Wot I Think: Achron

By Richard Cobbett on September 5th, 2011 at 12:59 pm.

Alright, get ready, 'cause I'm about to time-stomp you so hard, your GDI Refinery's going to explode!

Meet the time-travelling RTS that should be impossible. It’s called Achron, and we asked Richard to pull off the equally impossible feat of not calling it ‘Archon’ even once. That’s a completely different game. But we digress. Here’s Wot He Thought.

I have a headache, and it’s all Arch Achron’s fault. I don’t blame it, though I wouldn’t turn down an ibuprofen if you’ve got- hmm? You have? Thanks. (sips water) Okay. Let’s do this.

Achron is an RTS about time travel where the time travel actually works. Describing it can’t do justice to actually trying it out, and while you can strip away the magic with talk of simulations and so on, you should do your best to stop your brain doing so. While you’re watching Achron do the impossible, Achron is amazing. When you pick up your jaw, get used to it, and mentally demote it to merely doing incredibly clever computer stuff… well, we’ll get to that.

Forget about simple time-travel gimmicks like Command and Conquer’s Chronospheres that were really just teleporters. Achron offers the real deal. Throughout a battle, you have a timeline at the bottom of the screen that shows you key events. By clicking on different points, you snap your viewpoint into the past or the future, where events play out either as they did, or as a simulation of what’s likely to happen. The first twist is that you can give orders at any point, with time ripples updating the present on a regular basis. The second twist is that everyone can do this, as well as see when you’re messing with, turning battles into a military version of The Curse of Fatal Death. Or the end of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, if you prefer.

Ah, the sight of future defeat. It's like having your own personal Day9 mocking you from the sidelines

The simplest example is that you click back in the timeline and send a scout over to an enemy base, see that they’re prioritising… oh… let’s say air units, then skip back a little further and have your own war machine start churning out the counter. But that’s just the start. You can look at the timeline and see incoming ass-kickings, as well as jumping ahead to see where they’re likely to be coming from and where you might want to throw up a turret or move some guys. Early in the game, you can swap your race after the battle begins. You can even build a time machine – a Chronoport – and send units back and forth directly, allowing one unit to be its own backup, actively kill itself in the past, or take out the builder of its armory before it even started work, and erase itself from the timeline on the grounds that nature abhors a smartarse. This may or may not tie in with current philosophical thinking on the Grandfather Paradox, but is probably less of a game-breaker than the entire universe regularly folding in on its own anus.

The back and forth is fascinating. Every time ripple has the potential to completely rewrite the current state of the game, with whole bases vanishing and respawning, battles being fought and refought with different units or additional defences added to the mix, and almost endless scope for subterfuge, bluffs and double-bluffs as the present ticks ever onwards.

There are hard limits to your control though. Every order you give in the past uses Chronoenergy, with the cost rising the further you go back. After a while, time becomes immutable. You can still look, but nobody gets to touch, meaning that you can’t simply beam a few advanced units back to the very start of the game to take an enemy out Terminator style, or keep fighting a losing battle forever. At some point, somebody won’t be able to go far enough back to make a difference and will have to concede defeat. Or waste time running their last builder unit around the map until murder happens. They’re both valid choices.

Spot the enemy, (you won't) win a prize! When a bright red unit blends this much into the scenery while zoomed right in, the graphics have issues. And no, there's no gamma control in the options to help out.

Unfortunately, as well executed as it is, the time-travel element can’t compensate for… well… everything else, really. Achron wants to be Starcraft so badly that it hurts, from its three races (one focused on offense, one on teleportation and another on time-travel) to… oh, just look at it. You see all the stuff borrowed from Starcraft? It’s from Starcraft, only nowhere near as well handled. It’d be nice to be able to say that’s just because of how much money Blizzard has to throw around, but the problems are deeper and completely unrelated to the budget.

Take the graphics. They’re ugly as sin, yes, but that’s easily forgiven. What makes them bad is how hard they are to read. Units are absolutely tiny, tough to identify at a glance, and have designs that often combine with the terrain to make something closer to a colour-blindness test than a battlefield. Compare the Marine with the SOP and realise that your camera will be a hell of a lot further back during actual play. Now look at a screenshot from even original Starcraft. See the difference? Both have complexity. Only Starcraft has clarity.

Learning the ropes is equally problematic. Achron’s skirmish mode is nothing short of a joke, with no options other than which map you play on, and an AI that can’t play its own game properly. The single player campaign is meant to act as the tutorial, but it instantly lost my interest with its bland voiceovers, poor mission design and lack of action. The second mission is particularly horrific, not for its difficulty, but for how boring it makes your newly granted time-travel powers feel. You want drama? You want excitement? Too bad. Instead you get a load of incredibly anal, fiddly timing challenges, lovingly set on the dullest map ever.

Stick it out and yes, technically you’ll be shown how to control your armies. Mostly though, what you’ll learn is that Achron has some of the worst path-finding AI in years (I’m told there’s a patch coming this week that improves this) and isn’t very good at teaching. If you’re lucky, you’ll find your way to the wiki instead, which at least has the raw info you need, along with lots of talk of temporal mechanics and paradox resolution. It’s no substitute for having it easily to hand in the game though, especially if you want to try out the aliens for a bit.

Want to make your buildings even harder to make out? Turn off team colours and turn on camoflage! (WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS? WHY? WHY? WHAT KIND OF IDIOT MONSTER ARE YOU?)

To get anything worthwhile out of Achron, you have to hit multiplayer mode. Here, the time-travel side comes into its own… but only if you can get a game going. If you don’t have a uPnP router, you have to manually open ports to get it working, you’re expected to swing by an IRC room to organise a game, and trying it with a friend, we kept getting nonsense messages about our maps being out of sync that actually turned out to be a problem with setting up a private game. That wasn’t the only glitch either, with others including an installation that didn’t create an important directory he needed, and having to quit before starting up a second round.

