Angry Birds Epic

"Angry Birds Epic is the poster boy for the free-to-play model, but there's no denying it's still a highly polished game."

By now, I think we all know what to expect going into a free-to-play mobile title. In-game advertisements; constant reminders to buy items with real money from the in-game shop; and a boring, slow slog for players who want to play without paying are all the norm. Angry Birds Epic is the poster boy for the free-to-play model, but there's no denying it's a highly polished game.

Angry Birds Epic is all about combat. While there's not much of a story to speak of, you do chase cartoony pigs from point-to-point on a map — each of which is a battle. In traditional turn-based form, you choose an action for each of your birds, and then the enemy pigs retaliate. Allies and foes alike have varied types of abilities: an attack, a defensive manoeuvre (such as boosting defence or healing), a passive bonus (such as deflecting attacks above or below a certain number), and a special move that can only be activated when the chilli gauge at the bottom of the screen is full. While they initially appear simple, battles become quite complex affairs where specific strategies often need to be employed to tackle a particular encounter.

Each bird's attacks and abilities vary based on their current equipment. There are five party members you acquire throughout the adventure, though usually only three may participate in a single battle. Each bird can acquire hats that grant them different attacks and abilities when worn. Red, for example, can lower an enemy's attack power as a Guardian, or attack multiple times as a Samurai. There are five hats for each character, so there are plenty of options to mess around with. However, each bird still fills a particular role in a battle: Red is defensive, Chuck is a mage, Matilda is a healer, Bomb is an attacker and the Blues are all-rounders.

After completing a battle, you are ranked out of three stars based on how much damage you took and how quickly you defeated the enemies. Higher stars allow you to gain extra items from the wheel spin post-battle, though you can use Friendship Essence to reroll if you're unhappy with your loot. Essences are all about advertising: they are earned by interacting with your friends who also play. Speaking of ads, the game occasionally asks if you'd like to watch a video of one before battle to get a 10% bonus to attack and defence.

The controls in battle work great and are some of the most intuitive I've seen on the platform. You simply drag a bird to their target to attack, and defensive abilities are activated by tapping a bird on its own. Tapping and holding nearly everything even brings up a more detailed explanation of what it does. Only inventory management is a hassle; you can only sell the weapon you have equipped (crazy!), and there are far too many menus to navigate, with load times in-between, to access what you're after.

Weapons and accessories can be equipped on each bird for further customisation, but it's here where free players will first start to encounter problems. The plans for new weapons can be bought from shops around the map using the in-game currency of silver coins (additional silver can be purchased using gold, the premium currency). The weapons can then be forged using materials dropped from enemies or found from points across the world. Grinding soon becomes a necessity to obtain enough, but, of course, you can quickly skip that and buy the materials using silver & mdash; which, again, you will have to grind/buy.

The best weapons, though, come from the golden pig, which costs gold to spin: 3 for a basic item, or 20 for a legendary one. It's a roulette too, so the exact piece of equipment you get is randomly decided. Gold can also be spent on better anvils and alchemy cauldrons (125 each) so that, when you create new items, they should have higher stats. To give you an idea, after completing about one-quarter of the game, I had about 80 gold coins that I'd earned just by playing. So it's certainly possible to eventually collect everything without spending a real cent. Eventually.

But that's the real problem with Angry Birds Epic: everything is a grind. If you don't spend real money, you better be a patient player. Returning to previous battles in order to grind materials and money are a necessity, since certain hats are required to defeat certain encounters. Enemies become quite challenging as the game progresses too, so the best weapons and accessories are just as important. Even if you do throw some cash around, the best equipment is still dealt out via roulette, so success is not guaranteed.

I greatly enjoyed the first few hours of Angry Birds Epic. It was fun to play, beautiful to look at, and the battle ratings kept me coming back for more. But, soon enough, the grind set in and the game became a boring, barely tolerable, slog. Using real money would ease this torture, but never eliminate it entirely. It's hard to recommend Angry Birds as a long-term investment, but it's free to download, so you might as well go and try it for yourself.

© 2014 Rovio Entertainment, Chimera Entertainment. All rights reserved.