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The world of strategy games is a vast one. There are epics on the Total War scale, turn based series like Heroes of Might and Magic and Sid Mier's Civilization, squad focused tactics games like Dawn of War 2 and more classic RTS games like the Command and Conquer series and Starcraft. Despite this, one thing that almost no strategy game has tackled is Time Travel and that’s exactly the premise behind Hazardous Software’s Achron.
Achron has been in development since 2001 and the epic science fiction storyline that runs through the single player campaign clearly shows this. The single player campaign involves playing through a set of linear missions that teach you the ‘Easy to learn, hard to master’ mechanics and prepare you for multiplayer. The plot definitely feels epic and it’s well thought out. In it, you take control of an Achron, a being who can see through time, and as you go through the campaign you are introduced to the various characters and the mechanics of time travel that the game puts forward as these characters learn the mechanics themselves. A weakness I noticed in the single player campaign is that the first few missions focus heavily on the RTS elements rather than allowing you to experiment with time manipulation in the way the multiplayer does.
The key focus should be, and is, on the time travel mechanics, which work extremely well. As an Achron you have a timeline bar at the bottom of the screen and use it to move between time periods. You can build Chronoporters and use them to send units back in time. Once those units are in the past, you can command them, but your ability to do so is limited by the Chrono energy you have and any changes you make in the past take time to influence the present. While this might give you the idea that you could always be undoing your mistakes, its actually much harder to manage time-travel than you might expect and at times this makes the game quite hard.
The other side of Achron's unique mechanics is the teleporters. The teleporters allow you to move units around the map very fast and when these are combined with Chronoporters, they really open up whole new avenues of strategic possibilities.
The level design in Achron is very good. Each level is designed in a way that perfectly utilizes the time travel mechanics and this makes it easy to learn, but hard to master. Each level forces you to utilize the time travel mechanics in different ways and this definitely helps you wrap your head around what is a really complicated mechanic.
Where Achron begins to falter is in it’s presentation and in it’s RTS gameplay. While the time travel elements are very well done, the primary RTS elements are weaker and this affects the game as a whole. It doesn’t have a very good learning curve for the primary RTS gameplay. Where other RTS games would introduce 1-2 units per mission, Achron introduces 4-6 and this can quickly lead to you being overwhelmed. The pacing by nature is also very slow and this leads to a lot of periods of down-time in which you are waiting for units to reach their destination or waiting for your chrono-energy to recharge. While the time travel mechanics are cool and the story is interesting, it’s all pretty pointless if the actual gameplay is no fun.
The other part of Achron that doesn't live up to its potential is its graphics. The game has some nice visual concepts and designs but the overall look of the game is very dull and the textures on a lot of the maps can be downright ugly at times. The controls, interface and the pathfinding also lack polish and can feel quite clunky. This is a huge problem in some of the bigger levels in which you need much more precise control over what is happening on screen.
While I didn’t like the in-game graphics and overall look of the game, I did enjoy the art style and presentation of the cutscenes. They suited the tone of the story and when they were combined with the excellent voice acting and script, the experience worked well. It’s just a shame that they are occasionally replaced with boring text transcripts which don’t convey the feel of the story as well. The soundtrack of Achron is also very well done, the music perfectly matches the time-travel sci-fi story, but doesn’t quite have the catchy rhythms to be found in other RTS games (Starcraft and Command and Conquer come to mind).
While I enjoyed the single player a fair bit, it's Achron’s multiplayer that really shines. Playing against the single player AI really has nothing on trying to outthink another human player. When you play in multiplayer, all the issues with the RTS mechanics can easily be put aside as the game truely becomes focused on utilizing your time travel capabilities in the most effective way in order to take down your opponent.
Achron is a bit of a mixed bag. Hazardous Software promised an awesome time travel RTS game and they really delivered in the time travel department, but fell short on the RTS side of things. The story and time travel mechanics are definitely good, but they’re let down by a weak visual style and some even weaker RTS basics. Achron is worth giving a try for the multiplayer and hardcore strategy gamers who will definitely find the time travel mechanics a compelling new layer of strategy, but it’s not a must-buy by any stretch for non-RTS fans.