When up and running, the sheer originality and novelty of the central time-manipulation gimmick finally kicks in like it should. If you don’t feel a sense of godlike power the first time you use it, you’re officially without a soul. Even here though, frustration quickly hits. Units incapable of travelling well as a group and having the fiddly extra step of assigning squad commanders to save on chronoenergy (giving one order to a commander rather than one to every member of his squad) and other basic control issues all line up to get in your way, to say nothing of your soldiers actively disobeying your orders because you forgot to undo other ones you previously gave in the future and oh god that headache just came back with reinforcements.

I don't know. Crappy pathfinding might help?

Achron is a game that deserves to be played… but not an easy one to recommend buying. Its core mechanic is brilliant, its ambitions impressive, and those first few moments when you realise how well it works are nothing short of amazing. The weaker bits can’t undermine that, or the individually astonishing things that can happen as a result of your time powers.

Outside of that though, this is a mediocre, player-hostile RTS, and one that’s unlikely to keep your attention when the novelty fades. Choosing to pick a fight with Starcraft only highlights its problems, and it’s hard to feel a simpler design wouldn’t have made it easier for Achron to find its own identity and niche. Spreading itself out this wide, even having the best gimmick in the world – which Achron actually does – isn’t enough to escape Blizzard’s shadow.

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115 Comments »

  1. sneetch says:

    Baffling colour schemes on those units. If it was only light grey and red/blue then it’d be possible to see them.

    That and the AI problem mean this is a genuine shame.

    • Malawi Frontier Guard says:

      I will offer my services as Artist to the developers. For only 87$/h I will use my expertise with Adobe Photoshop to reduce saturation on all textures.

    • Starky says:

      I’m not an artist, but even I could produce better textures, models and designs that Achron has – my amateurish 3DS Max/Blender skills, and some time spent in corel painter and I’m pretty damn sure I could do better.

    • Bhazor says:

      I agree with Kieron’s old preview, what the artwork reminded me of most was We Share Our Mothers Health.

    • BurningPet says:

      The real problem here are what richard mentioned. the bad unit design. that and the fact they tried to go somewhat realistic and detailed with the enviorment – hugh mistake. should have more the simple way with hints of details here and there.

    • LionsPhil says:

      I can’t help but think it’d be massively improved by having C&C: Generals style almost-cartoony units.

    • Josh W says:

      Here’s the daft thing, while the game was in development they actually asked if people wanted to make them models, but I think they were quite vague on what you would get for that; possibly revenue share, possibly something else.

      I wouldn’t be suprised though if professional people had directly offered them services at the time they would have taken it seriously.

    • DK says:

      The problem is they tried to go hard sci-fi, which is not a problem for the story – but it is a HUGE problem when it impacts your gameplay.

      The reason those units are so crappy looking and blend into the terrain? Races as advanced as the ones fighting here would have optical camoflague for everything. The shitty readability is by design.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Nah. If you’re insane, you can turn team colours off and turn up ‘optical camo’ in the options screen. But I don’t see advanced aliens saying “Okay, we need to paint all our stuff completely green so that we’ll know which ones we are when we look down from space,” which is the default. If they’re claiming it’s intentional, that’s hilarious, but still a handwaving excuse.

  2. bitbot says:

    Too bad the game is so overpriced, I might have given it a try if it was ~15€.

  3. Starky says:

    It really is the fact that the game is butt fugly that is turning me off…

    I watched a few competitive games on youtube, and even the commentator couldn’t tell what was what at times… and oh god it is ugly.

    It’s not even a matter of budget, free mods, and total conversions done by a handful of people (if not one) in their spare time look better – smaller indie titles look better.

    I think the team behind this spent all their time on the (awesome) time travel mechanic, and then ran out of time for everything else and just hammered it all together.

    As it stands the game seems like a Alpha tech demo with programmer art, not a fully realized product. It needs a graphical redesign from the ground up.

    • Captchist says:

      Speaking of commentary, looking around on youtube I found this:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ni02qaycQLw

      It’s the most hilariously confusing game I have ever tried to watch.

      Probably not the future of e-sports.

    • Anarki says:

      “He’s built 5 RPs, 4 QPs, and only 2 LCs so far! Interesting”

      Absolutely baffling, don’t know how they could make it any more inaccessible.

    • Captchist says:

      “Since chronoporting activates a rechronoport delay on arrival, and chronoporting during a rechronoport delay kills the unit, and that chronobomb is still there when the units arrive in the future, the units all die.”

    • terry says:

      This is what a pro-Starcraft match commentary sounds like to a non-believer.

    • Captchist says:

      This is what football commentary sounds like to a person who doesn’t watch much football.

      I’m not sure why we need to turn it into an ideological argument with words like “believer”.

      The difference I was referring to is that the non-linearity of the timeline presents a fundamental challenge to the spectator that I think prohibits this ever catching on as a spectator sport. It probably has no pretensions to be one, but I thought it an interesting point none the less.

      The non-accessibility of the commentary is a different (and funny as heck) thing.

    • Starky says:

      All you need is a basic understanding of RTS games to at least enjoy on a basic level a Starcraft 2 game. Many many people (I know of 3) watch and enjoy Starcraft matches and don’t play the game.

      The units are unique, and while a person who doesn’t understand SC2 might not get the strategies, at least they can see the difference between a stalker and a marine.

      It is why commentators such as Husky Starcraft and Total biscuit are successful (as SC2 commentators – TB was successful before SC2) – because you don’t need an in depth grand-master level knowledge to understand and appreciate fundamental RTS gameplay.
      SC2, like American Football has enough action and obviousness physicality (or virtual physicality) for someone to enjoy the colour commentary and action, without needing to know the tactics, formations and rules.

    • terry says:

      I wasn’t slighting Starcraft at all, I’ve sat through enough GOMtv broadcasts as a mildly interested party to be familiar with at least some of the jargon, and actually quite enjoyed the DOTA2 tourney as someone who has never touched that map. My amazement was more that the Achron footage would make sense even to enthusiasts.

