GTArcade is one of the world’s leading publishers of browser-based games (Knight’s Fable and League of Angels) you can play for free. The vast majority of these are MMORPGs. Though each game they publish puts a different spin on the story and gameplay, if you’ve played one, you’ve got a good grasp on what all the others feel like. The stories tend to be trite and the mechanics tend to be highly repetitive and largely mindless. The biggest problem with both is that they really just don’t matter — whether or not you read the story and what gameplay decisions you make just don’t really have an impact on your success.
Games from GTArcade and similar publishers tend to be really addictive, making it easy to pour a lot of time (and money!) into them. That is, until you manage to stop for a second, think about what you’re doing, and realize that it’s really not that fun. As players repeat this process from game after game, they start to catch on sooner. Eventually, many players will try avoid this type of game altogether. That said, it’s really in the interest of GTArcade to move toward games with better writing and more compelling gameplay. I’m pleased to report that GTArcade is specifically trying to remedy this problem with their latest title, Hero Commander — a blend of standard MMORPG elements and some mechanics borrowed from tactical combat games.
The first step is an interesting one: GTArcade hired an established novelist to contribute to the game’s plot and setting. I didn’t find out about this until after I had finished playing, but I did notice the difference! The lore is more interesting, the characters have more personality, and the plot is easy to follow. The most important change is that the writing is sharper and more concise. GTArcade noticed that more players are skipping the story than ever before and they made the best change they could! The dialogue is briefer and spread out more (there’s more gameplay between each quest), which makes it so much more readable. There’s certainly room for improvement (and the English translation is a little off sometimes), but it’s. While the story may not knock your socks off, you may actually read it in Hero Commander.
The game takes place in a pretty typical medieval fantasy setting. Your character is the titular hero commander, an up-and-coming ruler addressed as “your majesty” and “your highness”. The game has plenty of combat, but your character’s lofty rank means you’ll never actually see them on the battlefield. You’ve got the choice between a male human or female elf. You can change your race (human, dwarf, elf, orc) or gender at any time if you pay some Gold (premium currency). Your choice has no effect on actual gameplay, so it basically comes down to which character you think looks the coolest.
The main campaign consists of a string of stages you must clear. When you enter a stage, you’ll see an area of land that’s been divided into a grid. Your army, opposing armies, and obstacles litter the landscape. You move around one tile at a time to challenge enemy armies and collect treasures. When you challenge an enemy army, a battlefield pops up that’s similarly broken down into a grid. This time though, each army occupies a full 15 (3×5) squares instead of just one. The game also switches from manual control to automated combat at this point. Since it’s all automated, you can skip the animation at any time to jump straight to the results screen. Back to the zoomed-out landscape, you move your army around again until you have defeated the stage boss.
I thought borrowing combat mechanics from a genre with deeper gameplay would be a great way to enrich the gameplay of a browser-based RPG like Hero Commander, but the implementation was disappointingly superficial. Moving around the landscape is extremely linear and offers almost no strategy at all. Opposing armies and buildings block your way so you basically have to fight them in a set order. Similarly, the opposing armies never move. There’s no need to be strategic with your approach. The gameplay at this level isn’t automated, but it’s so straightforward it may as well have been.
I actually appreciated the automated combat once you start a fight with another army. The process of 15 battalions whittling down each other’s health takes quite a bit of time automated and I can only imagine that manually issuing instructions to 15 units per turn would slow things down dramatically. Lots of games with automated combat let you skip the animation, but the skip feature is usually unlocked at a later level or even requires a purchase with premium currency. The Skip feature in Hero Commander is wisely available from the get-go. It’s fun to watch your army fight every now and then to see how your current formation is doing, but it’s repetitive to watch the same army fight over and over again.
A few small tweaks would have gone a long way to making the combat better. If the zoomed-out level of combat had even a little strategic depth, it would have made the automated combat at the zoomed-in level completely forgivable and even pleasant. It would have been cool if you could try to use the landscape and its obstacles to your advantage. If the enemy armies were able to take turns to move like you do, it would have been interesting to try to outmaneuver them — trying to gain the dominant position without being flanked yourself. Alas, the combat is pretty hollow while you’re playing it.
