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).
It’s Star Wars week, it’s Star Wars week! Yes, Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in a matter of hours, and Disney has done a masterful job building excitement for the first proper sequel film in 32 years. That said, it is a juggernaut, corporate media franchise, and that means tie-ins—The Force Awakens has recently been used to sell everything from cars to makeup and even apple and oranges. Yes, even fresh produce.
At least Star Wars is also being used to sell Star Wars things, including toys both traditional and connected, and it’s also being used to sell games. Just a couple weeks back, Electronic Arts released Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, a simple free-to-play combat affair that looks and sounds great and stars a cavalcade of legendary heroes.
And that’ll be more than enough to get fans hooked and potentially spending money within. But should they?
Galaxy of Heroes’ opening screen is one big Star Wars nostalgia bomb: Darth Vader facing off against Luke Skywalker in an epic lightsaber duel, with images of fellow heroes like Han Solo, Leia Organa, and Yoda on one side and the villainous Boba Fett and Darth Maul on the other. The Death Star looms in the backdrop, while the Millennium Falcon, TIE Fighter, X-Wing, and other classic ships zip around in the backdrop.
It’s classic Star Wars imagery, and where this fall’s Star Wars Uprising might’ve lost some less-devoted fans for focusing on mostly original characters, this hits the sweet spot. It’s a bit of a false promise, however: While those characters appear in the game, you probably won’t control the majority of them without spending quite a lot of money. And there’s no spaceship combat waiting in the wings—that’s just window dressing.
Galaxy of Heroes is all about team battles between good and evil using whichever heroes you’ve accumulated along the way. They’re turn-based showdowns, and each character has a couple of buttons to press to launch an automated move: A melee or weapon attack against one or all characters, or maybe a support move that benefits your team’s abilities. It’s simple enough that my two-year-old son has been helping me play. “Press that button,” I say. Success!
No, this Star Wars game won’t captivate with its complexities on the battlefield. In fact, that part of the game is all rather straightforward and boring. But the big draw here is amassing all your beloved franchise characters on both sides of the Force and constantly improving your squad with upgrades, training, and gear so battles stay more mundane than punishing.
You’ll find hundreds of missions split between the Light and Dark side, along with other side pursuits—but really, it’s primarily a grind to unlock cool stuff. And the coolest stuff, expectedly, is well out of reach.
Reassuringly, you probably don’t need to spend any money in Galaxy of Heroes for basic play. There’s an energy system, but it’s pretty loose: From the start, you could play about a dozen missions (each with multiple battles) without exhausting the rechargeable supply.
The game gives you free low-level characters in the early hours, as well as a Bronzium Data Card that provides a free piece of equipment or (rarely!) a character every 20 minutes of real-world time. And you’ll earn enough credits and ally points along the way to make gradual improvements to your heroes. Galaxy of Heroes does an admirable job of keeping you in the game, assuming you’re fine with mostly using generic versions of heroes.
Instead of limiting your play, Galaxy of Heroes knows very well that you want to play as Darth Vader, Stormtrooper Han, or Boba Fett, and it makes those characters very difficult to come by. Known characters are occasionally offered in paid bundles, but not even the top-tier ones—for example, a $40 bundle offered my way would’ve earned me a 4-star version of Mace Windu and some other currency and perks. Forty bucks. For Mace Windu. No character introduced in the prequels is worth that much.
Instead, your best bet at eventually unlocking the top characters is by collecting enough character shards along the way, primarily by buying premium crystal currency. I paid $10 for the Box of Crystals (1,340), which was just enough for me to purchase a Chromium Data Pack, which contained four of the higher-end cards. In that four-pack, I won a useful Darth Maul character, otherwise I just ended up with shards that could eventually open up more notable fighters.
For example, I got 10 character shards for Darth Vader, but you need to collect 80 shards before he unlocks. After several hours of play and $10 spent, I had 13 total Darth Vader shards. So that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. I’m not convinced that you can actually earn the headline characters strictly through obsessive, extended play. Given how many shards I’ve earned towards Luke (zero), Leia (zero), and Boba Fett (yup, zero) so far, it doesn’t seem likely.
But that’s the allure: Keep playing and maybe it will happen. Or maybe it won’t. Who cares, right? It’s only potentially dozens of hours of your time. Really, Galaxy of Heroes is slick and solidly produced, but the combat is so repetitive and mindless that it’s not a strong enough hook on its own. This is a fine time-killer, but it’s not strategic enough to warrant more than the occasional moment of your time.
If the hook of nostalgia is strong enough to set your gaze upon a digital Skywalker, Greedo, or Calrissian, then you’ll have to ask yourself: How much of my money and/or time is this really worth? Best to figure that out before you’re 100 hours—or dollars—deep in pursuit of a hero that doesn’t significantly change or enhance the core play experience.
Andrew Hayward is a Chicago-based games, apps, and gadgets writer whose work has been featured in more than 70 publications. He's also a work-at-home dad to an unruly four-year-old.