Atlas Reactor is a pretty unusual game. It takes turn-based strategy, blends it with synchronous competitive team play, and throws in the kinds of rich and varied characters more commonly associated with MOBAs and recent hero shooters for good measure.
“I feel like every game I ever worked on, you’re kind of forced to say that it’s one of a kind, right?” Will Cook, Lead Designer said. “But truly, Atlas Reactor is the only one where I can say with a straight face that you’ve never played something like this before! That’s mostly a merit and sometimes a hindrance and a flaw…”
It makes for an atypically fast pace for a turn based game. As you decide what your moves will be, the clock is always ticking, pressuring you to choose your actions quickly, guessing and anticipating what the opposition team is going to do in response, with both teams and players locking in and submitting their turns at the same time.
That makes the turn structure all important, and Trion have done interesting things here. You get an action and a move, just as you’d expect, but the actions go first and are split into three successive phases – Prep, Dash and Blast, – and you can generally only choose one each turn. Prep occurs first, letting you apply boosts to yourself and others or set up traps, Dash gives you opportunities to escape a sticky situation, while Blast is all about dishing out damage.
Only once all the actions have been completed do your characters move, but this too has been locked in prior to the turn playing out before your eyes. It’s all in aid of letting you actually land your hits and deal damage, alongside a tendency toward area of effect attacks and wide arcs and beams, so that you have the best possible chance of hitting your opponents each turn. However, certain parts of the maps will conceal characters, keeping that air of uncertainty and mystery.
There are naturally some difficulties in getting all of this across to the player. Having played the game previously, I was roughly familiar with the turn structure, but had forgotten that moves came after actions. Coming from games like XCOM, it’s a little confounding to have this reversed, and Trion are more than aware of this fact and the need to teach and inform.
“We’re learning.” Will admitted. “We have a tutorial that teaches you the basic controls, which does teach you the phases, and we’re working on subsequent tutorials that teach you more about the game mode, but the thing we’re working on next is… I don’t want to call it an assistant, but something that shows you what a good move might be, and you can listen or not listen to it. We’re excited about that, where you can just jump in and follow the instructions of the ‘assistant’.”
One major strength that the game has is that it’s eminently watchable. Even if you’re not playing the time pressure to make your move keeps downtime minimal, before all of the actions are played out one at a time on screen – they still all occur together in their respective turn phases, mind. There’s a degree of tension as you see the attacks land, discovering what your opponents and teammates have decided to do, and satisfaction when a plan of attack works, you help take out an enemy and your team inches toward winning.
As with all games that feature a wide range of characters, they all have wildly different looks and styles. A robot dog, a hulking inhuman beast, a mafioso sniper, they fit into different roles, from front line tanks that soak up damage, to supports that heal and shield their buddies. All characters have their own particular methods of attack, with ultimate abilities that need to be charged up over time and can quickly turn or secure the tide of the battle.
Back when we first previewed the game, Atlas Reactor was intended to be a free to play title, but all of that changed as it was pushed into Early Access in May. It’s now one of a number of recent games to eschew the free to play business model – that said, it’s currently free to try out the game until the end of July on Steam.
Will said, “They came to me and said that all that free to play work, design and stress that we put in over however many years was just going to be changed to buy to play, because it made business sense. This weird game that you think you need to be as free to play as possible so that as many different people can try it because it’s not like anything they’ve ever played, that move didn’t make sense to me at first.
“As a designer and a gamer, once I own the game, knowing that I have all the characters forever and all future characters, knowing that I can jump into ranked because I have all the characters and I’m immediately competitive, it is so much more relaxed as a design space. I don’t have to worry about the cost of characters versus the time it takes to acquire them, none of that is my concern anymore, I just have to turn on the game.”
Of course, Early Access is an opportunity for developers to get user feedback as they work to refine their game, as well as refocus around features and elements that players want. The core of the game has remained largely untouched, fully embracing its unique form, but one thing that’s changed is a feature to give you a few extra seconds to input your move.
Will explained, “We found that the worst experience in the game is losing your turn and not getting to do what you thought you were going to do because you ran out of time. We tried some different ways to fix that, but the one that turned out to be the best and reduced the missed turns down to less than one per match was the Time Bank gives you five extra seconds if you don’t lock in in time.
“What that did was give you an incentive to lock in, because previously there was no point, you could just do your move and let the timer play out, but now if you do that, you’re going to waste your two Time Banks per game, and it triggers automatically, so now people lock in because you need to in order to save your Time Banks, so the turns move a little quicker and if you do run out of time, you have five extra seconds.”
It’s also a period that’s encouraged Trion to respond and cater to certain community requests earlier than expected.
“Things that changed the development schedule were that we did not expect people to value it as a competitive experience so quickly and want to run their own tournaments.” Will said. “We figured that they would just wait for us to introduce ranked play and then highlight competitive at some point, but no, straight away they wanted to organise and run their own tournaments. This was something new, something special, something theirs. So immediately, we basically jury rigged a custom game – you saw the interface up there, it’s very temporary! – and we plan to keep it updated with drafting and stuff that’s part of the ranked mode tests .
“Introducing custom games much sooner than we expected to allowed the community to run their own games, and once they were running their own games, they wanted to cast their own games, so we gave them spectator mode much sooner than we expected to. Now finally, they’ve discovered that we’re working on replays, because they want to analyse their own games faster than we expected them to!
“These three features that are definitely core to a competitive game, but not first order problems in terms of mechanics and stuff, we did much sooner to support an cultivate the community that’s there and supporting the game already. We’re very happy and surprised by the positive response so far.”
And yes, there’s a possible drive toward eSports that buzzes around any multiplayer focused game these days. Thankfully, Trion don’t seem to be getting ahead of themselves in this regard, and much like the features the community, are letting the possibility of eSports come to them as opposed to chasing after a very difficult side of gaming to break into. Certainly, the will to run competitive tournaments are there and the necessary features are coming, but as Will pointed out, it’s all about whether or not people are watching.
Perhaps it’s a game that deserves the opportunity to carve out a niche in eSports. Its curious blend of different genres and inspirations makes for a fascinating game, one that’s full of strategy, risks, teamwork and tension as you wait to see if your plan has come together.