The free-to-play market is one I usually avoid, wishing wholeheartedly to remain free of its potentially corrupting influence. On a more practical level there’s so many free-to-play games getting released that I could never hope to keep up with them all, and I wouldn’t even know where to start when it comes to reviewing them. My approach would be that I review a free game exactly how I review one you pay for, because money doesn’t factor into my final conclusion. But that’s a viewpoint I think unlikely to hold sway when reviewing these free titles, so I leave them well alone.
I’m making an exception for this one, though. Don’t think of this as a review, because that would be pointless. I’m not going to sit down and attempt to critique it like I normally would. After a total of twelve hours of playing I’m just here to recommend you try downloading Loadout, because it’s a bloody fun arena shooter that does the free-to-play model right, and that’s a rare thing indeed.
What do I mean by right? Simple: weapons, weapon parts and other such things cannot be bought using real money, and therefore no player can ever gain an advantage over another through the simple expedient of having a bigger bank account. Only cosmetic items for your in-game characters, like hats, jackets and taunts, can be purchased with real money. These items of clothing don’t provide stat boosts or any other benefits, they just make you look a bit cooler. Or more like an idiot, depending on your taste. To actually play and enjoy the chaos that is Loadout, then, costs you absolutely nothing, unless, like me, you find yourself having a blast and choose to spend some money in order to support the developers, especially since this is their first ever game.
So, what’s the game actually about them? To put it as succinctly as possible it’s about four grotesque cartoon characters attempt to slaughter another four grotesque cartoon characters using an array of wacky, custom-made weapons. Loadout is a fast-paced arena shooter, one that revels in twitch shooting and constant movement rather than hiding behind cover and patience. As such it’s not a very skill-driven game, and that’s perfectly fine because it is a fun-driven game, encouraging you to simply bolt together a gun and dive into the action. That’s not to say it’s entirely devoid of skill, though, as anyone with hefty experience with both classic and modern shooters of this ilk will likely find themselves the kings and queens of the battlefield, as staying on target why you run, leap and roll around the map is the key to everything. All of the core movement and shooting mechanics perform well, resulting on a solid shooter.
Is Loadout awesome? No. Is Loadout great? No. Is it going to revolutionise everything we know about the genre? Nah. To try to hype Loadout up as some sort of sublime shooter than completely re-energizes the genre would be something of a injustice. Everything about its core mechanics are good, and nothing more. It’s not an amazing game in terms of its design, in fact it’s a relatively straightforward game that uses a proven structure, but as I’ve said it is very fun and that trumps all in this particular case. Toss in the price-tag of zero and you’ve got a winner that’s bound to suck up hours of your life at a time.
It’s got a bit of personality, too, even if it is that sort of manic edge people often arrive at when very deliberately trying to make something feel “fun” and over-the-top. Holes can be blown in people’s bodies, exposing organs, while limbs can be completely exploded, sometimes leaving stumps or skeletal remains. At one point I glanced at the victory screen to see a bloke with the flesh around his skull having been melted away, leaving nought but a brain, some bone and pair of eyes. It’s deliciously exaggerated violence, the kind I tend to love and thrive, but as a concession the developer’s have included an option to turn it off in the settings menu. The overall tone of the game sits somewhere in the realms of Borderlands, Team Fortress 2 and Monday Night Combat.
As for your horde of weapons Loadout takes the approach of giving you a mixture of parts that can be swapped out, allowing you to tinker to your heart’s content, ultimately creating your dream tool of destruction. Or at least that’s the general theory. In practice the amount of playing around you can do isn’t vast, so you’ll see plenty of people running around wielding mostly similar toys, but there’s certainly enough variety to keep you amused. There’s a total of four basic archetypes to build from; rifle, launcher, pulse and beam, and then each of those are broken down into their component parts, such as stock, barrel, ammo type and scope. You can, for example, build a gatling gun that spits out Tesla rounds, or a rocket launcher with Pyro warheads that act like sticky mines, only detonating when some unlucky sod ventures too close. For the more team-orientated there’s two types of ammo available that buff allies, making them more dangerous battlefield foes. Finally you can whack a name on your weapon, which is proudly displayed to everyone after a match should you happen to be top player.
Of course to get your dirty mitts on this myriad of parts and create something really awesome you need to invest some time into the game, but as we’ve already covered Loadout doesn’t allow the spending of real money to unlock its many weapon combinations, rather you earn the oddly named Blutes through the simple yet pleasurable act of murdering virtual avatars. Crack open your piggy bank and you can purchase Boosts from the store which increase the rate at which you acquire Blutes, which of course the cynical side of me was immediately suspicious of, figuring that the rate players earned in-game currency at would be deliberately slow in order to encourage them to purchase a Boost, but to my delight the pace at which Blutes are awarded is quite fair. Generally speaking you’ll earn about 500 Blutes per game, and low-end components can cost up to a few thousand, while even the more expensive tend to max out somewhere around 3,000-4000 in my experience. Blitz through a few matches, then and you can afford a shiny new part of your favored beast. Putting together a complete gun or three will certainly take a while, but all things considered Blutes are handed out at a satisfactory rate, with daily prizes giving you small doses as well.
