One cannot help but be impressed by the Angry Birds phenomenon. There are few other apps that have been so downloaded to so many mobile devices and other platforms the world over. Quite the achievement for the once relatively unknown Finnish development house Rovio Entertainment, who has developed the initially wacky idea of a war between birds and pigs into an all-conquering, money-raking force of doom. The appeal of the Angry Birds franchise is easy to identify, as it takes no time at all for casual gamers to adapt to the simplest of concepts: knocking structures over by catapulting little cartoon birds at them. It requires one finger and, let’s be fair, a thimbleful of brainpower to play. While the setting in each title might change to space or underwater or the fictitious planet of Tatooine, there is comfort in knowing that the destructible structures and the rotund little piggies that inhabit them, will be pretty much the same. There are few surprises with Angry Birds, and it is exactly this quality that makes the games so accessible.
And here we have the erroneously titled Angry Birds 2, given that it is the twelfth entry in the canon, and that’s not counting spin-offs like Bad Piggies or Stella POP!, just one of many, many games to plagiarise the arcade classic Bust-A-Move, nor does it include the promotional range of animated cartoons, comic books, board games, sweets, clothing and toilet plungers. The addition of the suffix 2 might suggest a level of progression, a resetting of the clock, the promise of new ideas and mechanics. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. The player might at first be wowed by the enhanced graphics, which are vibrant and exaggeratedly cartoonish, or perhaps the ersatz 3D manner in which splintered wood and thwarted hogs fly towards the screen, but it does not take long to realise that this release is yet another pitiful and poorly designed money grab. Like many apps of its kind, Angry Birds 2 claims to be “free”, but it’s the equivalent of being offered a free quarter of lovely, sticky, sweet and chewy midget gems only to be given a bag of the liquorice ones that nobody likes. Or worse still, a sack of Brussels sprouts and fish heads. But hey, it’s free, right? What can be bad about that? It’s not as if you paid for it. What’s the problem, you cheapskate? I bet you’re the kind of person who gets annoyed when you are door-stepped by models in branded Minis giving out gratis bottles of Red Bull, aren’t you? Come on, it’s free! Embrace it. We’re doing you a solid here! If Super Mario was handing out slices of pizza, mushroom of course, would you turn up your nose at that too? Mamma mia! If Channing Tatum was touting himself outside the City Hall, offering snogs for nuppence, would you say no? Come on, it’s free!
Except it’s not free. Not really. From the very first seconds of playing, Rovio make it crystal clear that they want you to invest, and they do this by placing draconian restrictions on the game itself that, if you want to continue playing, make it pretty much impossible to do otherwise. The first kick in the teeth is the fact that Angry Birds 2 allows the player five lives, an idea largely borrowed from Candy Crush AKA The Worst Game Ever Made. If you fail or retry a level, one of your allocated hearts will flutter down the screen and disappear, and a countdown clock will start ticking, informing you of when your ration will be replenished. You can, of course, follow the insane Candy Crush tactic of changing your device’s clock, you can watch a video promoting another app, or you pick up new lives with in-game gems, but these are so frugally given that you are reminded that you can buy more with your own actual money. This “freemium” approach, of course, is nothing new but it is the least hateful element present here. It is farcical that any title would place such restrictions on the player by essentially preventing them from playing as much as they would like but it leads on to a more grievous complaint, and that is how the actual gameplay is impacted by Rovio’s blatantly greedy approach. Each level is split into a further two or more sub-levels, making it more likely that inexperienced players will run out of birds before the end, which in turn leads to a loss of a life, which in turn leads to… well, you get the idea. Further, in many of the levels the structures are different each time you play, almost like the way that the tunnels in Spelunky are randomly generated, which means that it is difficult to develop any kind of strategy and will in effect prevent fans from creating clearance guides on YouTube.
Then there are the constant, constant, constant prompts to connect to Angry Birds 2 via Facebook. You are by turns reminded, nagged, cajoled and threatened to promote the app in return for perks that have no real impact on gameplay. Most sickening is the fact that Rovio are so unabashed about just how much contempt they have for their fans. Failure in Angry Birds 2 leads to a screen of shadowy pigs laughing at you, an appropriate image for this bait and switch approach of diddling the player at every turn. It is indicative of the direction in which mobile gaming could sink if unchecked as several console developers have already fallen foul of forcing in “micro-transactions” to their releases. This is not an argument against capitalism nor is it about limiting the right of games designers to make money, not that it matters as at the time of writing Angry Birds 2 has been downloaded millions of times. Rather, it is an argument against allowing the tail to wag the dog (or the pig) by letting crude economics shape how a game is made and played. Regardless of the moral complications, Angry Birds 2 offers only a shallow, repetitive, depressing experience but its restrictions make it difficult to have even that. Ross Thompson