Publisher: Hazardous Software
Developer: Hazardous Software
System requirements: Windows XP/Vista/Win 7/Mac/Linux, dual-core CPU, 1 GB RAM, graphics card with OpenGL 2.0 support
ESRB rating: Not rated
Release date: August 29, 2011
Innovation is much prized in an industry such as gaming, which has had its various genres set in stone for a long time. More often than not, new ideas usually arise not from the established AAA developers, but from the small companies willing to take creative and financial chances to bring something new to an old concept. Such is the case with Achron, in which new developer Hazardous Software has taken the standard RTS formula and given players a new dimension to exploit.
In the 37th century, humanity has spread out to the far-away Remnant solar system. The colonists discovered teleportation technology among the ruins of an ancient civilization. Being able to jump vast distances in the blink of an eye opened up the seven planets of the Remnant system to much wider colonization. But when communications with some of the colonies were lost, a fleet of ships was sent to investigate, only to be almost totally wiped out by an invading alien force. This leaves the fleet’s survivors to try to find out the truth behind the invasion, and a way to stop it.
In Achron, you control the forces of Capt. Holloway, commander of the Collective Earth Security Organization (CESO) ship Saratoga. Along with the ship comes its controlling artificial intelligence, named Tyr. Your job is to guide Holloway and Tyr through 35 single-player missions, using typical RTS conventions: gather resources, build units, complete objectives. But you also have one additional trick up your sleeve: time manipulation. At the bottom of the screen is a graph showing the flow of past and future time. This graph lets you know when to expect an enemy attack, allowing you to prepare accordingly. But more importantly, it also serves as a sort of quantum do-over. If you make a mistake in the execution of your battle plan, one click of the mouse throws you back in time so you can correct your errors.
The first level of Achron gives you the gameplay basics, followed in the next few levels by details on using the time jump. Those not battle-worn by years of Starcraft and its ilk will likely find it hard to wrap their heads around the mechanics behind the time jumps, and they might have to replay early levels a few times to finally become comfortable with it. But once the light bulb clicks on above their heads, using time to their advantage becomes just another weapon in the arsenal. There are three factions: CESO, Grekim and Vecgir, each with their own units and structures. You get to use all of them at one point or another during the game’s four campaigns. Holloway and Tyr, aside from being the units you have to keep alive at all costs, are healing units that automatically heal soldiers or repair vehicles in the field; pausing between skirmishes becomes a good tactic to make your forces last as long as possible. Resource units can jump to the nearest source after picking one clean, so you won’t have to keep an eye on them. Graphics are colorful and attractive but not near current state of the art, but this is nicely balanced by the depth of the story and the details surrounding it, and the game runs at a solid 40+ fps at the maximum supported settings. Also, composer Shawn Stonesifer has created an excellent soundtrack for Achron that adds an effective backdrop to the gameplay. Online multiplayer includes up to four-player versus missions on 16 maps, with six additional sandbox scenarios, and the game also features a level editor that allows you to create your own maps. One glitch with the editor: Windows Vista and Win 7 users must install the editor at a separate location from the main game and configure it for writing permissions, since these operating systems install it in a read-only location. A fix for this issue is planned for the future.
There are a few blemishes on Hazardous’s labor of love. It’s very difficult to tell one unit from another unless you zoom in very closely; this is especially troubling when trying to pick Holloway out of a crowd surrounding him, since missions fail if he’s killed. Unit pathfinding is occasionally confounding; units can sometimes take strange paths to their intended destinations. Vehicles under construction display progress bars in their build queues, but infantry units do not, and build times are slow, so those who favor a shock-and-awe play style will have to be patient. The game holds your hand quite a bit, giving you explicit instructions and frequent hints; noobs will appreciate it, but RTS veterans will probably want a way to turn them off. Mission briefings can be skipped, but opening cutscenes can’t; you have to watch them all the way through every time you play a level unless you save your game after the cinematic ends. In my advance build, dialogue volume was tied to the special-effects slider in the settings menu, so voice-overs were frequently drowned out by explosions and weapons fire (I’m told this should be fixed for the final version). And as of this writing, there’s no instruction manual for Achron, not even in the install directory, but the game’s active community is busy creating one for the official Wikipedia page. In the meantime, in-game hints and instructions are your best bet to teach you what you need to know.
Hazardous is taking a big risk with Achron. Their mission was to add something so compelling to an established genre that players would be willing to take a chance on it, and it appears they have succeeded. Inserting the ability to manipulate time in an RTS gives possibly jaded players a new tool for their strategy toolbox. The game also features an involving, complex story that evolves slowly during 35 missions. If you’re willing to overlook a few minor quirks, you’ll find Achron to be a satisfying indie RTS experience.