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).
Cats are often cuddly and adorable, but C.A.T.S.—that is, Crash Arena Test Stars—is destructive and intense. And yet it still stars cute, cartoonish felines.
C.A.T.S. is the latest original game from ZeptoLab, makers of the no-doubt mobile classic Cut the Rope and its myriad sequels, and it takes things in a much different direction. Rather than solve increasingly complex physics puzzles here, you’ll wage battle in your weaponized car, sending it out against a rival ride to see which will be first to bash the other to bits. There’s a creative edge to designing your ideal war machine, not to mention the hook of trying to obtain new and better parts, but does this vehicular brawler hold up past the first few rounds?
What is perhaps most surprising about C.A.T.S.: Crash Arena Test Stars is that you don’t actually control your vehicle: you can’t move it from left to right, activate your weapons, or evade incoming attacks. No, the entertainment and interactivity come entirely from the garage, where you’ll pick one of a handful of different body shapes, outfit it with wheels, firearms, swords, chainsaws, bombs, boosters, and other goodies (stickers!), and then let it rip.
Each head-to-head battle only lasts for five to 10 seconds, as your feline-commanded cruiser rips the other to shreds, and vice versa, and the showdown ends with an explosive ejection and a waved white flag. And then you do it again and again and again.
While the lack of hands-on combat might seem disappointing, the tinkering really does have a rewarding element to it. You’ll unlock stronger items and weapons over time and can use power-ups to enhance the ones you have, and the various body shapes and weapon slots mean that each configuration has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. And truly, it doesn’t seem like there is any one foolproof design to obtain: any battle car can be defeated by some other one.
C.A.T.S.’ main attraction is a Championship mode, in which you’ll battle for leaderboard placement in a daily tournament against a random selection of other players. Do well enough in a series of matches and you’ll rank up, which unearths more powerful weapons and items to seek and equip. Otherwise, you can jump into a quick fight and earn unlockable boxes filled with precious goodies.
Despite the lack of live, competitive online play, C.A.T.S. instills a need to be the best: it’s demoralizing to have your prized, rocket-blasting, laser-blasting cruiser be suddenly smacked around after you rank up to a more advanced league. And when that happens… well, then you start thinking about how you might get better quickly.
One way, naturally, is to grind it out and wait. Each supply box you earn has a timer attached to it, whether it’s two hours for a regular box with low-level goods, or six hours for a box with more powerful and promising items within. You can use earned or purchased gems to skip the timer, or watch a video ad to take off 30-minute increments per view. Before long, the items in these boxes stop being terribly useful to your increasingly powerful car, although you can still scrap them to boost your existing parts.
It’s the premium stuff that seems really appealing, however. C.A.T.S. sells the Super Giant Box for 600 gems, for example, or the regular Giant Box for 150 gems. And there are parts-specific boxes, such as the Super Bodies Box and Super Parts Box for 300 gems apiece. You’ll find super and even legendary parts in those crates, which can really help boost your situation.
Of course, it’ll cost you: a bundle of 600 gems sells for $10, and the other bundles range in price from 90 gems for $2 to 12,000 gems for a staggering $100. You’ll earn gems here and there in the championship tournaments, as well as in free “sponsor boxes,” but they typically come in single-digit handfuls—at least in my initial hours of play.
In other words, it’d take you ages to unlock any of those higher-end boxes purely through grinding out battles and winning championships. So I spent $10 for a box of 600 gems, and split them between a Super Bodies Box and Super Parts Box to see what I’d end up with. Honestly, it didn’t feel significant. At $5 per box, it felt like I merely received slightly more powerful versions of all of the parts I already had, especially since you’re limited by your current championship level. It didn’t feel worthwhile. But maybe there’s more benefit once you’ve logged weeks and months in the game.
Spending a bunch of money here doesn’t feel especially beneficial, especially when the sensation of building and gradually improving your ride is just as fun—if not more so—than actually winning in the automated battles.
But that’s great news, since C.A.T.S.: Crash Arena Turbo Stars provides plenty of free fun, and while you might feel motivated to spend for an advantage, it doesn’t seem essential. If ZeptoLab can keep pumping the game full of new parts and body types to encourage further creativity and experimentation, then C.A.T.S. might be one freemium fix worth coming back to time and again.