Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it’s difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we’ll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it’s really worth your time (and money).

Cats are often cuddly and adorable, but C.A.T.S.—that is, Crash Arena Test Stars—is destructive and intense. And yet it still stars cute, cartoonish felines.

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Each ride has its own unique shape and combination of components. Good luck out there.

C.A.T.S. is the latest original game from ZeptoLab, makers of the no-doubt mobile classic Cut the Rope and its myriad sequels, and it takes things in a much different direction. Rather than solve increasingly complex physics puzzles here, you’ll wage battle in your weaponized car, sending it out against a rival ride to see which will be first to bash the other to bits. There’s a creative edge to designing your ideal war machine, not to mention the hook of trying to obtain new and better parts, but does this vehicular brawler hold up past the first few rounds?

The pitch

What is perhaps most surprising about C.A.T.S.: Crash Arena Test Stars is that you don’t actually control your vehicle: you can’t move it from left to right, activate your weapons, or evade incoming attacks. No, the entertainment and interactivity come entirely from the garage, where you’ll pick one of a handful of different body shapes, outfit it with wheels, firearms, swords, chainsaws, bombs, boosters, and other goodies (stickers!), and then let it rip.

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You lose, fuzzball. Try again.

Each head-to-head battle only lasts for five to 10 seconds, as your feline-commanded cruiser rips the other to shreds, and vice versa, and the showdown ends with an explosive ejection and a waved white flag. And then you do it again and again and again. 

While the lack of hands-on combat might seem disappointing, the tinkering really does have a rewarding element to it. You’ll unlock stronger items and weapons over time and can use power-ups to enhance the ones you have, and the various body shapes and weapon slots mean that each configuration has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. And truly, it doesn’t seem like there is any one foolproof design to obtain: any battle car can be defeated by some other one.

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Getting crushed? Try tinkering in the garage.

C.A.T.S.’ main attraction is a Championship mode, in which you’ll battle for leaderboard placement in a daily tournament against a random selection of other players. Do well enough in a series of matches and you’ll rank up, which unearths more powerful weapons and items to seek and equip. Otherwise, you can jump into a quick fight and earn unlockable boxes filled with precious goodies.

The catch

Despite the lack of live, competitive online play, C.A.T.S. instills a need to be the best: it’s demoralizing to have your prized, rocket-blasting, laser-blasting cruiser be suddenly smacked around after you rank up to a more advanced league. And when that happens… well, then you start thinking about how you might get better quickly.



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