way to victory, or at least it emphasizes it passively. I've seen people come up with some really innovative and ridiculous things. I've seen weather balloons with cannons stuck on the bottom. I've seen people build floating walls with laser machine guns and giant rolling pyramids coated with plasma cannons. Designing a craft that can take punishment and give it is what wins really. A cockpit being exposed for instance can lead to a one-shot death. A craft that can’t move effectively is a sure way to die too. More often than not, winning is a result of the people on your team having taken more time on their robots than the other team. Designing your way to victory isn't a bad thing, but it does make the matches highly variable in terms of what’s going to happen and what the dynamic is going to be. If you like everyone to be on the same footing in your multiplayer games there are probably better options.

That said, fighting is still enjoyable in this game. There’s a very retro sci-fi look quality to the game and when the lasers start flying it’s like something out of "Star Wars". The graphics have a more juvenile feel to them but it’s nothing off-putting really. Most of the maps are planets seemingly based out of stereotypical sci-fi lore such as a frozen world of ice and Mars. As of now you either kill everyone on the other team or secure their base. If you get shot you can always leave back to your garage and repair your vehicle for another fight. This is great, as “World of Tanks” would only let you use your vehicle once the game you bailed on was done, whereas this game lets one immediately jump into another after you've paid a fee to repair yourself. The fee naturally is larger if you got royally messed up as opposed to say respectfully mangled, but it’s never been so big as to be annoying.

The game has a “Bravery” system which acts like a safety net and gives a bonus of RP, to players to make sure they’re making money and progressing. Up to tier four, it’s impossible to actually get a repair that’s costlier than what you earn in a battle. This bonus is lost as tiers five and on, meaning that should things go horribly in a match you might actually lose money. Freejam offers a premium system similar to its competitors to offset this, something which they claim is used to help fund the game’s further development. Thankfully they've said they don’t endorse a pay-to-win framework, but they also suggest you keep a low-tiered craft to act as a breadwinner so to speak that will get you the money you need to buy advanced blocks and weapons for your higher-leveled creations. There's also a currency called "Galaxy Cash" you can buy with real money that can be used to purchase blocks in lieu of RP earned from battles.

“Robocraft” of course isn't without its bug and glitches. There have of course been some annoying things, particularly the occasional disconnect and the tendency for practice mode to neglect to spawn crucial blocks on vehicles, leaving you in rather unfortunate scenarios that require you to quit out of the mode and start it up again. There are also some issues with playing with friends that have been hampering lately. The system right now seems to have trouble sending invites to have friends join your platoons. A few times now I've tried to invite friends to games only to have the game think said friends are offline. Usually this requires a restart on both ends to get the game to realize what’s going on. Still, the game is in the alpha stage, and things like this are to be expected.

If you’re wondering whether “Robocraft” can be played and enjoyed at its current state rest assured that it can be. The game’s got a lot of nifty ideas that are fun in execution. Whether you want to sit back for a few hours and design a masterpiece or just jump in and play you can do it. The game is accessible, matchmaking is speedy, and even at its current phase of development the game is a lot of fun. If you’re interested in playing the game is now available on Steam or through the game’s main webpage.

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