  4. misterk says:

    Ah, thats a real shame. Hopefully someone can steal its ideas and make them better. In fact, Valve should totally be doing that- they can hire the developers and make Achron 2, this time its betterer.

  5. Moni says:

    It’s the kind of concept that would totally deserve someone like Valve to buy up and make pretty with all their cash-monies.

  6. Ginger Yellow says:

    I’m so gutted by this. I heard someone (Rob Zacny probably) raving about the time travel mechanics on Three Moves Ahead, and got so excited I spent an entire evening watching videocasts trying to get my head around the game. But the feedback here and on QT3 seems to be that for all its innovation it’s just not worth the hassle. Maybe if they implement a decent skirmish mode.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      The crushing thing, as said, is that the time travel mechanics are brilliant. The rest of the game… not so much.

    • RobZacny says:

      The thing is, I agree absolutely with what Richard says here, but the time-travel went much further in redeeming the game for me. My multiplayer experiences with Achron are among by best gaming moments of this year. So I ended up in a similar place as Richard: I can’t really recommend it, but at the same time I think you have to see it. For me, it was a trip worth taking, but I grant that Achron’s miserable execution of RTS fundamentals might be too high a cost to pay.

    • Bernt says:

      @RobZacny: I completely agree. Playing the game was downright painful at times – I once asked a bunch of marines to move through a map to the enemy base, which was sealed off by some mountain walls with a narrow path through. Asking them to move there, they elected to turn around while in the start of the path, walk out and walk along the outside wall, obviously never getting there. And this was the third or so mission. An easy quickfix solution to this would be, you know, just making huge, open maps, or at least avoiding mazes. It seems like the kind of thing they’d pick up during beta, but I guess not. On a tangent I think multiplayer maps are smaller and with fewer walls, which somewhat remedies these problems.

      In any case, I persevered. Fixing faults like these are actually pretty simple because you can just pause time, tell all the units to move where they should with a thousand waypoints or whatever, and proceed further. It’s a hassle, but as Achron isn’t really hectic it doesn’t impact the actual gameplay too much if you’re patient. Granted you shouldn’t have to be and all that, and the game should not fail like this, but honestly? I don’t get how you can not be willing to put up with a lot of irritation to get at what is one of the neatest mechanics I’ve seen in any game in quite some time. (Including portals!) Meta-time really adds a lot to the game, and you need to think in totally new ways to succeed here. For instance rushes are really noneffective here – if I rush you and you die, you can just jump back and tone down your economy to build some more defences. If you ever at any point in the game think “damn, I wish I hadn’t forgotten to build detection” you can change that! If you attack, you’re not only attacking the base of your opponent, because you could equally well jump back five minutes and change the target to his expansion.

      There’s just so much to enjoy in this game. I admit that you have to put up with a whole lot of bad to get there, but this was definitely worth the price for me. If your imagination isn’t somewhat tickled by the idea of all the fun things you can do with meta-time (and this isn’t really the super complex mental fiftydimensional chess it has been made out to – you can have really simple fun with this), then I guess we play games for different reasons. I play games because they offer me things I can’t always do in real life. Commanding huge forces of space aliens is one of them, but time-travel done so well is something I’ve never seen before. If you let your need to play a polished game and have fun get in the way of that, I can sort of see your reasons, but you’re missing out.

  7. karry says:

    I still dont quite get how time-travel enhances the gameplay. Okay, so you eventually can send powerful units into the past. Other than that…

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      It’s much more involved than that. You can give orders, alter your units, sabotage enemy production before it even builds stuff. Beaming individual units back in time is just one thing you can do.

    • Ginger Yellow says:

      Or, you can go into the past, and change the orders that you gave. So say you do an attack, but it is countered perfectly. No problem, just go back in time, and change the units that you built so he doesn’t counter them any more. Or go further back and destroy the factory that built the counters before he can build them. Of course, he can do the same to you.

    • Ginger Yellow says:

      What he sai, basically.

    • karry says:

      Yes, i see. Or you could, you know, just learn to be better at the game without all the time travelling. Why would i sabotage the enemy factory in the past, when i can obliterate his entire base in the present ?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Mostly because he’ll be using time travel to counter everything you throw at him and then your base will suddenly vanish under you. But from the question, I suspect this might not be the game for you either way.

    • sinister agent says:

      Yes, i see. Or you could, you know, just learn to be better at the game without all the time travelling. Why would i sabotage the enemy factory in the past, when i can obliterate his entire base in the present ?

      Because if you try to blow him up in the present, you’l find that he’s already gone back in time and blown up the barracks that produced your massive army before they could be built. You can’t blow up a base if your base blower uppers cease to exist before they get there.

      Learning to be better at the game isn’t about the usual build order rts boringness. The time travel IS the game.

    • Kaira- says:

      @sinister agent

      Hm, might give this a shot then. I do appreciate when RTS gameplay tries to deviate from the build-order-APM-fest.

    • sinister agent says:

      I haven’t played it extensively, but what I’ve played so far matches what Mr. The Cobbett has said. It’s a revolutionary, brilliant concept, but the game is indeed flawed, and £20 is quite a high price. I’m personally prepared to pay that just for the novelty/innovation/mind-altering confusion, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it either.

      Be prepared to tolerate, if not forgive a lot, basically.

    • Juan Carlo says:

      Despite the bad review, I almost want to play this anyway just to wrap my brain around how time travel is even possible in a multiplayer game like this.

    • LionsPhil says:

      While I understand the mechanics, I have to say I don’t entirely understand how it plays. In an actual game with other people all trying to chrono-backstab each-other, what chronobastardry things have you pulled off? Does it end up almost like fighting several simultaneous battles with knock-on effects, or do you find yourself just focusing on the earliest battle you can afford and treating the others as irrelivantly chaotic?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      It varies a lot. The key time point is the (ever moving) one at which you can’t make any changes any more and everything gets locked in, but you could be doing anything from scouting in the past to nipping to the future to give orders to units that haven’t been built yet (but that you’ve queued, obviously).

