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Wot I Think: Achron

Through the fog of time

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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