Game modes riff on classic examples, such as Capture the Flag being reimagined as Jackhammer, in which both teams race to steal the opponents massive hammer, a tool of such power that it can kill other players with nought but a single blow, a fact which often proves problematic as persuading a team-mate to stop chasing down the enemy and score for the team can be challenging. Extraction has one member of each team racing to grab a glowing ore strewn around the map and deliver it to set zones to score points, the catch being that the Collector is highlighted on the map for all to see. Meanwhile there’s a straightforward mode in which both teams fight for control of different areas around the map that while unlikely to win an award for originality is nevertheless oodles of fun thanks to the chaotic gameplay. Death Snatch tasks you with grabbing the vials of Blutonium dropped by dead adversaries to score.
And then there’s Annihilation Mode, an all-encompassing test of endurance which mixes three of the game modes I just talked about into a melting pot and tosses out the burnt remains. Completing objectives raises your teams overall score, and when that reaches a certain point you the shields surrounding the enemies ship will drop, enabling you to reach their power supply, which needs to be smashed. But to smash the power supply you’ll first need to capture the enemy hammer and charge it at your base, before then making a run for it. But where the interesting twist comes into play is that you also have a personal score which acts as a form of currency, used to purchase upgrades that last for the length of the entire match. It’s brutal, savage, chaotic, brilliant fun.
But if competition ain’t your thing then there’s also a co-op mode in which you can team up with other people to tackle waves of enemies. Standard stuff, but still a blast.
There are some definite flaws worth talking about. Despite the fairly rigorous closed beta testing before release there’s some obvious balancing issues that have survived the transition into the public domain. Situations also tend to arise in which I found myself battling players who seemed capable of soaking up a lot of punishment and dishing out absurd levels of damage, possibly suggesting that hackers have already found ways of giving themselves an edge, though I won’t entirely rule out the possibility that the net-code was simply duff. There’s also a shortage of maps, modes and weapons at the moment, so be prepared for hefty repetition until the developers add more content.
And more is coming, as confirmed in the official FAQ, which is perhaps the thing I’m most looking forward to. In its current state Loadout is oodles of simple fun, but it also contains the potential for continuous growth with more weapons and modes bringing some much-needed variety to proceedings. With an abundance of new parts added and maps to play on within its future Loadout is brimming with raw potential, simply waiting for the developers to capitalise, and I sincerely hope they do because if they stick with their existing payment model and never stray into the dark realms of pay to win I can see myself spending a lot of time playing, and through that I can also see myself contributing a relatively small yet steady stream of cash. It’ll probably never be as big as something like Team Fortress 2, but with a good hand of cards it could amass itself quite the loyal following, at least for a while, therefore enabling the developers to try other things, too.
Going back to the free-to-pay model for a moment, there is a bit of balancing to be done, or at least in the eyes of this gamer. The cost of cosmetic upgrades seems pretty hefty, a barrier that’s left many, including myself, unwilling to invest too much. Obviously it’s this area of the game from which the developer’s make their money, but at the moment I would recommend lowering the prices in order to entice more people to dig out their wallets. In its current state simply grabbing a new outfit comprising a top, pants and few other nick-nacks is likely to set you back over £10, and that’s just for one of the three characters available.
Though it has already garnered itself a surprisingly large group of players Loadout’s launch was not exactly the definition of smooth, and indeed issues continue to plague the game, resulting in a fair few unhappy forum threads on Steam. At launch the developers were seemingly utterly unprepared for the sheer amount of people who wanted to play, and the result was major server problems which stopped people from being able to get a match, often leaving them searching for up to 20+ minutes. In a beautiful piece of irony it was nearly impossible to find anyone to play with, because there was too many wanting to play. For the most part these server hiccups seem to have been sorted, but some people are still experiencing delays and problems, while both the party system and Annihilation are currently offline.
At least the developer’s are willing to communicate with their players though, something which many of the larger companies could learn from. Aside from being very active on the Steam forums, talking directly to fans about balancing the game and what they’re currently working on, they’ve also sent out Emails apologising for the launch problems. Anybody who bought a Boost on launch day had it reset as well, so that they could get what they paid for.
In a world dominated by military shooters and the color brown Loadout has turned out to be a most welcome splash of brutal, joyously fun mayhem. This is how to do the free-to-play model: entice gamers with gameplay that aims straight for the pleasure nodes and then trust that enough of them will appreciate your efforts with offerings of money At a time when EA’s cash-whoring Dungeon Keeper is grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons, Loadout is quietly proving that the free-to-play model has a place within the industry because it can be done right, and by right I mean by respecting games and trusting that they’ll reward you for doing so.
Of course that’s easy for me to say, sitting here typing away behind a keyboard. Trust is an easy word to throw around, but when you pour money into a free-to-play game you’re taking a huge risk, because it takes only the cruel whim of fate to ensure your game doesn’t quite manage to get the attention it needs, regardless of its quality, and then it’s game over. The other option is to be a dick and create a cash-cow which literally demands money to do anything, managing to hold onto the title of free-to-play on a technicality only.
So maybe that’s why I’m writing this. I’ve seen a game in Loadout that’s quietly confirmed that free-to-play is worth my time and yours when done well, and I want to see these guys succeed, if only to rub it in EA’s face. It’s a damn good shooter in its own right that just so happens to be completely free to play.
Go check it out, it’ll only cost you a little time.