Hero Commander pretty successfully implements a city-building mechanic. You have a castle whose level determines what level you can upgrade your other buildings to. Houses generate income, the blacksmith lets you upgrade your weaponry, the law building lets you invest in permanent upgrades that grant small boosts such as a 1% increase on the currency you earn from the Ruins mode. Dungeons take a while to unlock, but once you do, you can enslave fellow players to have them earn Silver (the standard currency) for you. Various military buildings let you train battalions you can add to your army. At the beginning, your city is limited to three build queues at a time (for constructing new buildings or upgrading existing ones). Spending Gold lets you add more build queues, and more houses to boot.
Building your army is actually pretty interesting. Your army consists of three rows that each have five slots. Each slot can hold one battalion of a certain unit type. Units come in four classes: archers, knights, soldiers, and dragons. The first three form a rock-paper-scissors relationship of advantages and disadvantages with each other, while the dragons enjoy no particular weakness or strength. Each class has multiple types of unit within it. Furthermore, you can recruit, train, and upgrade Heroes that can significantly boost your army’s Battle Rating (a score indicating your army’s raw power). Each row of your army can host a single Hero. These heroes’ stats boost the stats of each batallion in their row and they also cast powerful spells during combat.
The hero system is pretty interesting in itself. “Exploit” is an alternate currency in the game; it’s not as common as Silver, but you don’t need to cough up real money to acquire it (like you do for Gold). Exploit can be spent to collect Hero Relics, which are magic cards tied to specific heroes. First you need to collect enough Relics to recruit a certain hero, after that, you can use more of that hero’s Relics to boost their stats and combat ability. On top of that, each hero can gain experience to level up and equip up to four pieces of gear to further boost their stats. Unsurprisingly, each piece of gear can be leveled up, upgraded to a stronger form of the same gear, and loaded with gems to increase its power. In a lot of ways, growing your heroes is little more than training a virtual pet, but it’s enjoyable to see them become more powerful and watch how their strength affects the strength of your army.
Hero Commander features a variety of other modes including a PvP arena and various events. The best mode in the whole game is unquestionably the Ruins Mode. This mode features a sprawling map on which you’ll encounter monster armies, player armies, and all kinds of buildings to claim and otherwise interact with. You’ll even find gigantic boss monsters that require lots of player cooperation to take down.
The Ruins Mode really gives you an idea of how much better the campaign’s combat could have been. You have to be smart about where you move and respawn because you have limited movement. You have missions that will give you prizes — four at a time so you can still play according to your playstyle. The missions are generally simple like “Take 5 Camps” or “Fight 6 Wild Beasts”. You can team up with other players in your faction to capture camps and gain combat bonuses and loot for your whole faction. The Ruins Mode actually makes could use of automation as well. It’s really a lot to take in at first, so it’s useful to switch to automated mode after the brief text tutorial. This gives you an idea of what you should be doing in Ruins mode, but Ruins mode is complex enough that you might make better decisions manually once you know what to do. Best of all, Ruins mode gives out lots of great prizes and is one of the best sources of Exploit — this drives more players to actually come use Ruins mode.
For all of my critiques for the actually combat mechanics, the rest of the game blends a bunch of different modes together very well. The Ruins mode almost makes up for the bad combat mechanics everywhere else in the game. As you might expect, Hero Commander is loaded with ways to spend money on it and gain all kinds of glittery prizes. Boosting your VIP level grants all kinds of permanent bonuses that undeniably make this game strongly pay-to-win. Fortunately, the competitive multiplayer elements are pretty minor, so the game can still be enjoyed solo and for free.
Hero Commander is far from perfect. It could still use better writing and definitely stronger gameplay, but it’s a marked improvement over what I’ve come to expect from GTArcade. You’ll see all the trappings of a free-to-play browser game when you first dive in, but give it some time to show you why it’s one of the best in its class. It’s really worth checking out if you’re a fan of MMORPGs you can play in your browser for free. I hope to see GTArcade push further in the direction of stronger storylines and deeper gameplay in the future, but that can only happen if they get a positive response from the community.