Free-to-play games are nothing new if you're a PC gamer, but console players haven't had a lot of options in that venue. Previous free offerings, including Aegis Wing and Yaris, have disappointed players despite costing them nothing. Happy Wars, a full-on experience that needn't cost you a dime but that could easily end up costing you a lot of money if you aren't averse to microtransactions, is an anomaly within the Xbox 360 library.
The general premise in the oddly named Happy Wars is that two kingdoms are at war with one another. They don't have a reason to feud other than that everyone likes to argue about nearly anything you might care to name. Still, tensions have escalated to the point where one king has abducted the other king's daughter. War is perhaps the only appropriate response to such brazen nastiness.
Happy Wars is split up in two main chunks. The first chunk is a single-player campaign that starts with a brief tutorial. It capably walks you through the game process and controls, and then you're informed that you can't play the next story campaign until you rank up a bit by dabbling in the multiplayer modes. If you can't head online, you'll never see more of the game than its tutorial.
The online modes are the only reason to play Happy Wars. You can team up with three or more strangers and friends for some cooperative action against a computer team, or you can play quick matches against human opponents. Either way, the general idea is that you need to move your troops from one side of the map to the other, claiming towers along the way so that you can spawn closer to your destination in the likely event that your character meets an untimely end. Each team's ultimate objective is to raid the enemy castle and smash apart a statue that hides inside, thus claiming victory over the map. A sudden-death free-for-all is waiting in the wings when it is needed.
Single-player missions add a few wrinkles to the standard formula. For instance, in one mission you come across a sorcerer who blocks the way with magical barriers that vanish only once a certain number of near-invincible enemy troops are pushed into quicksand pools and eaten by sand monsters. Another mission is won only when five red robot leaders are eliminated. Winning strategies don't change much even when the objectives vary, however. Mostly, you just want to stick with your team so that no one has the opportunity to gang up against you and so that there are more targets for enemy ballistas.
Fortunately, the game offers enough variety to keep the simple objectives interesting even when you're completing them for the 20th time. For starters, you rank up as you take out enemies and secure towers. Those ranks allow heavier and more effective gear to be equipped. You start out without the option to wear much of anything, but victory in combat grants you in-game currency called "happy coins" that you can then spend placing bets on a spinning wheel and maybe winning prizes if you're lucky. You can also spend currency to upgrade the gear that you've already acquired and would like to keep using. If you feel like you’re wasting too much time trying to find worthwhile booty in battle or by gambling on the prize wheel, you can also invest in “happy tickets” by spending Microsoft Points.
That’s where the anticipated micro-transactions come into play. Unless you’re in a hurry or you want cosmetic items that are only available for purchase using those tickets, there’s no pressing reason to spend real money in order to become a dominant force within the game. You may be tempted to take shortcuts, though, especially if you’re late discovering the game and all of your friends are already more powerful than you are. The happy tickets that you can obtain for $15 worth of Microsoft Points can help a lot in such instances. Tickets allow you to quickly obtain a bundle of weapons, accessories, or one of several types of armor. Purchasing a bundle of each of the five available types will set you back more than half your tickets, and then you’ll still need to level up those weapons by spending coins earned in combat.
That’s when happy tickets can again come to your aid, since they allow you to level up weapons without spending coins; you just need to have a pile of rubbish ready so you can use it as material for the crafting process. The value that you get from any purchased tickets thus depends entirely on how and when you spend them. If you’re frugal, you may be able to max out a set of gear for one of your character classes with $15 or $20 worth of happy tickets. That could in turn save you anywhere from 5 to 10 hours of play, but you still must invest that kind of time to improve your other character classes unless you’re ready to keep dropping Microsoft Points.
When you're playing online, victory comes most easily if you've outfitted your character with a bunch of great equipment. For instance, you might like to give your mage character an umbrella, but that weapon doesn't immediately inflict a satisfying amount of damage. Upgrading it to the level cap requires a lot of coins (or fewer of your precious happy tickets, if you can spare any), meaning that you have to play for several hours just to obtain the currency that lets you wield an effective weapon. Then you need to follow a similar process for several pieces of armor, and you can also spend still more coins to imbue your equipment with special buffs.
Matters are complicated by the existence of three character classes, each with its own unique fighting style and skills. Warriors carry shields and rely on melee attacks (in addition to special moves), clerics can heal and revive their allies, and mages are generally most useful when firing projectile magic from a distance. Characters also possess team attacks, and the battlefield can be populated by as many as 30 players at once. When a match is in full swing and everyone is working in concert, there can be some truly spectacular brawls. Tornadoes can fill the entire screen with destruction, as can meteor showers and even arrow barrages. Sometimes the chaos on display is just plain beautiful.
Unfortunately, though Happy Wars has the potential to be a fantastic experience that is well worth your time and perhaps even your money, connection issues and poor matchmaking are presently holding it back in a big way.
A proper matchmaking system ensures that teams are somewhat evenly matched, but Happy Wars often pits novice players against veterans. In some cases, you see a team consisting entirely of players in the single digits going up against a team full of experts who have reached the apparent level cap of 40. The difference in equipment that players on the respective teams can equip means that the low-level team faces certain slaughter. That's not fun for anyone involved. As a match begins, the teams are labeled according to their relative strength, so it's not like the matchmaking system lacks the information to assign matchups properly.
Connection issues only serve to exacerbate that problem. Since the game launched, a notice has appeared on the main screen to apologize for the amount of time you must wait before entering a match. The problem is being worked on, the notice assures, but that notice has been live for a long time now, and there has been no obvious improvement. You commonly spend a few minutes waiting while teams are formed and mismatched, and then half of the people listed are dropped as the match begins. If a party of friends is playing, half of that party will likely be dropped, and then the party doesn't reform unless someone invites the friends to return to the lobby and they are actually willing to do so.
Happy Wars will cost you nothing but time if you're not prepared to spend Microsoft points to hasten the experience, but even that investment is difficult to recommend because of the game's matchmaking and connection issues. If those flaws are ever eliminated, the core experience that should remain works well and provides chaos and customization that will likely keep you entertained and engaged for quite a long while. If proper fixes are never implemented, though, there's nothing left to do but sigh over the squandered potential.