Happy Wars, from Japanese developer Toylogic and Microsoft Studios is the first free-to-play (AKA freemium) Xbox Live Arcade game. The title is offered for free to Xbox Live Gold members and monetized by the sale of optional premium items. As the flagship for a new and increasingly popular business model, Happy Wars needs to both be enjoyable for players who buy nothing while enticing dedicated players to spend some coin. Happy Wars does both things very well, though this review is more concerned with the divide between co-op and versus multiplayer.
At first glance, Happy Wars looks like the Xbox 360’s answer to Fat Princess on the Playstation 3. Both games involve two large teams of online players to compete against each other in a cartoonish action setting. But Happy Wars differs most significantly in the vast array of character customization and equipment that it offers. You can personalize each of your three classes’ hair, face, and skin color, and then deck them out with a huge arsenal of weapons and armor, so that very few advanced characters will look alike.
Players can choose from all three classes at the start of a game and whenever they respawn, so they’re never tied down to a single character. Each one has varying offensive potential as well as several unique skills (8 individual skills and 3 team skills) that the other classes can’t use. The decision of which character to use comes down to playing style as well as the needs of a particular game. If one class is underrepresented on a team, you might want to switch to it in order to round things out.
The ones with red names are the bad guys.
The Fighter is the standard warrior class, utilizing melee weapons and shields during combat. He (or she, any class can be either gender) can’t heal, so he’ll rely on other classes for support. But his special skills give him devastating close-range attack abilities. Smash can knock enemies off of ledges and to their deaths; Stone throw stuns enemies hit from behind; Rocket Man launches the Fighter at enemies like a torpedo, and so on. Fighter is fun to play as long as you’ve got a Cleric nearby to patch up your wounds.
Cleric acts as the support class, specializing in both healing and tactical skills. He still holds his own in a fight though, especially against Mages. The Cleric can heal individual teammates, cast the super useful area-of-effect healing Sanctuary spell, and Resurrect fallen comrades instantly so they don’t have to wait for a respawn timer. I wish Resurrect could be hotkeyed separately from Heal or Sanctuary, but instead you have to switch back and forth between them, lessening the likelihood that players will revive each other at a moment’s notice. The Cleric can also build tactical machines faster and use them more effectively than other classes. (These include battering rams for knocking down castle gates, ladders for scaling walls, cannons, and more.)
Mages can’t wear as much armor as the other classes, and yet their magical attacks make them somewhat overpowered. They can shoot projectiles at any time or cast devastating area-of-effect attack spells like Lightning Strike, potentially killing multiple opponents at once. Opponents will usually single out Mages for immediate disposal since they do so much damage and go down so easily, but they’re still killer at a distance.
Can I get a hell yeah?
In addition to individual skills, each class has its own team skills. To initiate one, press Y, which creates a number of glowing circles around you. Other players can join in by standing in a circle and pressing Y in kind. Most team skills require at least three participants, though they’re more effective (and provide everyone with a greater EXP bonus) with more teammates. Team skill effects include offensive attacks like Meteor Storm and Lightning Arrows, as well as stat-boosting Sacred Song and even Transport, which launches the group to the tower of the caster’s choice. My favorite is the Cleric’s Happy Miracle; it turns nearby enemies into helpless flowers. These skills encourage teams to stay close to each other and cooperate, always a good thing.
Battles take place on six expansive maps, with four more apparently planned for the future. Each side has its own castle with a tower inside. If the one team manages to get into their opponent’s castle (either via breaking the gate down or scaling the walls with ladders) and destroy their tower, that team wins. Along the way, teams can build (and contest) smaller towers that act as respawn points. The more people building or tearing down a tower, the faster the work goes – a great cooperative mechanic. Whichever team controls the most towers, especially the one closest to their enemy’s base, usually wins; but sometimes one side sneaks around and breaks into the other castle even without a respawn tower to its name.
Large-scale games like Happy Wars carry the risk of players not feeling like their individual actions matter during the match. Here, you are of course rewarded the most if your team wins, and that depends greatly on the skill levels and tactics of its players. But thankfully, winning is not everything. Your real focus should be on your own score, which is determined by kills, assists, and the like. As long as you stay with the group, help build towers and other tactical equipment as necessary, and come out on top during some of the individual skirmishes, you’ll score just fine. The better your score, the more Happy Stars (currency) and items (and higher quality gear) you’ll get at the end of the match, win or lose.
Happy Wars has a single-player game, though as you’d expect it’s more of a side dish to the larger multiplayer component. In fact, not only do gamers have to be online to play the game at all, but new single player stages only unlock when players reach specific rank levels through versus and co-op play. As such, your time in single-player will be spread out and disjointed, for better or worse. These stages do offer unique item rewards, plus a simplistic and lighthearted narrative.
Whether playing in versus or co-op, matches consist of 15-on-15 battles. You’ll earn one or more items at the end of either game type, depending on your performance (kills, assists, towers built, etc.) during the match. Most Achievements can be earned in either mode, though co-op does have a specific Achievement for winning three matches in a row.
In co-op games, your team of 15 will be matched against a team of AI players on a random map. Beat that team, receive your rewards, and you’ll face a tougher team, with the third match being the hardest. The computer players are absolutely relentless, especially the teams with mostly Mages. The chances of facing defeat grow exponentially in the second and third ‘rounds’ (matches), particularly if human players drop out (since they won’t be replaced).
Success also depends on the quality of the team: get matched with a bunch of low-level players (who will have weaker equipment) and you’re unlikely to beat that third round. Sure, you get item rewards even when you lose, as long as you do your part during the game. But a gentler difficulty curve would make co-op more enjoyable, for me anyway. Unless you absolutely loathe competitive gaming, I recommend leveling up a bit in versus before taking on co-op.
Some MMOs let you equip items without changing your appearance - I wish this game had that.
At the moment, one major annoyance nips at both versus and co-op’s heels: matchmaking. Specifically, matchmaking often takes far too long (more than a minute). You can even get dropped during the matchmaking process, sending you back to the menu. Even after a game ends, there’s a lengthy wait on the results screen before the next game starts, during which you can’t even choose to exit the game.
Considering Happy Wars’ almost complete multiplayer focus, these matchmaking issues absolutely should have been ironed out during the open beta. Luckily a notice on the main menu promises that matchmaking improvements are coming soon. The effectiveness of those fixes will directly determine the game’s long-term potential, because playing is much more fun than waiting.
Happy Wars is a fantastic multiplayer game which anyone with a Gold account can play for free. At the moment, over 300,000 players have joined in. That’s quite a lot for an XBLA game, but Microsoft could still be doing more to promote the game to new players. If you’re interested solely in co-op comp stomping, you might grow tired quickly thanks to co-op mode’s stiff challenge. But even versus games involve a lot of cooperation between teammates (and not the kind that requires microphones), so less competitive players could still have a good time. Try the game out for a while, learn the mechanics and how each class works, and you might just get hooked.
You can get Happy Wars here at Xbox.com.