How often have we been promised innovation? How often have publishers and developers alike thrown out that tantalizing i-word in a vain endeavour in tempting us? How often have our hopes been shattered by the promise of something new, something novel, something fresh? Too often, we’d wager. So it’s rewarding to be able to talk about Atlas Reactor, an upcoming game from Trion Worlds where it really, genuinely does feel like a never-before-seen type of multiplayer. Luckily it’s a simple one to describe, too: imagine a multiplayer Xcom: Enemy Unknown played out with simultaneous turns with a diverse range of unique characters. We played a match alongside some of the developers, and that’s where it became apparent that it was a little more complex than it might first sound.
For starters that roster of different characters–much like the MOBAs that have inspired Atlas Reactor’s gameplay–all come replete with their own unique abilities and attributes. You’ll have the tank, the damage dealer, the support – the kind of roles you’d expect to see.
There’s a great deal of style to everything too, a sort of Borderlands vibe to the range of cheeky and brash characters you’ll be able to play as, meaning there’s a good chance you’ll find a favorite long before you’ve even looked into how that character will play. If you’ve played something like League Of Legends, that might go some of the way of introducing you to the concept but even that won’t be enough.
“It’s hard to fathom how it works,” says Atlas Reactor’s lead designer William Cook as I clumsily figured out my first move in the match. “So we can say it to you and the most common response for someone who thinks they understand it is ‘Frozen Synapse already did that, it isn’t original’. But something like Frozen Synapse or Breach And Clear are completely different types of games than this, it’s simultaneous but not really the same.”
And that much is true. By now we’ve all got an understanding of how you play a MOBA, even if it’s a very basic grasp on that core idea: pick a character, hit one of your abilities quicker than the rest and hopefully you’ll come out on top. Atlas Reactor is like that, but here there’s a greater reliance on thoughtful strategy over reactionary skill. As part of our 3v3 match we only controlled one character each, choosing from a set of five abilities before deciding where to move. It’s important to consider not only what your opponents are doing, but your allies too–are they stealthing in for a hidden assault, flanking around looking for an opportunity or dashing in guns blazing? Add in the fact that there are three ‘types’ of abilities which all play out at different points during a turn and you’ve got a system rich with tactical depth. Preparation abilities – such as placing a trap – go first, evasive moves next and offensive abilities – those that deal damage – go last, with a move phase tying everything up. It’s a smart system, and one that isn’t nearly as complicated as it may sound.
“It was a big concern early on,” claims senior producer James Karras, “but what we found was that people actually pick it up quicker than we thought, which is nice and exciting. Introducing the player in the right way is still really important to us, in fact we’re releasing a video that is basically ‘how to play Atlas Reactor’ that we’ll release on the internet but also incorporate into the game.” But then that’s also always been the biggest issue with MOBA games, too. Despite the huge community these games manage to draw in, many people are put off by their intricate rules and barriers to entry. Though its simultaneous turns may sound confusing, Atlas Reactor doesn’t suffer from this problem–its MOBA inspiration is restricted only to familiar gameplay ideals.
“I mean at the very beginning of the prototype we even said ‘why can’t I play with friends in PvP turn-based’?” Will tells us of the game’s MOBA inspirations. “That was where we started. It took years to figure out all the reasons, but you wait more than you play in a turn-based game–so solving that problem was by far the biggest one.” But as much as the MOBA inspirations might seem obvious, I was told that fighting games like Street Fighter formed a much more central inspiration to Atlas Reactor. This became apparent as we lined up our ultimate ability alongside the ultimate of our ally, just praying that our targets–the only two enemy players alive at that point–didn’t use any evasive moves and waste our attacks completely.
“We’ve got people on the team that are huge fighting game fans,” explains James as we collaborated on our next move, “and there’s a whole bunch of inspiration from the likes of Street Fighter. For our executive producer Peter Ju, one of the big, big things for him is being able to get into that next-level strategy where it’s not only about the input, but it’s about outthinking your opponent without outthinking yourself. There’s a lot of that in fighting games where you’ve got to guess what they’re going to do moment to moment, and that’s what we’ve tried to accomplish here. You’re trying to guess what your opponent is going to do, and a lot of the time it is outthinking your opponent as opposed to just being better at doing a Dragon Punch or something like that.”
The match was nearing its end, and we were losing – two kills for three. If both our ultimates landed that would put us in a good position to score those final kills. They hit, but victory was in no way assured… but if we took down one of them we’d initiate a sudden death, a last chance at victory. There was a moment of tension, a couple of turns towards the end of the match, as our ally flicked between different positions for the trap he was laying. He was trying to preempt his target’s movement, and if he was successful–combined with my own cone-shaped area effect attack–we’d have them, we’d win. It was exactly that sort of outwitting that you’d see in a fighting game, a sort of instinctive prescience played out in a more methodical, manageable way. Having to wait to see the results play out only helped build the tension, and as the actions began to play out we waited.
We won, we cheered.
It’s clear that Atlas Reactor is a game worth watching out for, and it’s using its alpha to help build a community of players keen on helping shape and mold what the game will become. But it’s a difficult one, because it’s hard to convince people that turn-based strategy can be as fast-paced and thrilling as a fighting game. Atlas Reactor can do that, even in this early form. “When you say ‘simultaneous turn-based’,” adds Will once the match was complete, “there’s nothing about that that makes you understand how to play it or understand the feeling that it evokes. It is tense, it’s very fast paced too.” The hard part for Trion Worlds, then, is to convince players to give it a go, because it is a brand new type of multiplayer. “It’s really exciting that we can have an alpha,” says James, “we can get players in and get people playing and they can be like ‘oh we want to improve all this stuff’.”
Atlas Reactor might still only be in alpha, but that core gameplay is solid just by itself. We’re promised more characters, new modes and objectives and even supporting custom games and playlists – perhaps even leading to a form of PvE one day. But that’s a long way off, and whether Atlas Reactor can maintain a level of popularity needed to make this sort of game work – well, only time can tell on that one.