Freedom Ain’t Free: Ace of Spades

ace of spades 1Freedom Ain’t Free is an irregular column for impressions from open betas and Steam free weekends. These aren’t full reviews, and, since these are often multiplayer games, it can be hard to compare their userbases during free periods to their general populace. These are just impression pieces based off of what the developers show off during these free windows.

Ace of Spades didn’t get much press, for a few reasons. It’s easy to look at its aesthetic and dismiss it as merely being Minecraft-with-guns, and it’s also easy to see Runescape developer Jagex’s name on the credits and think that they’re making another simulacratic game to cash in on what’s big at the moment.

Despite these factors, Ace of Spades manages to be a fun, light variation on classic FPS game modes thanks to its focus on terrain deformation. It lacks the balance of Team Fortress 2 and the scale of Battlefield, keeping it from the realm of serious tactical play, but there’s a lot of enjoyment to get out of it in the right modes, with the right people.
ace of spades 2At its core, Ace of Spades applies a classic FPS model to the now well-worn voxel aesthetic and terrain deformation elements of Minecraft. The marketing went out of its way to emphasize that it was like the ever-popular Minecraft combined with all the FPS gameplay the kids love. Luckily it lacks a lot of Call of Duty’s specific tropes; there are no perks, nor experience levels, nor progression from match to match. It’s all about the action. In a world where the vast majority of multiplayer games have integrated those mechanics in some fashion, it’s quite refreshing. The barrier to entry is pretty low thanks to this.

The terrain deformation is what makes or breaks the game, depending on one’s playstyle. It’s way easier to camp objectives; an organized team can make their CTF flag nigh uncatchable by packing it behind layers of blocks and sniper towers. It’s also rather easy to burrow under that flag and pull it out from underground. Buildings can also be leveled if they’re disconnected from the ground, but they won’t fall until every last block at its base is gone. Slower objective-based maps utilize this often.

It’s a cool concept, but the usefulness of this cycle of creation and destruction varies heavily from mode to mode. In Team Deathmatch, it’s almost useless. Snipers can use it to camp up, but other classes (like the speedy Rocketeer and tunneling Miner) negate that. It’s too manic to be useful. Most standard objective modes suffer from this as well. All of the classes can slice through landscapes and bases fast enough that it’s better for the team to use Snipers to defend their objectives rather than their architectural skills. Standard CTF ends up being a competition between the Rocketeers and Snipers to see who can handle the ridiculously fast pace better.

The only modes that benefit from this speed are Diamond Mine and Zombie. In Diamond Mine, diamonds have a chance to spawn on the map whenever bricks are broken; Miners cut swaths of destruction to find them, then the teams compete to carry the diamonds to a rotating deposit point. It’s even more manic than CTF, to the point where only Miners and Rocketeers are valid class choices, but the quick matches reduce the frustration to negligible levels. Zombie has one team defending itself against a horde of zombies that grows each time the survivors lose a life. Rocketeers, as per usual in the faster modes, are overpowered, and smart players can kite the zombies infinitely with rocket boosts. Zombies aren’t much slower, and they can dig faster than any class in the game, so getting knocked out early doesn’t ruin the experience. These modes are more enjoyable than the majority of the others, but they’re not balanced enough to provide competitive, serious play, removing their long term value. With the unbalanced classes and manic speed, Ace of Spades leaves its signature element without a leg to stand on.

ace of spades 3Classic CTF, by removing these classes, shines much brighter than anything else in Ace of Spades. Every player has a semi-automatic rifle, a spade, and two grenades. They are only capable of building or removing one block at a time. It’s much slower; rounds can go on for over an hour, allowing for complex base-building and strategic maneuvers. Where other modes suffered from people playing like they were in Call of Duty, the Classic CTF crowd was generally more patient and focused. Maps in Classic CTF lend themselves to the construction of flag ferryways and immense defenses, secret sniper towers and sneaky sabotage. Organized pushes, counter-pushes, flanking, and camping all play their parts in the matches. After playing several rounds of standard CTF, Classic CTF felt like what Ace of Spades was trying to be like all along.

Unfortunately, Classic CTF was close to what Ace of Spades originally was, in its earlier forms. There weren’t classes, maps were larger, and it had support for mods and other player-created content. These alpha builds still exist, are still free, and are still supported by a surprisingly-large community. The best part of Ace of Spades costs a whopping zero dollars, in comparison to the $10 price tag for the addition of a bloated class system that breaks the mechanics and ruins the balance. Classic CTF in Ace of Spades doesn’t even have terribly many maps, and the retail version of this game has limited mod support, with Steam Workshop integration still on the way. It’s not nearly as open as games like Team Fortress 2, while the alpha versions of Ace of Spades have full support for custom servers running custom maps. It’s ridiculous to charge money for a game with less features than its free version.

I can envision a future in which Jagex balances the classes in Ace of Spades, slows the pace of most of the modes, and puts in support for custom servers. Once these get sorted out, Ace of Spades could be a great game. Right now it’s far from that, and everything that there is to like about this game is available for free, through its alpha version or more balanced free-to-play FPSes like Team Fortress 2. Ace of Spades is trying to fill a void that has already been filled, and it’s been filled much better by games that charge much less money. When it comes to this, freedom really is free.

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About Justin Hutchison

Despite being the youngest member of Stereogram’s staff, Jay was still old enough to cut his teeth on the last arcade in town before it closed for good. (Damned go-kart accidents.) Though he’s a bit of a late arrival to the comics scene, he’s spent most of his life steeped in anime and games of all sorts. Outside of his writing, he makes music as Fatal Labyrinth. He is not a fan of Fatal Labyrinth, the video game.