Atlas Reactor is a MOBA that doesn’t require reflexes

If Frozen Synapse and Battlerite had a baby, it would bear an uncanny resemblance to Atlas Reactor. Think turn-based MOBA-style combat with an emphasis on predicting and responding to your opponent’s’ next move. If you’re not sure what ‘MOBA-style combat’ really means, have no fear: Atlas Reactor is a unique creature, and experience with its genre-spanning inspirations won’t give you much of a competitive edge. It certainly hasn’t for me.

The standard mode is Deathmatch, with victory going to the four-person team that reaches five kills first, or the team with the most kills after twenty turns. Each player controls a ‘Freelancer’ with four regular abilities, as well as an ultimate ability that gets charged each time a regular one is used. At the start of each turn, everyone’s given twenty seconds to program in their move before sitting back and watching their team’s master plan play out. At least, that’s the theory. When you first start playing, it’s all too easy to panic and end up firing wildly off into the distance and accidentally move to somewhere you had no intention of going. All of this takes place in a colourful, Saturday morning cartoon-type world that reminds me of Overwatch, complete with a roster of characters that includes a robotic dog, a genius fish doctor (the sturgeon general) and an anomaly of sentient light.

It took me a while to really get Atlas Reactor. The problem is that it manages to seem both too simple and too complicated at once. In my first few games, I’d spend the first half struggling against the timer and end up misusing my abilities. Then, once I’d got them figured out, combat seemed to become a simple matter of trading hits until someone fell over. It felt like a fiddly version of a Worms game, where most of the time both teams would do about the same amount of damage to each other, and exactly how I contributed to that damage seemed inconsequential. The other mode, ‘Briefcase Extraction’, was little better – I felt even more punished for not knowing the nuances of movement controlling abilities. As a result of these experiences, I almost bounced right off the game.

Fortunately, there is depth beneath the chaos – it just takes some time and effort before that can be appreciated. As I’ve already mentioned, a large part of the game revolves around anticipating what the enemy is about to do. That’s next to impossible when you’ve barely begun to get a handle on your own abilities, let alone those of the seven other characters in the game with you. While it’s true that the same could be said for any MOBA-inspired game with a varied character pool, the lack of a real-time component in Atlas Reactor makes having that knowledge even more important. Fast reflexes count for nothing in a turn-based world.

The learning process isn’t helped by certain confusing elements of the game that are left unclear. After being baffled as to how the game determines who moves first, me and a friend had to resort to asking Google. It turns out that every move is actually happening simultaneously, and just get shown one at a time for clarity. Crucially, it’s impossible for a character to die before they use their attack – a mechanic that I had no idea existed until almost a dozen games in. As such, it doesn’t make any difference which moves happen first – unless, that is, somebody uses a knockback or a pull ability, which nearly always happen after purely damaging abilities. Of course, the moment I’d internalised that particular rule, I played a character that actually drags people out of position in the dash phase, causing the entirety of my team’s’ attacks to miss for that turn.

In fairness, dashing is one mechanic that’s fairly easy to understand. Most Freelancers have a dash ability that allows them to move before the blast phase, which is when most abilities happen. They tend to have long cooldowns, so mis-timing one can leave you a sitting duck for opponents that are paying attention. Successfully dodging attacks from three people on the same turn feels incredibly satisfying – and infuriating when someone on the other team pulls off the same trick. The thing is, at least at the level I’m playing at, it’s usually fairly obvious when someone is planning on dashing. You can see what abilities an enemy has off-cooldown by hovering over them. If someone has a dash ready, and is low enough that they can be finished off by the Freelancers that are in range of them, you pretty much know that they’re going to use it. However, knowing that they’re going to dash and where they’re going to dash to are completely different things. A lot of the time it seems to be worth just targeting where an opponent is anyway, in case they forget.

It’s a shame, because I can absolutely see how those kinds of decisions can get more interesting at a higher level. The ‘reading minds’ part of the game, as advertised on its Steam bio, can only really come into play when opponents understand it well enough to start subverting each other’s expectations. That’s only just beginning to happen for me, with most games being won by the team that simply understands how to get the most damage out of their abilities. It’s worth bearing in mind that I spent my time with it either alone or in a pair. I imagine playing with a full four person team opens up another strategic layer, moving together as a team and setting up elaborate ability combos. As a lone player, I’m left wishing I could just control every Freelancer on my team.

That brings me to another area of the game that has the potential to be interesting, but is inaccessible to newer players. Before the game starts, each ability can be modded in 5 different ways. You’re given ten loadout points to spread across the abilities, and each mod uses up between one and three pips depending on how significant they are. It creates interesting tradeoffs: on a sniper character, I couldn’t turn down the chance at making my primary ability pierce through enemies and my ultimate deal extra damage to low health enemies, which left my other abilities with far less significant enhancements. Here’s where the system falls down: unlocking each mod uses up a mod token, which drop at an unseemly slow rate. The only other way to get them is by paying a frankly ridiculous £79.99 for the ‘Ultimate Reactor Edition’, which nets you 65 of the things alongside some cosmetics.

