Indie Jeff's Weekly Pick: AirMech (alpha)

By Jeff Mattas, Jan 22, 2012 11:30am PST

A few months ago, when I first heard about indie developer Carbon Games' upcoming action-RTS title, AirMech, I was immediately instilled with cautious optimism. One reason for my excitement is that several members of Carbon's team worked at Titan Studios on the downloadable PSN title, Fat Princess, but most of my enthusiasm stemmed from the new, yet familiar, type of gameplay experience that AirMech is aiming to provide. I recently had a chance to spend some time playing the latest alpha build of AirMech, and though it's still very much being actively developed, I'm pleased to report that it's already wicked fun.

AirMech provides a compelling blend of action and real-time strategy. As in DotA-style games, the objective is to eliminate the enemy's home base, while defending one's own. Players take direct control of a commander-type unit called an AirMech, the initial version of which can transform between a ground-based mech and a fast-flying jet at the touch of a button.

The game's main course proceeds as a war of attrition, with both sides vying for control intermediary structures that can in-turn be used as staging points for a final assault. (However, co-op and survival PvE modes are also included.) A multitude of different unit-types can be constructed, ranging from infantry, to tanks, to turrets. Experience accrued during matches contributes to the player's overall level, while Kudos (also earned at the end of each match) can be spent on purchasing new units that are often more powerful, but also provide different tactical possibilities on the battlefield. In the long run, it's a suite of units that seems to support multiple play-styles, depending on how one wants to outfit his army.

Individual units can also be given orders (Attack, Patrol, Capture, and Link), though they can also be conveniently grabbed and dropped into combat using the AirMech itself. In truth, issuing these commands isn't really important on the easiest difficulty setting at the moment (I was able to grab and drop my way to victory), but adds a key layer of depth in both multiplayer and matches against more aggressive AI. The game is very fast-paced, with each match lasting about 20 minutes or so, and it ran very smoothly in my time with it.

I asked developer James Green about AirMech's inception, and the spiritual DNA it seems to share with both DotA-style games and the 1990 Technosoft-developed Herzog Zwei. "The initial inspiration was Herzog Zwei, and it was about 10 years ago I got the itch to make a modern update of it," Green told me.

But upon revisiting the game, Green realized a pure remake probably wouldn't be the best course to take. "The controls and interface were terrible," Green explained, "but I remembered loving it so much. So the goal became to recreate the 'memory' of Herzog, rather than copy it."

He illustrated how more elegant solutions to certain mechanical issues had been employed by other games in recent years, such as build-queues, twin-stick shooter functionality, and custom loadouts, but that the surge of the DotA style of gameplay was really the "icing on the cake." Based on what I've experienced of AirMech, I can really see those influences. Carbon Games really seems to have a handle on what it takes to deliver fast-paced gameplay that's as chaotic as it is enjoyable. "Each player having their own army and AirMech/Pilot combination really opens up the complementary strategic choices," Green said, "and we'll continue to introduce more unique AirMechs to encourage this cooperative behavior."

"We're taking a very similar approach as we did with Fat Princess: Borrow (steal) some core elements from a bunch of games we like, give it an accessible top-down camera, develop a style that primarily serves the gameplay (easy to see units and what team they are on) and just polish, polish, polish," Green illustrated. "The main difference this time," he said, "is we don't have a publisher, so we don't have to stick to a design agreed in a contract, and we can push out patches whenever we want."

Green also revealed that the goal is to get AirMech into a beta state sometime in the next month. "Internally we think of alpha as a state where we are still adding features and have some pretty glaring bugs or omissions," he said. "Beta is when we're feature complete, and focusing on fixing things more than adding things." Although there's no telling how long the beta will last--the team is taking a 'when-it's-done' approach--Green says that they'll "open up testing even wider" during the beta.

As mentioned, AirMech is still in active development, but given the solid and fun core present in the alpha build, I asked Green to approximate how close to completion the game is. "I would estimate we are 80% of the way through our initial 'target release' schedule. Our team has been in the industry for quite a while, so that's a realistic number," Green said.

"When we showed the game for the first time last summer," he continued, "people were saying 'wow it's almost done!' but really that was more like 10%. It's very easy to have something up and running and looking cool, and quite another to build something that supports multiplayer and scales worldwide, and runs on low-end hardware."

"To player perception, I would say we are more like 50% representative of the final product," Green clarified. "A lot of the UI is in flux, and all the maps are really still just test maps. A bunch of units are still placeholder and need to be redone as well. But we're getting to the point where we will start finalizing things."

Speaking of finalizing things, I also asked Green if there are any particularly exciting content-related updates that he was excited to share with the AirMech community. New types of AirMechs, as well as some major new battlefield structures are apparently on tap.

A big feature that has been waiting to go in because of art needed is the new Factory, Power Station, and Radar buildings you can capture. These work like the current buildings you can capture, except they will give the team controlling them additional benefits. The Factory makes everything build a bit faster, the Power Station increases your recharge/heal rate, and Radar expands your view of the enemy greatly. I think this will add more strategy to what part of the map teams choose to control.

I'm also really excited about some of the new AirMechs and Units in the pipeline. We've been spending a lot of time on core systems lately, so getting back to adding fun stuff will be great. There's AirMechs that can heal, another with a high powered single-shot railgun, even a massive one that can serve as a tank. We have a lot of new unit types as well, thinking along the lines of tower defense games and what they offer. Because we don't take ourselves too seriously, we can have just about any type of mechanic borrowed from any game where it makes sense from a gameplay perspective.

In other words, as great as AirMech is in its current alpha state, there's some really cool and significant new stuff coming down the pipeline. Best of all, the upcoming content really seems in-aid of further embellishing the solid core gameplay. As if that weren't enough, a version of AirMech for Chrome is also in the works, which also looks great in its early state, even though multiplayer functionality for that version is still being developed.

When AirMech launches, Green confirmed that it will implement a free-to-play model similar to that of Riot Games' League of Legends. It's a model that Green thinks will work well for AirMech, provided that it's handled correctly. "Despite being a hardcore gamer myself," he said, "I have come around to the idea of F2P by viewing it as a demo of a game that you can play with the whole live community."

"Riot proved to me with League of Legends that you can make a F2P game without taking advantage of your players," Green explained, "and we've been looking at their model the closest."

"It's still a bit of a leap of faith for us," he qualified. "Because we are concentrating on the core game, we actually don't have that much stuff to 'sell' currently, compared to other hardcore F2P games. We believe that the core of everything is you have to have a fun game, so that is our priority for the time being. We'll transition to adding content and new gameplay after the core game is solid."

Green also notes that plans to bring AirMech to consoles at some point is certainly something Carbon Games is strongly considering--that's a bit further down the road. While not all of the controls are accessible via a gamepad at this point, much of the game is already playable that way. Personally, I think that AirMech's combination of real-time-strategy and twin-stick shooter could bring a viable solution to the long-standing design problems of making good RTS games on consoles.

AirMech is already one of the most fun action-RTS titles I've played in recent memory, and it's not even done yet. It really seems to have the potential to hit a sweet spot shared by both RTS and action game fanatics, alike.

If you want to try to get in on the action you can sign up for the AirMech PC alpha on the Carbon Games website. However, it's a bit easier to get into the Chrome alpha build at the moment, which you can sign up for here.

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