    • karry says:

      “But from the question, I suspect this might not be the game for you either way.”

      But from the feature list, i (or I, if i’m feeling especially self-important) suspect this might not be the game for anyone. Yes, yes, i saw the videos and everything, i just cant see that feature properly integrated in the gameplay in this instance. Maybe someday someone will make a proper game where time-travel will make sense from the PLAYER perspective, but this is not it.

    • Ginger Yellow says:

      The key time point is the (ever moving) one at which you can’t make any changes any more and everything gets locked in

      Sigh. This is a game with something called “the unplayable past”. I wanted to love it so much.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      “But from the feature list, i (or I, if i’m feeling especially self-important) suspect this might not be the game for anyone. Yes, yes, i saw the videos and everything”

      Unless the ‘everything’ includes ‘actually played the game’…

    • Big Murray says:

      I’d quite like to see karry YouTube his attempt at playing the game his way, to be honest.

      “Pfft, don’t need this time travel malarky. I’ve just built a lot of tanks, they’re going to destroy his base, there, I win.

      … wait, where’d all my tanks go?”

  8. Gnoupi says:

    I really wanted to believe in this game, got it a year and a half ago.
    At this point I thought “ok, the graphics are only a placeholder, it will change”. And it didn’t change.

    All the issues reported by this WIT were present at this time, unfortunately they weren’t addressed :-/

    It’s a shame, because the resequence engine (handling all the time-travel) is obviously powerful. But it is also very power consuming. Most of the computing time goes for it, with only 1/20th of the time available for pathfinding, typically.

    So in the end, it’s a nice concept illustrated, but not really a fun game. Pity.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      “Most of the computing time goes for it, with only 1/20th of the time available for pathfinding, typically.”

      That’s one of those unfortunate cases where I sympathise with the problem, but good pathfinding isn’t an option if you want to make an RTS. Mediocre pathfinding I could ignore. This is flat out bad, to the point of damaging the game. Hopefully the patch will fix it when it comes out, but it should never have been released in this state.

      As with a lot of the game, I couldn’t help think that they shot themselves in the foot by trying to make a game as complicated as Starcraft (well, on similar lines as – it’s actually simpler if you discount the time travel stuff) instead of looking towards games like Advance Wars and similar.

    • omicron1 says:

      This is especially piteous considering the current market saturation of multiple-core processors. Pathfinding is one of those things that is very, very easy to isolate into its own CPU thread, which would solve the problem pretty much instantaneously – at least for the (large and growing) number of people with triple-core-plus processors. Heck, anyone concerned with a time travel RTS in the first place is likely to have at least four cores buzzing under their desk, so it wouldn’t exactly cut off a lot of potential players.

      On the subject of graphics: Yeah. It reminds me of the way games (at least games with heightmap-based terrain) looked back in 2000 or so, with none of the lessons learned since then (incidental detail! Rocks, bushes, grass, trees EVERYWHERE! Cliffs to disguise discontinuities in the grid!) taken to heart. Heck, I’ve produced better grid-based terrain in my spare time! While working full-time on something else! With Game Maker!

      In short, this game has several technical issues of surprising magnitude and severity. A pity indeed.

    • Gnoupi says:

      @Richard: Yes, it’s quite the basics for a RTS.

      About “something as complicated as Starcraft”, I agree for the challenge it was, and the obvious difficulties. However, would the time travel concept be really impressive in a turn based game?

      The main “hook” of this game is really this “real time time travel” (well, more or less, it’s made with waves, but still). I’m not sure it would be as appealing in turns.

      But I see the point, it would probably be less appealing, but at least it would work.

      @omicron1: I guess the point is that the resequence engine is REALLY demanding, and really needs that kind of proportions. But yeah, probably exaggerated. My guess is that the next patch will increase this proportion in favor of the pathfinding. I guess that in the current stage, it often returns in “not enough time to compute”.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I didn’t mean Advance Wars as in turn-based, just as short-hand for ‘relatively simple’ because I couldn’t think of a good real-time example off the top of my head. The real-time side is definitely important to the effect.

    • Gnoupi says:

      True that it could have been nice with the basic elements (the really simple, basic units, maybe even a unit trinity), with a real visible identity.

      I mean, as it is, it just looks complicated because it wants to be a full RTS, + time travel. It could indeed have been better the other way around: a time travel game with basic units where you really focus on time travel tactics rather than thinking “big strategy”

      And this with a strong identity, a bit cartoony maybe, like an advance wars, instead of something quite grey/brown/dark. Would have been great, I think.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yeah. I don’t like the game, but I hope it does well enough for them that they get to reuse the time-travel technology in something else. It’s not the kind of thing that everyone’s going to pick up for their own RTS games, and it would be tragic if it just blipped out of existence after this one showing.

  9. hello_mr.Trout says:

    WHAT a neat idea! imagine if it was applied to supcom!!

  10. Web Cole says:

    Hmmm, so hope they make enough money for an improved sequel and play that instead? :/

    • Reivles says:

      “Wow, this game shows promise. I sure hope everyone else buys it so I can enjoy the sequel…”

      Cynical as it sounds, I’m actually in the same boat…

  11. johnpeat says:

    The biggest issue this has is really it’s price – it could be amazing and it would still struggle to sell at what is, basically, full-price for a blockbuster PC release.

    I’ve no idea if someone pushed them into an early release or a silly pricetag but this is a bit of a disaster really…

    • Gnoupi says:

      With such concept, if it was done right, and looked great (with a great identity), the price would have been right.
      It could have been a great contender on the RTS market, with this time travel idea done right.

      But as it is, which is mostly “a concept illustrated” in my opinion, the price is a bit harsh, for sure.

    • johnpeat says:

      Sorry to have to say this (as a developer, particularly) but the pricing of your game – especially your FIRST game – is SO much more important these days.