It also gives you permanent access to all of the Freelancers, though you can get those by buying the far more reasonably priced £22.99 version. Free players are limited to a weekly rotation of Freelancers that’s unique to them, which is a neat way of avoiding seeing the same characters in every game. Still, if you don’t get the paid version you’ll be forced to spend your hard earned mod tokens on characters that you may not regain access to for weeks. It’s a bit odd that there’s no option to buy individual freelancers – as it is, the free to play version is basically a demo for the game proper. I can see why only players who pay are given access to the ranked mode: it’s hard to properly understand how a Freelancer works until you’ve played them, and understanding each character is the only way to compete at higher levels.

I’ve no doubt that Atlas Reactor becomes a better game the more you play it, I’m just not sure if it’s worth pushing through that initial hurdle. If you’re willing to commit the time and effort, however, Atlas Reactor offers the complexity of an e-sport without requiring the reflex speeds demanded by its peers.

From this site

11 Comments

  1. PepperTitan says:

    I’ve been playing this game for a quite some time, since September of 2015, and I think its a ton of fun and really unlike other competitive games out there. That being said I, along with a lot of the community, 100% agree on the mod tokens thing. You get some every time you get a Freelancer to level 5 which is a good way to earn them but it really shouldn’t be a thing. It’s left over from when the game was going to be F2P but they changed the model to its current one so they could focus more on making the game better not making more money on micro-transactions. It’s essentially Overwatch’s model. The game definitely gets better the more you play it especially with a full team to communicate with. The complete lack of RNG and relying on mind-games is what makes it feel so special to me. I encourage using the free mode to give it a shot, but its not really more than an infinite time demo so if you like it just buy the all Freelancers version.

  2. Landiss says:

    I tried it recently when someone mentioned in in the comments. Mechanically it seems to be quite decent, but I quite hate the way it is all displayed. I dislike it when strategy games give lots of on-screen attention to unimportant things. That’s not to mean they can’t have nice graphics, but they should make 200% sure that important information is very clearly and easily visible and not obfuscate with tons of colors, explosions, completely unnecessary highlights and animations. In this case, for example, it was very hard for me to see the distance I can move, after shooting. It’s made worse by the game allowing you to order movement to a bigger distance, only to simply stop it early.

    To be fair, many strategy games have problems with that, especially when they want to look nice. For example, in Civilization, which used to be so great about it, they have the same problem (to some extend) and they even introduced another view mode to solve it.

    On the other hand, there are games that can do this properly. Perhaps not everyone will agree with me here, but I think new XCOMs are good examples. They still have pretty colors, animations etc. and yet they (at least usually) manage to show the important things clearly.

  3. Ineptie says:

    I believe you are too Harsh on this game. It is not perfect and isn’t for everyone (you have to like “easy to play hard to master” game style) but it is one of the most innovative and fun game i’ve played for quite a long time.
    It is better when played with friends, as you can start thinking of combos and planing ahead, but even solo I feel it is both fun and challenging.
    I do agree with you when you say the “free” version is pretty obnoxious with mod tokens, and limited mod tokens in general isn’t a good idea. As Pepper said it’s a left over from the F2P era, and it shouldn’t be a thing.
    Once you get some level on freelancers they stop be a problem though.

  4. Daniv says:

    I’ve been playing this for a couple of weeks now and am generally enjoying it. That said, my reflexes are awful.
    I think I didn’t have any real problem getting the hang of the rules (the simultaneous part was part of the advertising I read), but trying to mentally juggle the abilities of 8 characters at once has been a real sticking point. The UI could be a bit cleaner and can get rather busy when everyont else is firing off. Twenty seconds isn’t much to assimilate and lock in, especially if the whole team’s waiting for each other to “go first”. It usually results in one character getting massive overkill from an entire team.
    That said, there’s always bots to practice against if I don’t fancy PvP humiliation.
    I’ve got no real complaints about the mod tokens (6 every 4 levels on a character, I currently have about 20 spare) but some of the “missions” for the event unlocks are rather on the grindy side and want me to play freelancers I wouldn’t normally. Not sure if that’s a good thing.
    Overall, I think it’s novel enough and worth having a look at. Gods know, there are enough people willing to spam the “unlock everyone for a week” code if you want it.

  5. DenieD says:

    I play this pretty much every day and absolutely love it, the article raises some valid points (Free mode is basically unlimited time demo mode), mod tokens are a relic of their old payment model they planned for in early beta, they should be gone; that said when you get a character to lvl 4 (which doesnt take many games, 3-4 or something) you get 4 mod tokens which build up quickly (I currently have something like 100 tokens sitting doing nothing).

    One of the parts of the game I love most though is something I’d only really previously found in Fighting Games like Street Fighter, the pleasure of being in your enemies head; knowing what they want to do before even they know. When an enemy in Atlas Reactor dashes and you have called that dash out perfectly predicting it only to shoot him where he lands after the dash, the feeling awesome.

    The game should really make more effort to get people to group with friends though, its best played in a group all on comms (as are many games ofc). It is enjoyable solo though however.

  6. Graylight says:

    I’d check this game out, but Trion has become a company I’m going to actively avoid supporting.

