Real-time strategy games can be tough to get right on platforms other than computers. Console controllers can’t match the speed and accuracy of a mouse, so most developers don’t even try. Smartphones are much better at recreating mouse-style controls thanks to their touchscreens, but the lower screen resolution compared to PCs still complicates things. Thus, non-PC strategy games tend to be of the less click-intensive tower defense variety. But Microsoft Game Studios has bravely crafted a casual RTS experience with Beards & Beaks, the Windows Phone-exclusive Xbox Live title.
Beards & Beaks (which I always want to type as ‘Birds & Beaks’ for some reason) revolves around two warring tribes: gnomes and crows. Each side competes to collect treasure before the other, inflicting as much harm as possible along the way. Strangely, the game is completely devoid of an actual story - a missed opportunity given the unique and adorable character designs. Even Angry Birds (whose ‘birds versus pigs’ premise is similar enough) has story sequences, after all!
Flick past the break for our full review.
In Beards & Beaks, players control a small army of gnomes. Instead of tapping on gnomes and telling them where to go or dragging them to their destinations, players direct the little guys by flicking them. Yes, flicking a gnome sends him flying a short distance in the intended direction. It’s designed to be simple and easy.
Flicking is an interesting input method to be sure. The only problem is that these gnomes also have minds of their own. They basically wander around like idiots and might pick up a treasure if they happen to smack into it. Anyway, what often ends up happening is I’ll be trying to direct a gnome to a particular location or enemy, and in-between my flicks he’s constantly trying to run off in a different direction or latch onto a different enemy. The gnomes’ impudence actually got me despising them, which couldn’t have been the developers’ intention. But in fairness, the goofy AI seldom cost me a level.
A variety of garden gnomes
Putting aside their intellect for a moment, let’s take a closer look at the little guys. Is it still politically correct to call them little guys? Well! There are four types of gnomes. Each one has a crow equivalent, except for the healing gnome. Note that even though one of the menu screens features a ninja gnome (which I’d have loved), the ninja isn’t available during game play.
- Red: This standard, all-purpose gnome is best suited to collecting treasure as he takes a lot of damage in fights.
- Brown: Ranged attack gnomes don’t do a tremendous amount of damage with each hit, but they’re tops as support characters. Placing them atop a mushroom garrison greatly increases their range, too.
- Blue: This big muscle-dude gnome can actually get into a fight and survive, which is handy. He takes down regular crows quickly.
- White: Paging Doctor Gnome! Whiteys are good for healing other gnomes and worst at fighting. But they’re not even that good at healing – they can only restore a single unit of health at a time and that’s if the stubborn little jerks feel like doing it. They’ll often walk right past injured gnomes and wander into the range of enemies instead. Healing would work so much better if it had an always-on radius.
Most of Beards & Beaks levels involve trying to capture a set amount of treasure before the crow team does the same. Treasure comes in two sizes: small and large. A large jewel can be carried by a single gnome or crow, but it slows them down greatly. Putting two or more gnomes on the job speeds it up a lot, which can be essential when you’re trying to outrun a pack of crows.
Other levels are more combat oriented, with each side having only a certain number of fighters. Whichever side loses too many warriors loses the battle. Then there are base defense levels, in which one or both sides have a destructible base. The object of these is to keep the gnomes’ base in-tact or knock out the crows’ base within a set time.
Finally, boss levels pit the gnomes against a crow commander (and sometimes his minions). The commander can take a lot of damage and he can kill any gnome with a single swipe of his sword. Lose too many gnomes and the villain wins! The key is to use only one to two gnomes to peck away at him while minimizing your vulnerability. He’s vulnerable just after slashing his sword.
Players have access to four mushroom-fueled special abilities that can speed up or turn the tide of a stage: a meteor that crushes crows, an arrow that tosses gnomes across great distances, a cyclone that blows stuff around, and a magnet that pulls treasure towards itself. Unfortunately, the mushrooms that these powers require are time-based. It takes hours for them to recharge on their own, making mushroom powers pretty much useless. Well, a few annoying levels require specific powers to complete, but otherwise the powers are optional.
Oh, but players can opt to refill the mushroom bar instantly by ponying up various quantities of Microsoft Points. This sort of cash grab is common in iPhone and Facebook games, but I just can’t see anybody actually choosing to buy mushrooms.
How many levels do you want?
Beards & Beaks’ downloadable levels make a lot more sense. By default, the game comes with two areas that contain 15 levels a piece. But a third area is available as free DLC, meaning the game essentially comes with 45 levels for the base price. A fourth area is currently available for purchase and a fifth one has yet to be released.
At 80 Microsoft Points, these areas aren’t priced too exorbitantly. I wouldn’t buy them unless they included new Achievements (they don’t), but they’re a nice option for people who want the game to go on longer. It’s just a shame that a large “New Content!” advertisement so prominently nags gamers on the title screen.
Waste not, want not
Beards & Beaks not only eschews a story, it also does away with pesky explanatory text. Whenever a level introduces a new mechanic, that information is conveyed by a chalkboard drawing. Unfortunately, these often don’t make much sense, forcing players to result to trial and error in order to figure things out. Similarly, players’ performance on each level is conveyed by a rating of one-to-three gnomes. But the game never explains how the rating system works, so there’s no incentive to actually go back and try to do better.
All of these omissions (and word from the developers themselves) lead me to believe that MGS left out the instructions that games normally have in order to reduce the costs of translating the game into other languages. An interesting cost cutting measure, but not one that benefits the game in the least.
Beards & Beaks gets creative with its Achievements, rewarding optional tasks like knocking five crows into the water or using four gnomes to carry a single heavy treasure. There is, however, one rather objectionable Achievement. “Mushroom-Fueled Excess” requires the use of all four mushroom powers in a single level. It takes 11 mushrooms to use all four powers, but you can only have 10 mushrooms at a time. Thus by design, the Achievement would require the purchase of extra mushrooms. Not cool. Thankfully, Yip Yoo’s Achievement Guide lists a workaround that involves tricking the phone into thinking a day has passed, refilling the mushrooms for free.
Beards & Beaks has many of the makings of a great game: a unique premise, enchanting character designs, and a catchy swing soundtrack. But it never quite comes together to meet its potential. Real-time strategy games require precise controls to work well. Not only is the flicking here a little on the imprecise side, but battling your own army’s dunderheaded AI really limits the game’s strategic potential. It would also have benefited from more concrete goals and instructions, to say nothing of ditching the mushroom system. These problems don’t kill the game’s fun factor, but they do limit its staying power. Perhaps the core ideas here could be fleshed out in a sequel some day. Just don’t forget the ninjas next time, MGS!
Beards & Beaks costs $2.99 and there is a free trial. Grab it here (Zune link) on the Marketplace.