Angry Birds Go attempts to extend the Angry Birds universe beyond the series’ catapult-launching roots. From a big picture perspective, it’s the first step towards the Angry Birds feature film set for release in the summer of 2016, and an important one at that. Historically, the kart racer really is the ultimate test for cute videogame mascots. Ever since the unbelievable success of the original Super Mario Kart, a commercially successful kart racer has been the envy of a multitude of different game companies. Perhaps it’s no big surprise that not one kart racer from Crash Team Racing to the Japan-only Sonic Drift was successful—none outside of the Mario Kart series itself.
After five minutes of Angry Birds Go, there’s hope that Rovio has actually pulled it off. Not only does it look and control fantastic, it’s also distinct from other racers to make it feel like a uniquely Angry Birds experience. The downhill races are short, judged in the traditional three-star fashion, and feature classic Angry Birds characters whose special abilities have been translated to the kart racing genre with a lot of finesse.
In fact, everything in Angry Birds Go feels very in-character—each race even starts out with a pull-back catapult forward. The game also smartly makes accelerating forward automatic, leaving the player to only have to worry about turning and timing. Unfortunately, it turns out that a mobile game that relies heavily on in-app purchases isn’t really the best context for a kart racer like this because that’s where the game’s common sense and general cleverness ends.
Each track in Angry Birds Go must be played a number of times in one of five kinds of events: Race, Versus, Champion Chase, Fruit Splat and Time Boom. Each event is fairly entertaining in its own right, but after playing the first track five times, you’ll really crave to get a new track. Each time you beat the boss of each track (you have to beat them three times, mind you), you’ll unlock the racer and get to begin using their special power in races. But just when you begin to unlock more racers and tracks, you’ll run into a really harsh paywall that won’t let you proceed any further without opening up your wallet.
The result is one of the worst examples of abusive in-app purchases in mobile games this year. The purchases are not tied to any particular game mechanic—they’re nothing more than a time limit given to each racer you can play as. It turns what could have been a more strategic take on kart racing, where you have to choose the right racer for the right event type, into nothing more than a big letdown. When you throw in the fact that tracks are very limited and not so varied, you realize that there is a lot less here than meets the eye—the paywall just slows you down from cruising through the content too quickly.
For a kart racer for mobile that gets so many things right, it’s really frustrating that Rovio chose to go down the route they did with in-app purchases (especially considering that Rovio has been happy to sell their past games at $0.99 and offer free downloadable content). But the general lack of ethics in Angry Birds Go shouldn’t be surprising—it’s a testament to the current state of games in the App Store today and what bottom-line oriented developers need to do to compete. Either way, until Rovio tweaks their in-app purchase formula and gives players some more content, Angry Birds Go is more Chocobo Racing than it is Super Mario Kart.
Luke Larsen is the tech editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @lalarsen11.