    • lglethal says:

      Can I ask why? I havent heard of them doing anything particularly bad before. They dropped f2p and went for a model which actually seems pretty decent on Atlas Reactor. So why the hate?

  7. Aetylus says:

    I first dodged this game because of that worst of all four letter words: MOBA. Having bounced of LoL due to old man reflexes and toxicity intolerance, this surely wasn’t going to be my thing.

    Then I tried it… and I’ve been completely hooked since. For me, it’s basically Xcom with the AI opponents replaced by humans. Actually, I’d says its tactically superior to Xcom by some margin.

    Many who enjoy it seem to be MOBA players say things like “I never realized I could enjoy turn based games”. I think it is even better suited to us old school grognards who never thought we would enjoy online games. The upshot is Atlas Reactor is rapidly rising toward the top of my most played games list, alongside the likes of CK2, EU, Civ, Dominions, the Xcoms, and other anti-MOBAs.

    I’d still rather not think of it as a MOBA. I go for Turn Based Tactical Online Brawler. TuBTOB.

  8. Marblecake says:

    I’d been wondering when RPS would get around to writing about Atlas Reactor, because it really is a neat little game.
    It especially shines once you’re in a group where everyone understands their role to the T. Then you can start with the cool anticipatory plays, like concentrating on their healer and once s/he’s about to dash, the entire team lays down covering fire at every possible point s/he might dash to.
    And this is with randoms. I’ve started a policy of friending every nice and competent player I come across in this game and my friends list is now big enough that I can always play with a group if I feel like it.

    Cool game, should get back to it…I’ve been hooked on Fistful of Frags for the past few weeks. Best shooter ever.

  9. BiscuitP1mp says:

    I absolutely adore Atlas Reactor. I have about 230+ rounds and over 100 hours under my belt.

    Before I go on about the stuff I love, I want to touch on Mod Tokens. Atlas Reactor highly encourages you play as many characters a sub possible, if not all of them at least once. If you take the effort to complete the Chapter Missions, you’ll pick up surplus Mod Tokens from levelling up characters you don’t necessarily have a need, or want to mix up their ability bonuses. Spending money on microtransactions is completely not required. The only money I spent was buying the base paid version.

    Now! This game is loads of fun, but it’s a frustrating place to be once you start getting good and can be competitive. You almost definitely want to hook up with some friends to make the most of the strategy points. A team of four random players have no chance against a team who know how to team up abilities for combos, who are probably also actually communicating their decisions.

    In saying that good players generally just “gel” and know their place, what they should do next. You can “ping” the battlefield, let someone know you are going to help (usually useful to point out you intend to heal or buff), show where you want to meet up, or tag an enemy you want to target and gang up on. Honestly this method works really well and in general unless someone is really green, they just get it.

    So frustrations lie in getting lumped in PvP with really fresh players who have no clue how to play and have made their way through the requisite amount not of practice bot rounds. So then you step up to Ranked mode to test your mettle. It can be really hard to move up Ranked Single matches (queue for matches by yourself to fill a team) as there is cap on experience or matches to get involved. A team of four, people you can talk to and strategise is the ONLY way to truly sink your teeth on and enjoy this game on a highly competitive level. I don’t have a crew and it could be what takes me away from the game in the long run.

    Freelancers come in Firepower, Frontline and Support “roles”. Majority play the former, not enough play Support well. The playstyles are great though, some Support are more aggressive and can throw down damage, some Frontline do damage soaking and blocking well, others are just pests, their sole purpose to chase down weaker or annoying Freelancers.

    With how character selection works in Ranked martches, if you want to play seriously I think you need at Lear five to six characters you can play well with. I feel comfortable playing them now, and makes me feel more valuable when it comes time to Fill in Ranked matches.

    I’ll have to mention that I’ve run in to some seriouy toxic players, but in 230+ rounds I’m happy to say this has only happens on three or four occasions. You can block players so they will never be put in a team with you again, and you can report players for all kinds of behaviour (feeding happens, but not too much).

    I have to go back to the Bonus ability options that are unlocked with Mod Tokens. Playstyles open up when you have those extra options. Like, Oz, little robot guy. I usually have him set up so certain abilities reset or cool down faster. It means I can do a special attack, follow up with ultimate, and do that special attack again. This works for how I play, but lots of people get along fine with the defaults. I just love that you get to a point that you can have a bunch of load outs (you can save load outs of a ability bonuses), be able to understand your opponents and pick an appropriate set of bonuses to counter a Freelancers abilities or make it easier to track.

    I’ll have to agree bout the graphics though. So much going on. There is an ability that stops you using anything but your base ability, and it tripped me up a lot because I failed to see the effect applied, and that there was SFX around my character because I’m quickly looking over battlefield for my next move.

    Honestly, give it a shot. You can play free, and get taste. My Glyph ID is BiscuitP1mp. I’m happy to play some rounds with your and show you the ropes. It helps to have a veteran get you through some early matches.

    Rock Paper Shotgun, I’ll happily write a Supporter Article about the game. I really, truly love it, but am not bias to its shortcomings.

  10. Bobtree says:

    MOBA might be the most abused genre term after Roguelike.