“You have :20,” reads the text on the screen in a thirty-second advertisement for Trion’s new multiplayer title Atlas Reactor. “Make your move.”
It’s a fitting way to limn a project that seems intent above all else on boiling down the team-based PvP strategy genre into its simplest, most accessible form. Atlas Reactor’s unspoken elevator pitch is “all the character variety, spell management, and team coordination of Dota 2 or League of Legends—minus the beginner-unfriendly mechanics and torturous forty-minute defeats.” But less is not always more—sometimes it’s just less—and while Atlas Reactor is certainly an engrossing way to spend a few twenty-minute sessions, its very simplicity undercuts its nutritional value and staying power.
Let’s start with what Atlas Reactor does right. It blends the multiple-heroes-per-team, multiple-skills-per-hero, one-hero-per-player structure of Dota 2 (or League, Overwatch, Battlerite, etc.) and the turn-based tactics of X-COM to create an experience that feels simultaneously new and familiar. The character design is creative and colorful; the soundtrack, which I’d describe as Electrosonic Glittertrance, is energetic and upbeat. After sampling several characters, I settle on Nix—a sniper who resembles a beefy, radioactive Jawa—whose specialty is hiding in the back of the map and plinking faraway opponents in the cranium. I also like Juno, a female character with heartening embonpoint and twin laser cannons that dish out massive AOE damage (though I do find her aggressively-animated bosom physics somewhat out-of-place). And the gameplay is—let’s just say it—fun: abilities feel meaty and impactful, animations are smooth, and the twenty-second timer keeps turns flying by.
Prediction becomes the most critical skill.
After I have a few dozen matches under my belt, I come to two resounding conclusions. One is that Atlas Reactor, while outwardly analogous to X-COM, in practice has more in common with good old-fashioned Rock, Paper, Scissors. Not because characters are hard counters to one another—they aren’t—but because selecting your own move tends to be less important than, or at least inextricably linked to, predicting your opponent’s move. Example: If you ult and your opponent dodges, you whiff, inching closer to defeat. But if you predict your opponent’s dodge and use an AOE spell, or charge an action for the following turn, you inch closer to victory. Once you’ve reached a level where people understand the basics, prediction becomes the most critical skill.
My second conclusion is more ominous: outside of prediction, there isn’t much depth to Atlas Reactor. Don’t get me wrong: keeping track of your opponents’ cooldowns, knowing what all their abilities do, and using their past actions to forecast their future moves—these are difficult tasks. But they’re not complex tasks. Spell deployment, movement, and team coordination are simple, straightforward, and mechanically trivial. Dota 2 and Overwatch revolve around prediction, but they also require you to master an array of complicated skills, without which prediction is useless: in Dota 2, last-hitting, real-time movement, and aiming skillshots; in Overwatch, movement, aim, etc. The flashiest feats in Dota 2 or Overwatch occur when a player not only predicts what the opponent is going to do but subsequently outplays them via the complex systems that define the game. Whereas the flashiest feats in Atlas Reactor occur when a player predicts what the opponent is going to do and … clicks the correct button. To put it a different way: in most competitive videogames, it’s not enough to know what you have to do, because actually doing it is difficult. In Atlas Reactor, knowing what you have to do is all that matters, because actually doing it is easy. By minimizing mechanical complexity, Trion lowers Atlas Reactor’s barrier to entry, but also necessarily reduces the number of ways to outplay an opponent.
In Atlas Reactor, there’s a sense that something intangible, a meaning or perhaps “mattering,” is missing. Some of this is probably Trion’s fault and some of it is not. Sometimes you lose outright because your teammates run in like lemmings and die. This is a literal “nothing I do matters” situation, and it’s an unavoidable part of all team-based multiplayer games. But there are other issues that have more to do with design. When you die, you immediately respawn at a location you choose; sure, you miss a turn or two of movement, but it doesn’t feel like a major setback, which, on the flipside, means that killing an opponent doesn’t feel like you’ve struck a major blow. And the game’s only format, a first-to-five-kills deathmatch, feels essentially meaningless: you’re not working towards an objective, just smiting your whack-a-mole enemies until you reach the arbitrary five kill limit, at which point a victory/defeat message dutifully materializes. In Dota 2 or League, victory means ransacking the opponent’s base, a deeply satisfying Viking climax; in Counter-Strike, winning a round as the Terrorists means an actual bomb goes off. In Atlas Reactor, you win and the game just ends. You click through a barebones post-match stats screen, then requeue and return to one of the game’s three maps for another twenty-minute squabble, often against the same heroes (free-to-play users, which seem to be a large chunk of the player base, must choose from a limited, rotating pool). Match length also plays a role: while losing an Atlas Reactor match doesn’t feel as bad as losing a comparatively epoch-spanning Dota 2 match, winning doesn’t trigger the same intensity of elation either.
Winning doesn’t trigger the same intensity of elation.
Don’t get me wrong—Atlas Reactor is fun and polished. It knows exactly what it wants to be, and for the most part it manages to be that thing. Frankly, I think you should play it. I just don’t think you’ll want to play it for more than a weekend or two. It might seem ridiculous to expect more than that from a game that costs $30 and has a free-to-play version. Fine. But it’s an entry in the team-and-character-based competitive multiplayer space, which means I think it ought to be measured accordingly. And when you compare Atlas Reactor to League, Dota 2, and Overwatch—admittedly all projects with exponentially larger budgets and loftier ambitions—Trion’s project is just plain shallow.
“Worst case scenario, you resurrect,” chirps a character in the tutorial, correctly, though not in the way that was probably intended … the worst case scenario here is that you do resurrect, over and over, plugging into endless Atlas Reactor matches long after the novelty has worn off to sustain a state of empty-headed entertainment. Each match is a fifteen-minute jolt of positive feedback, with no objective except killing enemies that respawn instantly: nothing is permanent, so nothing is truly won, though neither is anything lost … Atlas Reactor is the instant porridge of PvP strategy, anodyne and digestible, simple and unobjectionable and warm.