Still Playing: Hero Academy

We tend to stop writing about games when you start playing them. We cover the announcement, we write previews and reviews, but by the time you unwrap a new game we’ve moved on. Still Playing is our bid to address that. Every Monday and Friday, staff and contributors go into detail on the games they’ve been playing in their spare time. Here, games editor Craig Owens explains why Team Fortress 2′s mercenaries are a natural fit for Robot Entertainment’s free-to-play iOS strategy game Hero Academy – even if their introduction has meant breaking some of the game’s established rules.
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The secret to a great strategy game isn’t balance. It’s character. And this is something that Robot Entertainment’s Hero Academy understands. The free-to-play iOS turn-based battler has been fine-tuned for fairness, naturally, but balance is merely the prerequisite for engrossing strategy. The real trick is keeping things fair while giving each of your factions a life and personality of their own.

Hero Academy is built on personality – at least, its business model is. Free-to-play on iOS, a download of Hero Academy gives you access to a single team. The Council are no weaker than any of the other factions rounding out Hero Academy’s roster. Indeed, their teleporting super-unit can be irritatingly lethal in the right hands. What they are, however, is boring, with character designs sticking rigidly to the rule that humans must be the blandest race in any fictional universe. They’re predictable mechanically, too, with unit functions slotting neatly into the tank-healer-damage-dealer trinity.

The alternatives, meanwhile, exude character – and crucially, that character is expressed in how they play. The doughty dwarves, for instance, with their ornate bejewelled armour and gunpowder-themed weapons, are all about splash damage. A good dwarf player will force the opposing team into a tightly grouped huddle before lobbing bombs at the lot on the next turn. The sinister dark elves sap their opponent’s health with every attack and can reanimate enemy corpses, leading to tricksy hit-and-run tactics. The Tribe, meanwhile, are Hero Academy’s orcs, capable of quick insta-kills and charge attacks that let players approach these tactical, turn-based battles with something surprisingly akin to orcish belligerence.

They’re all bog standard fantasy clichés, really. But Robot Entertainment has done a marvellous job of mapping these personalities to a game that’s ultimately about numbers, playing out on a grid turn by turn. And it’s these personalities, and the variety they bring, that you’re paying for when you buy new teams.

It’s no tragedy that Hero Academy’s line-up is clichéd, however, since the integrity of Robot’s fictional universe (which, admittedly, doesn’t seem to extend beyond the academy walls) has taken a knock with the introduction of the game’s most recent team. To celebrate the game’s debut on Steam, Valve allowed Robot to work Team Fortress 2’s mercenaries into the game. At least, that’s one way of looking at it – the alternative is to say Robot tricked Valve into designing a team for them, because the mercenaries translate surprisingly literally into Hero Academy’s turn-based world.

They already have clearly defined roles, after all (Soldier charges in, Snipers wait behind) and subtle interrelationships (such as the Medic’s ability to Ubercharge other units) that suit a game built around planning and positioning. The Engineer has been compromised, admittedly – he can’t build turrets in this incarnation, and instead merely improves his team-mates’ equipment – but the Scout feels note perfect, his massive range per move a fine reflection of his speed on the real-time battlefield. And while the Spy can no longer disguise himself as a member of the opposing team, his backstab move has lost none of its lethality. The personality they bring to Hero Academy, in other words, is the complex, anarchic vibe of Team Fortress 2.

It’s fitting, then, that they break Hero Academy’s rules. Before Team Fortress 2, for instance, one of Hero Academy’s constant laws was a limit of five moves per turn. The mercs defy this limit, and regain a move whenever they ‘stomp’ (and remove from play) a KO’d unit. Before Team Fortress 2, all units could be targeted at range, but the Spy’s immunity to this allows him to sneak up, undisguised, on enemy forces. Before Team Fortress 2, teams had five character classes: the mercs bring nine. The sense in letting the cast of one of Steam’s most popular titles star in your own game is obvious, but it takes genuine craft to capture, in gameplay terms, the disruptive nature of such a crossover.

When you’re playing Hero Academy, you’re taking a mathematics test in disguise: you’ll rarely win against a skilled player without carefully crunching the numbers of every possible manoeuvre. But Robot Entertainment’s game proves that when they’re dressed up with this much character and panache, there’s really no reason not to do your sums.
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For more, read our Hero Academy review.

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