In the second mission, Holloway’s foot soldiers are killed in an ambush. But time can be backed up. The men can be given new orders in the past. They march a different way. They survive.
In the third mission we, the controllers of Holloway’s fate, can look into the future and see his allies die. Changes in Holloway’s present can prevent that.
And in the fourth mission Holloway travels minutes into the past to do something important, only to have his enemies respond by attacking him in the near-future.
All of these time jumps and time revisions – all of the movements of Holloway and his army of soldiers – are under the control of you, the player. You play the present, the past in the future. You issues orders in any minute of a timeline, forward or back. If your head isn’t hurting and your appetite has been whet, you’re ready for the game Chris Hazard, doctor of computer science, dreamed up. And, very soon, his game will finally be ready for you.
“Late one night in undergrad, I was talking to my friend about Homeworld, which was the first [real-time strategy game]to use the third dimension well,” Hazard recently told me. “My friend said: ‘What if you used the fourth dimension?’
“I thought: ‘What if you had time travel?'”
By 2009, with development finally happening in earnest, Hazard and the growing team of developers behind Achron were far enough along to show the game at the Game Developers’ Conference’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop. In 2010 they started offering a few levels of the game in exchange for pre-orders. A multiplayer community swelled, exploring all the possible exploits and tricks in a real-time strategy game that lets you defeat an enemy, if you so choose, by going into the past and snuffing him out when he was week.
Last month, Hazardous Software sent me a preview build of the game’s campaign, making me one of the first non-testers to try it out. Later this summer, the game will finally be released.
I am not much of a computer gamer nor much of an RTS gamer. But I do love wild ideas. Achron is a wild idea. It’s not simply an RTS but a game in which you can clearly see your actions of the past and present as well as their consequences in the future, during any moment when you’re playing the game. It’s a game that lets you jump ahead to the future to see how bad it gets or jump back to the past and start tweaking things to see just how much better things can go.
You can judge Achron‘s graphics, which I’ll just say are fine. You can judge the pathfinding of its little troops, which I’ll just say is troubled enough to leave some walking into walls instead of around them. Such things can improve and will as much as a game that has to devote processing power to action spread across a malleable timeline can permit, Hazard told me. What doesn’t need much improving is Achron‘s core idea. And I’ll judge that for you: it’s great.
In the first campaign mission, things are simply and there isn’t much time travel. The player controls Holloway, a human commander who marches through a battlefield in order to figure out the agenda of some alien invaders. The mission is basic and is used to teach rudimentary RTS unit selection and navigation control. Near the end of the mission, Holloway encounters his time-traveling self, a second Holloway who the player can also control. Plus there’s a scientist, a time travel device and the hint of what’s to come.
In the second mission, the game’s radical revision to how a game can be played is revealed. The core idea is, as described above, that the player can access and manipulate events in various parts of a timeline.
In the screenshots in this story you’ll see that the timeline is speckled with small vertical bars of light blue and red. They represent damage dealt and damage received, respectively, by your units in each of Achron‘s missions. They appear as the game calculates that such damage will occur. In the second mission, for example, you give a few soldiers the orders to run east down a road. The road will be intersected by an enemy. Sure enough, as you issue that order, in the future part of the timeline, a few red and blue spikes pop up. They represent that coming intersection and the battle that will ensue. In other words, you can see your problems and the successes on that timeline before they happen. In the case of the second mission, you see future ambushes, and you are taught that the best way to deal with them is to travel back in time, revise your orders and not get your soldiers killed.
The second mission also teaches you that you can play in the past. Doing so drains a meter that shows “chrono-energy”, which therefore discourage you from repeatedly going to the past to re-do bad moves. There are ways to slow that drain of energy in the past by playing the past in fast-forward or with units efficiently assigned to move in unison.
As I learned, the second mission teaches that you may effectively travel seconds or minutes into the past to correct mistakes, but you will have to be precise in the ways you revise the past lest you run out of energy to change those older events. The oldest parts of the past will eventually even become immutable. That threat encourages you to play in fast-forward to catch up to the present where revising strategies is less costly. Ideally, you’ll keep your eye on the future and avoid having to travel too much to the past to correct mistakes.
The second mission involves the discovery that humanity’s enemies have their own squabbles. The mission changes and you’re forced to transport captured enemies back to base. This part of the mission vexed me as I wound up stuck in a stressful section of the past, revising orders to avoid attacks and running low on chrono-energy. I discovered a devious twist: travelling into the past to issue a new order doesn’t erase the orders given later in a timeline. A tank that is told to move south, for example, will still try to move south even if you go into the past and tell it to first move north. Got that? There’s an out-clause to this too: the game allows you to erase any “future” orders, but that costs energy.
In the third mission, Holloway has problems with another human commander, Rathke, who races off to the east of a large map to attack an encampment of enemies. Holloway and the player need to stop their own excursion, go back to the past and use new orders to instead charge east for a rescue. As I played this mission, I perpetually looked at the future of the timeline. Sometimes that future part of the timeline would show that my units were about to receive a lot of damage. I’d also sometimes get an alert about Holloway’s future death, including the exact minute and second of his passing. The man isn’t supposed to die. But you can avoid it, as I had to, by changing orders in the past or present. I made those tweaks, hoping I’d see the red bars in the timeline’s future, shrink away and the Holloway death alert disappear. (I had even bigger problems when I accidentally guided Holloway to his death in the past. I could jump further back into the past to save him, but had to worry about that encroaching wave of immutability. Once it passed, I couldn’t save Holloway. Mission failed.)