      Gone are the days you could just choose a pricepoint and let the price drop over time – the price you choose upfront now speaks volumes about what you are offering people.

      As much as Cliffski would like to argue that higher prices mean more sales (using his own data which he’s not sharing and so we don’t believe him) the reality is that the cheaper your game is, the more likely people will take a chance on it.

      When you’re a new developer or touting a new idea, this is very, very important. It might matter a bit less when you’ve made 20 games before – but then people have more of an idea what to expect and so may accept something being a bit pricier.

      Thing is tho – whilst console games may hang around in the £30-40 range for a while – PC games don’t do that. Typically even blockbuster PC releases will start below £30 and move towards £20 sharpish – and people expect them below £20 within a few months…

      When you’re a first-time-developer touting a game in a busy and established genre – asking for MORE money than the biggest selling game at the time you launch (in this case DXHR) is crazy.

    • Sam Crisp says:

      As much as Cliffski would like to argue that higher prices mean more sales (using his own data which he’s not sharing and so we don’t believe him) the reality is that the cheaper your game is, the more likely people will take a chance on it.

      So, are you going to share your data for this counterclaim? Achron doesn’t seem like the sort of game touted towards impulse buyers.

      When you’re a first-time-developer touting a game in a busy and established genre – asking for MORE money than the biggest selling game at the time you launch (in this case DXHR) is crazy.

      I’m confused. I see Achron launching at $29.95 (~£19), whereas I see DXHR at £30 on the Steam store and about £25 at various retailers.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      “As much as Cliffski would like to argue that higher prices mean more sales (using his own data which he’s not sharing and so we don’t believe him) the reality is that the cheaper your game is, the more likely people will take a chance on it.”

      Cliff’s claim is that higher prices mean better profits per visitor to the point of sale, not more sales. I don’t see any reason to disbelieve him, especially if you are a niche developer with a small audience.

    • Arathain says:

      I’m pretty sure that whatever Cliffski says we can believe, because he matches it with action that affects his livelihood. Pricing his games to make sub-optimal profits because he said some stuff on a forum would be a tad silly.

    • LionsPhil says:

      More pressingly, if you have a game which is all concept and no polish, “cheap so people can play with the concept and go ‘ooh, I want a polished version of this, I shall give them money in the hope they can then afford to do so as a sequel’” is the right price point.

  12. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I was totally burned by this game, why the fuck did i preorder it! It’s the worst RTS i’ve ever played & the time travel gimmick is categorically not enough to save it.

    • celewign says:

      Honestly, just dont preorder anything. You are giving someone a loan for free on the assumption that what they eventually give you will not suck, which is not a guarantee. Preorders are a really bad idea to support.

      Pay for things when you get them.

    • The Sombrero Kid says:

      I actually usually adhere to that religiously, this is probably the first game i preordered this year.

  13. sinister agent says:

    I must admit, I tried playing this and it was too slow to show me the goodies, and the units were too drab. I will certainly play it more, probably soon, but I’m not completely surprised to read this.

    It’s a shame it has so many problems. I suspected it might go like this from the first time RPS linked to it back in 1812 – revolutionary concept but suspect game, will surely inspire superior copycat games. A bit like Dune 2/Command and Conquer (although yes, same studio, but you get the idea, surely).

    Still, some of this could be patched out I hope. This is the one game I’ve paid full price for this year, as I think the genre desperately needs innovation like this.

  14. arzi says:

    It seems like the developers took the wrong approach to the design. They tried to combine time travel with Starcraft, when the better approach would have been designing the whole game around the time travel mechanic. It seems so complex that the game around it should have been a lot simpler.

  15. sana says:

    Fair review. I wonder where all the Starcraft comparisons come from, though. There’s humans and two alien races. It’s sci-fi. Is there more? :V

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yes. It’s the same crystals and gas system, only they’re called L-Crystals and Q-Plasma, similar approaches to building and bases, the UI follows the same pattern, one of the alien races is practically the Zerg’s second cousin twice removed… it has its own tweaks, sure, but if you don’t look at it and immediately think “Starcraft”, you’ve not played Starcraft.

    • sana says:

      I’ve drawn comparisons to Starcraft in regards to what Achron could do better when making suggestions, but I never really got the idea that it’s inspired by it. Hmm. And the rest seems like standard RTS fare to me…! Nothing that suggests an attempt to compete/knock-off.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Standard RTS fare *is* Starcraft. Things like the three side thing and its specific economic model were minted by Starcraft.

      KG

    • sinister agent says:

      Ja, calling an RTS “like starcraft” isn’t a slur or criticism, necessarily. It’s more like calling almost any 90s FPS a doom clone – it’s just the standard-setter. But Achron didn’t need to “be” starcraft, as its face–melting time bendery would probably be enough to compensate for a simpler unit/economy/race system.

    • Bhazor says:

      @ KG

      Actually the three sides thing was minted by Dune 2 along with pretty much everything else.

    • Arathain says:

      Isn’t it interesting how much players internalise a host of specific mechanics of the genre titans, to the point where it seems so normal it’s hard to spot? We’re all affected by it.

    • sinister agent says:

      @Bhazor

      Not really, though. The three sides in Dune 2 were identical save for about two units each (nearly all of which were crap anyway). In Starcraft, each race was utterly unique, with every unit and building having specific abilities unique to that race. Even their methods of building and unit production were significantly different, all of which encouraged very different playstyles. And all this was carefully balanced.

      Don’t get me wrong – Dune 2 was great, and laid the foundations for C&C, Starcraft, and all that followed. But all that followed added a lot more. Hell, you couldn’t even select multiple units in Dune 2. Try playing it again now if you haven’t recently; it’s easy to forget how much game design we take for granted now.

    • Moni says:

      Heh, it’s funny that Starcraft is now the standard, because I’m pretty sure the main criticism when it was released was that it was too generic and not particularly original.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Bhazor: /me beats head on table.

