I wanted to find a game that had action, fast-paced combat, and jetpacks but still touched on all the things that make for a good family game. I stumbled on Project Exonaut, made by Cartoon Network, and decided to check it out. It's a browser-based, free-to-play game that pits you against other players in a futuristic setting. It's not quite an MMO and would probably fall under our Not So Massively heading, but I decided to try it out. Read on for a look at the game and my first impressions!
Setting up (the "Mom, I want to play now!" factor)
Getting into the game is fairly quick and easy. In fact, you can jump right in as a guest and not even worry about registering. The downside to that, though, is that your progress, coin, and achievements will not be saved. If you do register, it's quick and easy, involving just an email address, password choice, and confirmation of age. And while it's a browser-based game, you have the option of playing in the browser or in full screen.
Once you're set up, there's a tutorial that gives a little background and shows you the controls. Movement and combat are done using keyboard and mouse, and the game seems to find a good middle ground between "challenging" and "frustratingly difficult." Movement is engaged via WASD; flying requires the right mouse button. Certain combinations of the two will also allow you to roll, duck, and do a speed boost. You shoot with the left mouse button, and the space bar lets you fire grenades. It took me a little time to get used to things, and even when I did, I could see a difference between skilled players and lesser skilled players (like me!). There are several different maps, and I had my hands full trying to not only fire at other players but also navigate the tunnels and obstacles of the map.
When you first begin, you are asked to choose which side you want to fight for. There's the Atlas Brigade, focused on strength and power, and the Banzai Squadron, focused on speed an agility. You then choose your power suit, and you have three to choose from initially. Later on, as you level up, you can unlock special suits that are based on the various Cartoon Network characters, like Gumball, Dexter, and the Power Puff Girls. Your choice determines what qualities you want to emphasize, like speed or toughness. One you decide your suit, you're off to your first battle.
There are individual battles and team battles, which take place on one of several different maps. You have four weapons to choose from, but there are also temporary weapons with special powers that you can grab out on the field. In addition, you can gather boosts that can give you or even your team special temporary buffs. Matches are over when either the hack limit or time limit is reached, and your progress is tracked on the main site. Whether you win or lose, you still get experience to level up and credits that can be used to purchase better suits. In addition, there are lots of missions, which are basically achievement-type tasks, like winning a certain number of battles or hacking a certain number of players. As you complete these, you earn bonus credits and experience.
Project Exonaut is a shooter game, but that's mitigated by the fact that there's no blood and the avatars are all decked out in robotic suits. When a player's suit takes too much damage from enemy fire, you are temporarily out of the game, called a hack. It's only a few seconds, though, and then you're right back in the middle of the action.
As for chat, there really isn't any chat channel that I could see, but then again, when you're in a battle, there's little time to talk. Names are selected via a drop down list of choices, so there's little opportunity for inappropriate character names.
The Nemo factor
For me, family-friendly games tend to fall into one of two camps. There are games that you play with your kids, but you're doing it for them, and you're not getting much challenge out of the experience. And then there are games that are like the Pixar films -- they're aimed at kids, but you can walk away feeling that you've been entertained. Project Exonaut is in the latter category because it's a game that challenges both younger players and adults. I lost quite a few matches, and while I hate to admit it, I know that my opponents were probably a lot younger than I am.
It's all free
The nice thing about Project Exonaut is that everything is free. There's no monthly subscription and no cash shop. Suits are purchased only with the in-game credits that you earn from playing. And the suits themselves are nicely spaced out -- some are level locked and can't be purchased until you reach a certain level, but I was able to get enough credits to purchase my three basic suits after only a handful of matches, and it was pretty easy to get to level 10 and unlock my first "custom" suit.
Overall, Project Exonaut seems all about instant fun. You get into the action almost immediately, and even if you only have a few minutes, you can still squeeze in some fun combat and challenging battles. It can be a humbling experience to be hacked by a pink Power Puff Girl, but then again, it's oddly satisfying to get some revenge on Gumball. If you are looking for a family-friendly shooter game or you have kids who are fans of Cartoon Network, Project Exonaut is worth a look.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.