Back at the beginning of 2007, David Scott made history by taking a handful of Warcraft III custom maps, and adapting their gameplay into Flash. The result was Flash Element TD, and along with Paul Preece's Desktop Tower Defense, it pretty much altered the course of free online strategy games. Fast forward nearly two years, and Scott and Preece are once again tapping into the rich vein of Warcraft III maps for inspiration. Specifically, Minions is a Flash version of the ridiculously popular Defense of the Ancients mod, but instead of medieval fantasy warriors, you control little tank-bots with powerful weaponry and big muppet-like googly eyes.
Minions is a strictly multi-player team-based real-time strategy game. You control a single member of a squadron of robots, your mission to destroy a gun turret at the heart of the opposing team's base. Control your 'bot by clicking on a patch of ground you'd like to travel toward, or on an enemy you'd like to engage. You accumulate experience as the match wears on. Each time you gain a level, you can upgrade one of three special abilities, which can be activated by clicking on them, or with hotkeys , , and .
Emphasis is on teamwork — at the beginning of a match, you choose your robot's class from a list of eight charming weaponeers, each with its own advantages and weaknesses. Few of these can sustain a battle on their own. A strong team requires a smart mix of character classes, although for your first few games, it might be hard to understand how you fit into a winning strategy.
For instance, the dual-cannon wielding Basher can quickly dish out frightening amounts of damage, but has no defensive abilities whatsoever. If you have a Doc on your team, however, he can heal you while you pummel, multiplying your effectiveness. Alternatively, you could team up with a Stinger, who can stun your enemies long enough for you to unleash capital levels of fury upon them. Meanwhile, the Stinger and the Doc need heavy-hitters like the Basher, since they are unlikely to win many firefights on their own.
Analysis: So will Minions follow in Flash Element TD's footsteps, spawning dozens upon dozens of imitators? I doubt it somehow, because for one, Minions is only available to play at the Casual Collective (the dedicated but relatively obscure home of Buggle Stars and Flash Element TD 2), and for two, it feels a little clunky. Some of the robots are speedier than others, but all of them take their sweet time while rotating. It's too easy for your squat cube of a battle-bot to get hung up on a team-mate who ventured a pixel too close, and then you have to wait while both robots slowly turn and disengage.
My other complaints concern the inherent problems that come with anonymous multi-player gaming: quitters, griefers, rudeness, incompetence, and lack of compassion for my own incompetence. The worst of these is the quitters: the balance of power goes way out of whack with one team a minion down. It would be nice if the game could take over the abandoned chassis and have it fight in some rudimentary way.
Regardless, I found myself sucked into game after game, because despite the creeping play speed, Minions works extremely well as a strategy game. You won't be dazzling anyone with your tricky tactical maneuvers, but all of your choices have a profound long-term effect on the battle. It's exhilarating to coordinate an attack on an enemy turret with your team-mates, everyone pitching in with the correct abilities at the perfect time. A typical game of Minions is a slow motion avalanche of heroic moments and gut-wrenching errors. Even when one side seems to have crushing inevitability in its favor, it's often possible to pull the match out with a last-minute raid.
A brief note on the pricing. You don't have to register to play Minions, but by paying the Casual Collective a monthly fee, you gain access to a couple of extra character classes and the ability to host games with improved connection speed. In my experience, the game runs reasonably well at either connection speed. And those two bonus characters are the hardest to play of the bunch, so you'll likely be a Minions expert before you need to consider paying for them. On the other hand, Scott and Preece are trying to support themselves with this site, and the longer they continue to receive donations, the more cool games they'll be able to churn out before they finally have to get real jobs. I figure that's worth a couple of bucks.