      Yeah, you’re right. Sorry.

      I think what I was reaching at was “Three very different sides”, and Dune 2 sorta does that as well (though not as extremely).

      Or, more likely, *popularized* it. Post Dune 2 it went to C&C’s 2 side model, which everyone pretty much pursued until Starcraft came in and did what it did.

      (Point being: doing it first matters relatively little compared to actually who had the impact)

      Still – Dune 2 was a one-resource game. So – er – there’s that.

      KG

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      And of course, at one point everything was an Age Of Empires clone. And before that, a Command and Conquer one. But for better or worse, Achron is totally Starcraft with time travel.

    • sana says:

      Yeah, I remember from reading the forums that Hazard drew comparisons to Dune 2 (especially the bit where he said that Achron units have as much memory available for pathfinding as those in Dune 2 due to the time-traveling mechanics), but never to Starcraft.

      I think similarities like that are not quite enough to warrant it being described like that in a review. That sort of thing suggests some serious lack of originality in the game’s racial design to the readers, which may be extra harmful to a struggling game already so bombarded with (admittedly very valid) criticism!

      But what’s written is written, and I guess if you experienced it as so reminiscent of SC, it can’t be helped. Ohwell! Nice read, anyway, and it’s good to see reviewers that actually understand the game before writing about it in frustration.

    • Bhazor says:

      To be honest I havent actually played Dune II, grandad, but still it is pretty impressive and a little sad how many modern RTS’s still use its crib notes. I guess at this points it’s the same as calling every shooter a “Doom clone”. Which ironically was already a Wolfenstein clone.

    • sinister agent says:

      @Bhazor

      Yeah, I hadn’t thought of it like that. You’d probably get further making an RTS by copying Dune 2 than you would by making a Doom-inspired FPS.

      I suppose you could argue that FPS games have developed a lot more than RTS games over (roughly) the same period, if you take Dune 2 and Doom as your starting points (although as you pointed out, they too took their inspiration from somewhere – buggered if I can remember what Dune 2 leaned on, but I’m sure someone can tell us). Which is kind of weird given that the basics of a shooter are much simpler – “shoot the mens to make them dead” is a lot more direct than “collect special rocks and swap them for tanks, then tell the tanks to shoot at the bad men to make them dead”.

    • Arathain says:

      I often hear folk mentioning Herzog Zwei for the Sega Megadrive/Genesis as the first true modern RTS. It was Dune 2 that became Command & Conquer, and C&C was so big and impressive and good that it locked the RTS in its current form, even this many years later.

      So I think Herzog was the technical first, and Dune 2 the initial seismic rumbling, but the true father of the RTS is C&C, in the same way that Watt was the father of the steam engine, without having invented it.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Multiple resources

      Dark Reign in 1997 (Starcraft was ’98), although one was only for improving power plants. Total Annihilation, a month later in ’97 (and the reason nobody remembers poor Dark Reign, despite it actually doing a lot of novel stuff—it also had different propulsion and terrain types that affected movement speeds and traversability, building upgrades, and the ability to set unit AI to do things like auto-harass and auto-seek-and-destroy stragglers…)

      Honestly, I’d love to see a retrospective on DR. It’s not actually a desperately good game—the unit AI is kind of stupid and requires constant babysitting for one—but it’s a really interesting blip in RTS development that got mostly ignored.

      (Mind-derped that DR had three unique sides for a moment, but one of them is actually just a union of the other two.)

  16. sinister agent says:

    Studies indicate that up to 70% of posters will experience reply fail at some point in their lives. Don’t suffer in silence. Contact Postcare today.

    • Arathain says:

      I’m remembering Warcraft 2, where the Alliance and Horde units were reskins. The only difference between the sides were a handful of high tier spells and upgrades, for not a big difference overall. Even in the assorted C&Cs the differences weren’t that stark- NOD gets cheap light tanks, GDI gets heavier more expensive tanks, but they’re all just tanks, and the way each side was played largely the same. Starcraft was the first I remember to really embrace making it’s races very unlike each other, and having three of them do this ( a nightmare to balance, showing Blizzard’s skills in that are very early).

    • Bhazor says:

      Don’t be like Arathain.

      Talk to us. We can help.

    • Arathain says:

      Damn it! I always forget how to do it right.

      KG

  17. Hodge says:

    I played the beta about a year ago, and it was exactly how Richard describes it here – the time-travel stuff worked brilliantly, but the game itself was like an incredibly sub-par RTS circa 1996.

    At the time I thought “Right, they’re just focusing on the time travel stuff first, the rest of the game is all placeholder stuff and that’s why it’s all so rubbish.”

  18. Urthman says:

    Tom Chick sent a pretty entertaining review of this game back in time from the future:

    http://www.gamepro.com/article/reviews/222574/review-achron-pc/

    • LionsPhil says:

      Achron certainly seems like the game we’ll be mentioning in the same way as Narbacular Drop.

      I just hope we’ll get its Portal some day.

      Edit: In retrospect, I add from the future, perhaps the original Prey is a better comparison. The gimmick is implemented “correctly”, and when it resurfaces in a game with no direct lineage it will be as a bodge job that does well enough and captures the meme-imagination.

  19. Koozer says:

    All they need to do is develop some mod tools, half the price, and stick a mods page on their site. It’s clear these guys are very good technically, but are a bit lacking artistically.

  20. brog says:

    On the suggestion that it should have tried to be less like Starcraft, steamlining that part of the game to focus more on the time travel.. I designed an RTS that started in concept as “Starcraft with X on top”, but in order to keep overall complexity down, and to not waste time cloning an existing game, I streamlined the hell out of the “Starcraft” bit and focused on the cool new mechanic, and then a huge part of the responses I got to it were essentially “this should be more like SC”. A lot of people actually, complained that it was too simple, even though the overall complexity is similar to SC, because it didn’t have the particular type of depth they expected from an RTS. (Plenty of other people complained that it was too complex.)

