Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it’s difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we’ll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it’s really worth your time (and money).
I’ll admit, I put this particular Freemium Field Test entry off for a while. Mobile Strike has all the red flags: an utterly generic name, a reputation as a mindless free-to-play grind, and a big-budget ad campaign starring a celebrity—in this case, Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s the exact same playbook employed by Game of War: Fire Age, probably the least entertaining game I’ve covered in this column over the last year and a half.
Well, I finally bit the bullet… and my skepticism was well-founded. Mobile Strike actually is a direct clone of Game of War, repurposing the same interface, gameplay design, and business model while swapping out bland fantasy for a middling military premise. It’s credited to Epic War, a subsidiary of Game of War creator Machine Zone, and these are very much the same game at core: Menu-tappers that never transform into exciting or satisfying experiences.
Actually, “Menu Strike” would have been a perfect name for it.
Mobile Strike is billed as a massively multiplayer online game, but for the most part, it feels like a pretty sterile city-building simulation. You start off with a mostly-barren desert setting filled with empty plots, and the game starts telling you what to place and when to enhance it. Build an iron mine, quarry, hospital, or training grounds. Upgrade your headquarters, outer wall or armory. Do this, do that. Rinse and repeat.
Like Game of War, there’s always some simple objective to tackle: A little bar at the bottom of the screen points you to the next building to raise or upgrade, but the process never changes. It’s always as simple as tapping the building or plot, tapping another button in a menu screen, and then waiting for construction to complete. This can take minutes or hours, depending on the building’s level, but the rest of the process is absolutely identical.
That’s the bulk of the game. You’ll gradually improve your base with new and improved buildings, all of which increase the amount of resources you generate or let you train and pump out more capable soldiers. But the problem here, as with Game of War, is that all of those resources and units never funnel into some exciting second stage of the game—that mindless building is the core gameplay loop.
Even going on missions is as simple as tapping a button, waiting for the timer to tick down, and then reaping whatever resources come of it. You can attack rival bases, too—and be attacked if you don’t have a shield up—but there’s no real visual representation of that either. You’ll need to have a vivid imagination to fill in the blanks here if you’re looking for anything more than just menu buttons and resource tallies.
Joining an alliance is easily the most interesting aspect of Mobile Strike, just like Fire Age, as it lets you take in a little bit of community amidst the droning tedium. The chat bar translates text from many different languages into your own, allowing for worldwide communication and commiseration alike. As for strategic gameplay and teamwork, believe it or not, everything comes down to menus and buttons again. Seeing a trend here?
Mobile Strike is a game of who can amass the largest stockpiles of resources, soldiers, and power-ups, so unsurprisingly, the entire business model is the catch. Spending money lets you immediately tap into resources and abilities that come very slowly through free play, if at all, and there’s a major advantage for paying players. Not an advantage in terms of fun or excitement, mind you, but rather in avoiding timers and looting rival bases.
Every time you open the game, you’ll be prompted to buy a bundle of miscellaneous in-game items: gold, speed-up tokens, item crates, limited-time access to a second building queue (to speed up construction), and more. Each full-screen splash image is different and features a ticking timer so you know it’s a limited offer, yet you’ll get one just like it the next time you sign on.
Before I bought anything, every screen offered a $5 pack of items, featuring bold icons that promised it was the “Most Ever” and a “Player Favorite,” for example. Once I finally bought one of those $5 packs to see what happened, then the game only offered $20 packs. What happens once you buy the $20 pack—do you exclusively get offers for $30 packs, or $50 packs?
I didn’t bother finding out because the $5 pack did nothing to improve the game experience. It granted me a small heap of gold and plenty of speed-up items to bypass the lengthy building and training timers, but the game never escapes that drab string of objectives… at least not in the several hours I played across two weeks of Mobile Strike. You’ll find packs of gold and items for as much as $100 a pop in the gold store, but I have no reason to believe that you can buy your way to fun here with any level of investment.
Like its predecessor, Mobile Strike is a busywork simulator above all, but it’s one that uses a glitzy ad campaign to promise something more—something you have to work for. You’ll keep plugging away at those buildings and upgrades, assuming Mobile Strike will eventually reward your commitment with power and excitement, so maybe you keep pumping more and more money in to speed up that process.
I find it troubling that the game advertised in the App Store screenshots and on TV isn’t the game you actually play; as far as I can tell, that experience either isn’t there or has been greatly misrepresented for promotional purposes. And if there is some semblance of that deep within, following dozens or hundreds of hours of attention, then it’s surely not worth the hassle or payment needed to get to that point.
Save the trouble. Maybe Pokémon Go isn’t your speed, but surely you can find a more rewarding free-to-play game to dump your spare hours into. We have a few suggestions.