Microsoft Studios’ Beards & Beaks marked a number of firsts for the Windows Phone 7 gaming platform. In innovative action/strategy title, Beards & Beaks was the first videogame on the handheld format to offer downloadable content (DLC), both free and paid for, as well as introducing a monetisation mechanic for special abilities that echoed many social network based productions. While Beards & Beaks was heralded as the brave new future for Windows Phone 7 titles by some, other immediately chastised the project for seemingly hiding much of its cost behind the initial payment required to play the videogame.
The truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere between the two camps. It’s possible to complete Beards & Beaks in its standard form without investing any additional finance beyond that reasonably wallet-friendly initial purchase. However, in order to experience the videogame in its fullest there are three DLC packs which expand the level selection considerably, two of which require additional payment. In reality, only the biggest fans of Beards & Beaks need even consider these DLC packs, but the doesn’t stop some gamers taking a hard line with a product that to the casual observer appears to deliver only two third of it’s content for the standard price.
A different kettle of fish however, is the Mushroom mechanic. Beards & Beaks is a real-time action/strategy videogame in which players must command small groups of gnomes to attack enemy birds. The level range in their challenge, from simple base destruction to escaping with target objects, and more besides, and both the gnomes and birds have several classes available each with different abilities. The player has to judge which gnomes to enter into combat at which point, and then command them simply by flicking them across the screen in the direction they should be travelling. It’s much more intuitive than it may sound, and the artificial intelligence (AI) is smart enough to recognise what the player is hoping to achieve by sending a strong unit head-on into enemy forces, or a ranged unit towards a vantage point. It’s brightly coloured visuals hide a level of strategy that is never overwhelming, but can certainly provide a challenge to even the most experience strategy gamer.
A useful asset available to the player is a selection of special moves, known as Mushroom Powers, which range from a heavily damaging meteor impact to a super jump ability that allows gnomes to scale the enter map in one quick leap. These abilities are limited by way of a mushroom meter, which slowly recharges over time. However, should a player wish to use these powers when the meter is rundown, they can simply purchase additional mushrooms to recharge instantly by using real world currency (though only after exchanging it for Microsoft Points). Just as is the case with many videogames available on social networks and the Windows Phone 7’s own Bug Village, gamers who don’t wish to wait for the automatic recharge can override the delay simply by paying their way through. Whether it’s cheating the videogame, or the developers/publishers cheating the player, depends greatly on your perspective of the industry. As far as Electronic Theatre is concerned it does feel like a cheap way to monetise a videogame that doesn’t really need it, but in other titles the system could be put to good use.
The visual quality of Beards & Beaks is reasonably charming, brightly coloured and twee as you might expect. The cartoon design is offered little in the way of story, surprising perhaps but not at detriment to the videogame; this is a simply pick-up-and-play experience, and such padding would perhaps only increase the barrier between player and the opportunity for a few moments of snatched gameplay.
As an action/strategy title, Beards & Beaks is hardly revolutionary. It has a few interesting ideas and is a welcoming design, but it’s not about to raise the bar for what is expected of the genre on mobile platforms. However, in terms of delivery Beards & Beaks is clearing a test bed for the potential of many services and options available via the Xbox LIVE platform, and for that it’s certainly a title that the core audience will remember. Beards & Beaks is an interesting, enjoyable videogame, but as one that is more notable for being a service experiment than its gameplay, it’s hardly an essential purchase.