    So: it’s hard to tell how much Achron would have been helped by simplifying the trad-RTS elements as much as possible! SC has very much set people’s expectations for an RTS, and divergence from that formula provokes harsh criticism. They might have been okay; time-travel is a more easily grokkable mechanic than I had; but it would be a risk. Definitely trying to do everything SC does and doing it badly was a mistake though..

  21. Azriel says:

    The time travel mechanic is really amazing, it just everything else that sucks. As someone else mentioned, they need to sell the game to another developer like valve to make a really amazing game.

  22. Chris D says:

    What we need is for Achron and Swords and Soldiers to get together and make babies.

  23. bluebogle says:

    Wow! Somehow, the entire time I’ve read this game’s title up until now, I’ve read it as Archon, and figured it was a very strange re-boot of the old game.

  24. Bosscelot says:

    The pricing and time of release has really done it for me. From watching videos of the game in action and having followed it, the stuff about the design and graphics seems spot on. But even then I might have tried the game out if it hadn’t come out at the time of year when every other game does and didn’t cost £20. It almost seems like they were asking for it to fail.

    Maybe one day I’ll try it and have a look at modding it because it desperately needs a new art direction. Maybe I could even get a job with them haha. Definitely feels like a very ‘programmer focused’ game… like a designer or artist didn’t have much to say in its creation.

    • sana says:

      It was basically developed by two-three guys. The art stems from community contributions and a couple of outside artists (for instance, the HUD was made by one). The unit designs are supposedly created by a professional art director from a bigwig game publisher though, which strikes me as odd considering the results.

  25. kuran says:

    Someone never played Total Annihilation..

    • Thants says:

      I kept thinking that the graphics look like Total Annihilation except designed by someone who doesn’t understand that you’re supposed to be able to see what the hell is going on.

  26. mingster says:

    If this game had Advance War (1 or 2) graphics but with the time travel mechanic it could possibly be the best game ever.

  27. Lazaruso says:

    So would you say that the developers should have… spent more time working on the graphics?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Not necessarily. Just spent it on making ones that actually work.

    • Dozer says:

      The gamebreaking fault isn’t that the graphics are ugly to look at. The gamebreaking fault is that the graphics are inadequate for showing you what’s going on!

    • sana says:

      ….which really only applies to campaign maps. It’s actually really easy to understand what’s going on ingame, especially since many multiplayer maps are in high-contrast desert/snow environments and there’s ANIMATIONS and EFFECTS ingame, contrary to what screenshots depict. In addition there’s been team color changes in the latest maps. All you have to do is spend a few minutes getting familiar with the units. You might argue that StarCraft’s units are all perfectly readable on first sight, but when you didn’t know about the game, you also had to first learn what exactly Mutalisks and Lurkers do and how they work. Same with Achron.

  28. Aardvarkk says:

    The blue unit is my favorite.. Would this game be recommendable by letting users change unit colors?

  29. Nixitur says:

    Unlike the reviewer, I CAN recommend this game, although I do agree with the flaws he pointed out. The pathfinding AI is pretty bad (although a patch was released and sent to Valve just a few hours ago that’s supposed to improve it a lot) and yes, the units are sometimes difficult to tell apart.
    The Marine/SOP example is probably the most glaring and I can’t tell apart the 4 tanks the Humans have either. And the tier 1 units of the Vecgir (the teleport pros) are all basic infantry with different kinds of guns.
    But other than that, I really, really do like the game. I would like to tell you how much the pathfinding is improved, but I really don’t know, I haven’t played it today.
    I also do like the story very much. It is incredibly carefully crafted and the backstory, the story itself, the overall atmosphere and the gameplay all fit nicely together without any gameplay and story segregation.
    The cutscenes are a bit lackluster, being presented in a comic style without much animation going on, but I really don’t think that’s such a big problem. There’s also a lot of additional backstory between the missions in text form that you don’t need to know, but is interesting nonetheless.
    The soundtrack is absolutely amazing. It fits so well with the atmosphere of the game. The voice acting is pretty solid in my opinion (although there are some lines which could use work).
    The balance works well and I don’t think I need to talk about the gameplay mechanics. The time travel works amazingly well and I don’t find it too hard to follow as a spectator. Yes, I’ve played the game, but I watched gameplay videos of multiplayer games beforehand and yes, I did understand it.
    You have to get used to the time travel, but I think it’s one of those things that are easy to learn, but hard to master.

    Edit: Again, about the graphics: They tried to make unit designs that actually made sense in light of the backstory. Which is a neat idea and could actually work if you were able to work with high polygon counts.
    However, if they had high polygon counts for Achron, the game would slow down to a crawl due to having to calculate unit animation in about 6 to 8 different timelines at once (the timewaves which are basically what makes the time travel mechanic work like it does).
    So, they had to work with fairly low polygon counts which is not a problem per se since it can still look nice and clear, but not if you want to have “realistic” unit designs.
    It was a very early decision, but I think they should have thought it through a bit more.

    Also, I’ve read about some Starcraft comparisons? Yes, it’s Sci-Fi and there’s three races, but that’s basically it. Even if it might seem like it, the Grekim (the squids) are not a Zerg rip-off at all.
    The Zerg generally have a low cost per unit while the Grekim generally have a high cost per unit. The most Zerg-like race in Achron in that regard are actually the Humans.
    Yes, the Grekim also have units “morphing” into buildings but while Drones are fairly useless at fighting, the three morphing Grekim units are actually also the tier 1 combat units. Combined with the ability to undo morphs with time travel, this makes them very flexible.
    And the way Grekim make units is also quite unique and, as far as I know, very much unlike anything in Starcraft.

    • sana says:

      “However, if they had high polygon counts for Achron, the game would slow down to a crawl due to having to calculate unit animation in about 6 to 8 different timelines at once”
      That’s kinda bullshit!

