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The Lighthouse Customer: Robocraft

Cube Hurt

Each Monday, Chris Livingston visits an early access game and reports back with stories about whatever he finds inside. This week, building, driving, and flying robotic cube-tanks in the free-to-play Robocraft.

My robotank, Killdeathinator -- named for all the killing and deathinating it's been dishing out -- has just entered its 5th iteration. Killdeathinator Mk 1 had four wheels, a couple guns, and was made of weak plastic cubes. Mk 2 added more wheels -- ones I can steer, which I've found to be fairly important -- and a radar dish to track enemies. Now, lined with gleaming copper armor and bristling with cannons, its become a fairly durable ground assault vehicle. Time to kick it up a notch. Killdeathinator wants to fly.

Robocraft has a Space Engineers aesthetic and World of Tanks gameplay: put together tanks and airships out of cubes, then roll or fly into multiplayer battle. In between matches, fiddle with your design, use points earned during combat to buy more cubes or upgrade your tech tree, and thoughtfully drum your fingers on your mouse while trying to decide if you want to take out your wallet and wrap yourself in Robocraft's dense fabric of microtransactions.

Fleet does the flying, cubes just do the dying.

Building is pretty simple: just stick shiny cubes together in one of your three garages. The amount of parts you can have, in terms of chassis (structure), movement (wheels, thrusters, hover-blades), and hardware (guns, guns, and guns) is limited in a couple ways. First, your CPU level determines how many parts you can stick on the same tank, and can only be (slowly) increased after destroying or damaging opponents in battle. You don't begin with many cubes, either, but you can buy more in the cube depot (again, using points earned in combat) or cannibalize your starter vehicles for parts.

Is that enough guns, or do I need a dozen more on the bottom?

I decide to make Killdeathinator a tank after I found flying to be problematic. At Tier 1, there are only basic hoverblades and thrusters available, meaning I can only skim a few dozen meters off the ground, and balance is so delicate that a single heavy thrust flips me upside-down. I leave the aerial combat to more experienced players and stick to the ground, though I mistakenly use fixed wheels so I can only roll forward and backward. It's a bit of a handicap, especially when I roll over the edge of my base and land upside-down, where I spend the rest of the match spinning my useless wheels uselessly. Killdeathinator Mk 2 will include steering capability, I shrewdly decide.

Want a cannon, a slightly-better cannon, a slightly-slightly-better cannon, or...

The tech tree, while certainly sprawling, isn't especially diverse. There are currently only a few kinds of guns: quick-firing yet low-damage machine guns, long-range cannons that pack a hefty punch but require considerable time to recharge, and mortar-like plasma launchers that require some careful calculation to hit from a distance. Chassis cubes can be upgraded into better chassis cubes, thrusters into better thrusters, guns into guns that do a smidge more damage than the other guns. As pleasing as everything looks, there's ultimately just not that much variety in parts.

Tremble at our adorable death-dealers.

Variety comes from the players, however, who take great handfuls of the limited cubes and build them into goofy, wonky, adorable, impressive, or fearsome battletanks. The second best part of multiplayer comes when you're plunked into a match and have a few moments to look around at your teammates' tanks and see what they've built. The first best part comes a moment later when everyone rolls out, or rolls up the side of a mountain and flips over, or takes off, crashes into a mountain and flips over, or rams into you and flips over and flips you over. Often the battlefield becomes littered with overturned tanks and the skies dotted with inverted aircraft. It feels like a war directed by toddlers.

What's fun about a robot that turns into a building?

There's nothing too complex at present when it comes to combat. You can play on one of two maps, and there's but a single game mode at present -- base capture -- so you basically just trundle off or wobbily take to the skies, shoot any enemies you see, roll onto their base, and wait for the capture. It's repetitive and basic but still moderately fun, the servers I've been on have run very smoothly, and it only takes between ten and fifteen seconds for a match to begin and a couple minutes to reach its conclusion.

Roll! Roll for your life, Killdeathinator!

As your tank takes damage, it will begin losing cubes. You may have your guns shot off or your wheels or hoverblades disintegrated. Death only comes when your robopilot is blasted off your hull, meaning that even heavily crippled vehicles can still play, sort of. In one match I was shot up so badly the entirety of Killdeathinator was reduced to two wheels and a seat. This led to a merry chase as my attacker struggled to pin me down and finish me off. I couldn't even turn at that point -- my two remaining wheels were fixed -- so all I could do was erratically roll back and forth, but I was such a small target, and his guns took so long to recharge, that it took the entire rest of the match for him to land a killing blow.

Many upside-down robots... died... to bring us this information.

Eventually, I decide to spend some real cash ($10) as the progress to higher tiers and better cubes is considerably slow. I swap out plastic cubes for armored ones, buy more of everything, and convert my earned tech points into ubertech points (using the galaxy cash I bought with RealBux!) that let me unlock my tech tree more quickly. In low-tier matches, it's pretty obvious who has spent a little green to improve their bots: you'll mostly see tanks built from light plastic cubes, but one or two heavily armored ones. Starter ships will hover only a few dozen meters off the ground, but you'll see a couple waaaaaay up in the atmosphere, bombing you from the clouds, indicating someone (like me) restless to advance and willing to pay for it.

I meant to go into battle upside-down. To uh... confuse the enemy.

After unlocking some aerofoils, I try to take Killdeathinator to the skies, but he's not particularly good at flying. All that armor is probably too heavy, and I don't quite have enough CPU to add flying hardware without removing most of my guns. I haven't unlocked enough of the tech tree to upgrade my thrusters, either, so the best KD can do is hover slowly a few meters off the ground, typically upside-down. For now. I'm working on something else, though. Airblastikiller (Mk 1) has gone into production!

Yes, it flipped upside-down on its maiden flight. But just wait until Mk 2.

The garage: the only place it sits right-side up.

Robocraft is in early alpha (I played version 0.6748) and at the moment it's good for a few hours of light and casual fun. The tinkering is actually more fun than the tankering, I've found, but it's free to check out once you've registered. It's on Steam as well.

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