I’m going to start talking about Atlas Reactor by talking about Star Wars: The Old Republic. Deservedly so, SWTOR has gotten a lot of flak for its free-to-play implementation. From hotbars to head slots, SWTOR lets you know very quickly that you’re playing a subpar version of the “real” game, and you’ll have to pay real money to get something resembling the full experience.
That being said, you can play for at least a few hours in SWTOR without encountering something that resembles a pay gate. I talked a little with Massively’s SWTOR guru, Larry Everett, who tried “starting over” with a free account, and he said the restrictions didn’t really bother him until around level 40. For me, I think the hotbar restrictions would bug me a lot sooner, but in any case, you can play for a good while before feeling heavily restricted. Once you do, you can buy a few things piecemeal to make your experience more enjoyable. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but it at least doesn’t make you feel like a second-class citizen right out of the gate.
That’s not the case with Atlas Reactor’s free-to-play mode. Trion Worlds’ new tactical PvP game lets you know after your first match that it wants you to pay up. In my case, I gained two levels after that match and got two Loot Matrices, similar to the loot boxes you get for leveling up in Overwatch. I opened one and then was hit with my first barrier: Sorry, but as a free player, you can’t open another one until 36 hours have passed.
In the world of pay-to-win mechanics, this is hardly the most egregious sin ever. But it gives Atlas Reactor a feel not unlike mobile games, with their timers that you can circumvent for a small fee. But wait! There isn’t even a small fee I can pay! It’s buy the full game – currently $26.99, discounted from its full price of $29.99 for the least expensive package – or nothing. No $2 loot keys, no way to grind up currency to unlock, nothing. Those games at least give you a way to keep playing. Atlas Reactor just makes me want to log out and wait, which is exactly what I did.
(And let’s take a moment to question the oddness of a 36-hour timer. Why not 24 or 48 hours? When I opened my first Loot Matrix, it was 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday. Was I suppose to set my alarm clock for three in the morning on Friday so I remember to open my other Loot Matrix at the optimal time?)
This is a recurring theme with Atlas Reactor’s free mode, which feels like an even worse variant of much more popular free modes for paid games. Free hero brawlers or MOBAs let you grind up currency to buy heroes if you don’t want to pay for them, or you can shell out a few bucks to get them immediately. “Free trial” games like World of Warcraft and, arguably, SWTOR, let you enjoy the game for a few hours before you feel like you need to pay.
Atlas Reactor has eschewed these well-accepted conventions – which once were present in the game before the switch to a B2P model – for something that doesn’t work for anyone. I can’t even chalk this up to the old chestnut of “greedy developer”; I’m not sure how beneficial this is to Trion Worlds, if it earns the company more money than a standard “earn stuff through currency” system would. I suppose a half-assed free mode is better than no free mode at all, but not knowing what freelancer I’m going to be able to play from week to week is a major downer. There’s little point in practicing and earning random prizes through Loot Matrices if I know it could be a month before I get to use my chosen freelancer again.
This is Atlas Reactor’s greatest sin and why it fails as a F2P game: By not giving players the ability to earn currency with each match, and offering them some control over their loot selection, there’s nothing to work toward apart from random rewards. Setting goals is a major factor in F2P games; when you need 5,000 Gold to unlock a new hero, you cherish each win as bringing you closer to that singularly attainable goal, and it’s like Christmas when you finally unwrap your new toy. There’s no way to do that in Atlas Reactor F2P unless I get duplicates in my loot boxes and cash them in for ISO – something I only learned by reading the FAQ for the game because my ISO total is still sitting at 0 and I had no idea how to increase it – and even then, I can’t unlock new freelancers with it. Don’t like this week’s offerings? Tough luck, either shell out ~$30 or go play something else. I’ll choose the latter.
Oh, and the game itself? It’s kinda fun, but is definitely a niche game, no matter what anyone says.