  30. JackShandy says:

    What a shame. What you do when you have a single complicated, interesting concept is simplify everything else. A single race, a small amount of rock/paper/scissors units, take away the complexity from everything else and put it all into the reason people are playing your game.

    Taking such an interesting thing and dumping starcraft in as well – it’s a shame.

  31. Big Murray says:

    One day … I dream of there being a multiplayer FPS with this gameplay mechanic.

    • JackShandy says:

      But that wouldn’t work at all! You can’t control your past self in an FPS. You’d just suddenly vanish from existence because someone killed you an hour ago.

      Maybe… the idea would be to guard your past self?

    • sinister agent says:

      I’m sure it could work as a theme, but not as a system you could directly control. Eg: you play in a world with time travel (and don’t know it at first), and at key points certain unexplained things happen, and much later, you discover time travel and have to go back and make those things happen.

      It could work well as part of a plot, but you’d need a fully realised game around it and just throw that in as part of the story. I think it could be fun – there could be a section where a mystery sniper is taking people out around you, only to disappear when you hunt them down. Then you find out it’s future you.

      But anyway.

  32. Sarcose says:

    I don’t want to stir up anything by starting this discussion and I may have missed someone already point this out, but I take two issues with this review that I’d at least like to get the ball rolling on some thought processes here: The first is that I don’t really agree with the Starcraft analogy. To compare it to Starcraft, you have to take some liberties – yes, you have three races, and yes one is a hivemind while one is a proud warrior race, and finally yes one is relatively inflexible and one is able to easily rebound, but at that I believe the comparison ends. The first two points are not important to me at all and shouldn’t be important to any serious gamer – they are story comparisons to Starcraft. The third point is not really unique to the SC series – it refers to a dichotomy formed from building strategies off of a comparison axis, in this case flexibility (or more specifically the ability to react), and that is generally something present in all games where you are given different options for whom to play.

    The reason I think the comparisons to Starcraft end there is what will tie me into my next point, and that is the game is not really an RTS. Unfortunately it is very close to an RTS, so it will draw in RTS gamers, and therefore any problems that would interfere with it acting like an RTS are real problems that should present real concerns (so I am not going to take issue with, for instance, the pathfinding complaint). But having played Starcraft from its launch, and having played Achron from during Alpha, I can safely say that Starcraft plays like an RTS, and Achron is like a Chess game with puzzle elements. The time travel element is far from a gimmick – it is the core mechanic of the game. The game is a Time Travel Game – it’s genre is more accurately described as Time Travel with RTS as a subgenre – and this could be loosely defined as an environment that gives you a timeline of events that goes into the past and future which can be interacted with. Hazardous Software calls it Meta-Time Strategy and so do all the alpha/beta/preorder community, but I feel that’s a bit pretentious. I think it should just be referred to as a Time Travel game first and foremost – and that’s not just an issue I take with semantics; I think it should indicate that the game would be approached differently. You play it slowly, for one – yeah, you think fast, but you time your moves, you can execute maneuvers several times to get them right, going back a little bit to perfect the small amount of micro you are allowed. You don’t just go back and destroy a factory, or get attacked in the past, or scout into the future – in this particular game, you are playing several games at once, manipulating several versions of reality at once, and you are attempting to execute moves that will push or encourage certain versions of reality – the ones in which you win – to override the opponent’s preferred versions of reality. Or to reiterate, rather than jumping back in time to destroy a factory, you will eventually start to think of the factory as being causally stable or causally unstable, and acknowledge that in certain versions of reality it is gone and in certain versions of reality its destruction has been rendered obsolete by further gambits.

    Now to tie my two complaints together: the races have been designed with this time travel series of gambits in mind. You touched on that very thing in the review but used it for a Starcraft comparison – one is offensive, one teleports, one time travels. You glossed over the fact that one of the races you were comparing to starcraft doesn’t have an equivalent in that very game – time travel as a core mechanic that drastically differentiates the game from a bog standard RTS I the first place sort of separates that out. Strategies must be weighed by their Causal vulnerability as an opportunity cost – “Causally stable” is not really a concept that has a comparison in Starcraft. The theories that drive the game’s balance have to do with time travel – the reason you are introduced to time travel before base building is because it is so integral. When we were first learning the game we came up with a now outdated system of measuring one’s integration into the play – at Tier 1 you played the game like a normal RTS, at Tier 2 you used the timeline to make changes, and at Tier 3 you took into consideration what you could do to the timeline by transporting units through time. The comparison between Tier 2 players and Tier 3 players is still there, but Tier 1 should effectively not exist, as the SP campaign attempts to introduce timeline manipulation before you ever learn the RTS proper, specifically because if you go from playing it like a Chronal RTS to a timeline manipulation RTS the units’ utility drastically changes. The speed of the units as they walk changes as you realize that the game actually moves them in 3x normal viewing speed – you do not watch your units walk to a destination, because a timewave propagates them forward – the objectives and commands you set play themselves out without you worrying about that slow initial speed from when you play without the timeline. You set queues of orders and go do something else, then you bookmark your spot when you see red show up on the timeline so you can pop into the future or past to see what’s happening. You are constantly picking and choosing which discreet events to manage, rather than playing the battlefield itself from a start point to a finish point.

    (Base building analysis redacted. I changed my mind on that.)

    My point is, this game has it’s flaws that justify this review the way it was written, but that it has a standalone style. One of the flaws is that no one has yet thought of a way to present it such that this style is readily apparent. At first glance, it is just another RTS with a gimmick. You have to really get into it to see how deeply unparalleled it is.

    (I want to point out that after rereading this comment I am not proud of how sloppily it was written. Sorry, I hope I got my point across.)

  33. bill says:

    They really should have gone with simple stylised graphics like advance wars, revenge of the titans, or even world of goo…

  34. sana says:

    A very insightful post by Dr. Hazard explaining why the game turned out like it did:
    http://www.achrongame.com/forums/viewtopic.php?p=39931#p39931

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