Angry Birds Stella Review: Flying High

As pretty much everyone who owns a smartphone knows, Angry Birds is one of the biggest successes in the mobile gaming industry. Rovio's simple game, first released in 2009, made a lasting impression on the market and has since evolved into a huge franchise, with toys, books, multiple spin-off games, a cartoon and even a kart-racing game. However, sales of Angry Birds have dwindled in the last year.

When Angry Birds Stella was announced at Comic-Con 2013, it was seen as rather peculiar. The Angry Birds series seems to be gender-neutral, yet Stella appeared to be a feminine version of the game, perhaps a girly knock-off to make money. I tested Angry Birds Stella on an iPad to see how it holds up as a "freemium" game.

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Plot: An underdeveloped egg

The plot is simple. Stella, the pink female bird from the original game, visits Golden Island with her friends Poppy, Willow, Dahlia and Luca. They plan to explore the island using a map Stella has found. However, Gale, the "bad princess" and an old avian friend of Stella, is up to no good. Gale's piggy minions steal Stella's map, so Stella and her pals must chase Gale across the island, get back the map and stop Gale's evil schemes.

It all sounds pretty similar to most Angry Birds games, in which our heroes chase a villain to get something back. Outgoing Rovio CEO Mikael Hed said in a February press release that Stella separates itself from earlier games by "breaking the mold … introducing strong, passionate characters who really stand for something, while adding plenty of action and reality into the mix."

Rovio gave each bird in Angry Birds Stella a set of hobbies and interests. For example, Poppy is a prankster, Willow is an artist and Dahlia is a science geek. Sadly, this attempt at character definition falls flat. The main birds have more personality than the generic red bird of the original game, but that character definition adds nothing to the plot, pacing or player experience. The fact that Dahlia is a science geek is inconsequential to her powers or how they affect the game's simplistic narrative.

Gameplay: Free falling

Angry Birds Stella uses the same mechanics as most Angry Birds games; you load a bird into a slingshot and fling it into a structure full of pigs. After seven-plus renditions of Angry Birds, you'd think Rovio would have run out of ways to change it up.

Surprisingly, Stella breathes some fresh air into the mechanics. All of the birds' powers use a new aiming mechanism to add a strategic element to gameplay. For example, Stella's special power is the ability to bounce from structure to structure.

In earlier versions of Angry Birds, players relied on a randomized mechanic in which a split-second tap was the only control to determine where a bird went. Angry Birds Stella gives you a few extra seconds to aim a bird for a perfect shot. The ability to think through gameplay really improved the experience for me as a whole.

Stella uses the same 3-star rating system as past Angry Birds games, and players are encouraged to get 3 stars before progressing further. However, Stella doesn't use stars to limit the number of levels. Instead, players start with only one or two birds per level and need stars to get additional birds.

On level 12, players need to have 18 stars to get the first extra bird, and 12 to get the second. Otherwise, they can buy additional birds with in-game gold or with Telepods, the interactive-toy versions of Angry Birds characters.

This limit didn't affect my enjoyment early on, but as I got further into Angry Birds Stella, I noticed that the difference between the number of stars needed and the number of stars earned had narrowed. It's likely that the two will cross at some point and that I will eventually have to pay for birds.

That's where gold, the in-game currency, comes in. Gold is earned by gaining stars and beating level sections, and can also be purchased in-app. In certain levels, gold helped me save birds and focus on practice. Gold can be used to buy additional birds, buy powerups or skip level barriers. The use of gold isn't overwhelming, and I earned more gold than I needed just by playing the game.

The only distracting element of Angry Birds Stella is the prevalence of ads. Every four or five levels, players have to look at another in-game ad. Ads can also be voluntarily viewed to finish charging a hammer power-up or to earn gold.

The ads weren't as overwhelming as in some free-to-play games, but they pulled me out of the experience and weakened the game as whole. I would have happily paid a dollar more to get rid of all the ads.

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Visuals: Egg-cellent upgrade

It's clear from the first few levels of Angry Birds Stella that Rovio is moving away from the simplistic design of the original title and toward a more imaginative and emotive setting. Most characters resembled their designs from the Angry Birds Toons TV show.

The pigs were emotive and annoying, the birds cute and reactionary and the game didn't rely on "poof and die" to get rid of the flying projectiles. This felt especially animated when compared with the limited animation in the most recent Angry Birds game, Angry Birds Star Wars II.

While Angry Birds Star Wars emphasized action and destruction, Angry Birds Stella emphasizes imagination and exploration. Each set is designed to reflect its unique environment. For example, in the levels that introduce us to Dahlia, we see a science-focused set, where flasks and books surround the evil piggies.

Players can also customize their bird's costumes by earning stars, or by using Telepods to unlock the skins. While these options don't change the gameplay, they certainly add a more feminine element to the game, in which players can skin their birds with their favorite costumes.

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Telepods: Plastic-to-pixels

Angry Birds Star Wars II introduced Telepods, small Angry Birds figurines with QR codes printed on their bottom that customers can buy. If players use their mobile devices' cameras to scan the QR codes, they get free birds to play with in-game.

Do you need a Stella, but have only a Poppy? Just scan the corresponding figure with the iPad/iPhone camera — and voila! — you have a new bird with a new skin. Telepod scans also gave the piggies new skins that varied from beachwear to sunglasses.

The Telepod figurines are easy to use. Each playset comes with a special base that magnifies the QR code so a camera can read it. The playsets also provided plenty of accessories so girls can have fun and get creative with their birds.

My only complaint is how small the Telepods are. Most of them seem easy to lose — and easy to break. It's hard to imagine how these things would hold up after 3 to 6 months of constant use.

Bottom line: More fun than a house of pigs

In the end, the newest rendition of Angry Birds is an enjoyable experience. While the game suffers from a lackluster story and repetitive ads, the visuals and innovative controls create a slightly improved experience that fans of Angry Birds will appreciate. If you're looking for a free game with which to spend time on your tablet or phone, Angry Birds Stella is worth the download.

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