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).
Angry Birds mania is seemingly past its prime, although the nearly $350 million worldwide gross of last year’s The Angry Birds Movie seemingly ensures that the franchise will keep hanging around for a while. In recent years, however, rather than keep iterating upon the familiar pull-and-fling formula (aside from the solid Angry Birds 2), Rovio has mostly delivered an array of spinoffs that bear little resemblance to the main games.
We’ve had a kart racer, a bubble-shooter, a pinball-action hybrid, and even a turn-based role-playing game of all things, not to mention one pretty bad puzzle game: Angry Birds Fight. Just released over the holidays, Angry Birds Blast thankfully offers a better attempt at adapting the mobile brand for a color-matching puzzle approach—but like most of the series spinoffs, it’s not a terribly exciting or engrossing experience.
Angry Birds Blast tasks you with popping chains of balloons, but this isn’t a bubble-shooter like Angry Birds Pop. Instead, it plays a lot more like Candy Crush Saga, as you’ll need to tap to clear bunches of like-colored balloons from the board.
Here, it’s all about quantity: you’ll need at least two adjacent balloons of the same color to be able to pop them away, and the more you bunch up, the better the perks. Clear five and you’ll get a rocket power-up that can clear an entire row or column, depending on which way it’s pointing. Pop seven at a time and you’ll get a bomb that can take out a cluster of balloons, meanwhile, while popping nine or more gets you a laser gun that eliminates every balloon of a particular color.
Making the most of those power-ups is essential to completing each stage’s objectives. Thankfully, Angry Birds Blast shakes things up fairly regularly by adding in new types of tasks to complete in each stage. Sometimes you’ll just need to clear a certain number of bird balloons from the board, or pop all of the pigs in view. In other cases, you might need to clear paths for hot air balloons to reach the top, or pop bubbles that hover atop the spaces on the board.
You’ll occasionally run into some Angry Birds-specific flavoring, such as wood blocks or panes of glass that must be broken to let balloons through—but for the most part, nearly everything in Angry Birds Blast feels like it’s been done before. Tiny twists give it a slightly distinctive feel, but at its core, this is another freemium color-matcher. And it has a lot of the same hang-ups that come with most freemium puzzle games.
Given how large of a role power-ups play in the game, it’s no surprise that you can buy many more of them to help you through the trickier stages. You can buy these perks before a match using the little blue star coins, which are earned gradually through play (or purchased), or bought during matches using the mostly-premium gold coins. These boosts offer quick attacks to take out problematic balloons or barriers, or add extra moves to your limited tally in each stage, and can help provide a speedy benefit when the going gets tough.
As in Candy Crush and other similar games, you may feel tempted to take advantage of those quick fixes (or pay to continue) when you run into a wall: every so often, you’ll face a much-tougher-than-usual stage that impedes your progress, and you can only bang your head against it for so long before looking for a way out. To its credit, Angry Birds Blast doesn’t seem to spike in difficulty as obnoxiously as Candy Crush, at least in the first few dozen stages I’ve played through, but I wouldn’t be surprised if later stages are more consistently overwhelming.
Also, Angry Birds Blast lets you watch a video ad to gain a random power-up before a level, essentially trading up to 30 seconds of real time for a boost in the next puzzle. I usually don’t mind watching ads for bigger benefits in games, such as doubling an already-large stack of rewards in Best Fiends Forever, but a single power-up at the start of a match isn’t hugely helpful. I’d only bother if I kept losing a stage and couldn’t seem to break through otherwise.
Expectedly, the game also has an energy system, and you’ll burn one of five total hearts each time you lose a match, with each heart taking 30 minutes of real-world time to regenerate. You can buy back a full refill with coins or consider pestering Facebook friends for extra hearts, but I’d never personally do the latter… and we probably wouldn’t be Facebook pals for long if you did.
Ultimately, I spent $5 on gold coins—you can spend up to $100 at a time, naturally—and used them gradually over the course of a couple days: a continue here, a near-win power-up there. Angry Birds Blast occasionally hands out both currencies for completing missions along the way, as well as coins and power-ups for completing daily and weekly tasks, but there’s an obvious benefit to spending some cash when you really want the perk.
The problem is, I never cared enough; I wouldn’t have spent that money if I were playing just for fun. Honestly, if I hit a wall, I’d probably just stop playing altogether.
Angry Birds Blast is a decent game, but it’s an uninspiring one. It’s not the kind of game I’d ever tell a friend about, but not because I’d be ashamed to admit I did—only because I doubt I’d even remember having played it. It’s the frozen TV dinner of mobile gaming, ably filling a gap as needed without being special or memorable.
That’s OK. if we were updating last year’s ranking of every single Angry Birds game, Blast would probably land in the middle, right around Angry Birds Pop: another adequate and attractive game that can fill up spare moments. Still, it’s a shame that a series that was once so enthralling now settles for tolerability as its high bar.