Last summer I sold a load of old Topps cards on eBay. What was striking was (a) the prices people were willing to pay for cards of shaggy-haired Belgian soccer players, and (b) how many decade-old unopened packets are up for sale. How could anyone resist tearing them open to see what%26rsquo;s inside? That%26rsquo;s the whole joy of it!
EA Phenomic, the German team behind this genre-blurring online RTS, understands this. Their whole business model is based on the assumption that folk love tearing open foil envelopes full of Mysterious Cardy Goodness. To create BattleForge, they%26rsquo;ve plucked the heart from Magic: The Gathering, stitched it into the muscular torso of Warcraft III, then attached the limbs and head of World of Warcraft. The resulting Fun Golem is both a deeply seductive and a faintly disturbing creature.
At the sulfurous core of the game is a fast, charismatic fantasy RTS brimming with great units and spectacular violence. The tempo is kept high by two things: the omission of traditional base-building, and a %26ldquo;spawn anywhere%26rdquo; unit-summoning dynamic. Though you need to capture and tap scattered power sources to fund army construction, troops themselves can materialize anywhere on a map as long as a living friendly unit is nearby.
It sounds like a recipe for total chaos: How can I plan or protect my base if entire armies are materializing out of thin air every few minutes? Oh wait - I don%26rsquo;t have a base. And, in addition to the power cost, there are cool-down periods and monument requirements. Battle-turning goliaths like the Colossus and the Dreadnought are out of reach until you%26rsquo;ve built four monuments (the pre-located sites for which are usually close to power sources) and dedicated them to the appropriate faction.
Now we arrive at the really ingenious part: All units and spells belong to one of four factions and are represented by virtual cards. Before a match begins, rather than choosing a side or having one thrust upon you, you build a deck of up to 20 cards. The more cards you own, the more deck combinations and tactics are possible.
Brilliantly, DIY army-smithing applies to both single-player and multiplayer. Whether you%26rsquo;re carving your way through the story or skirmishing with fellow skylords, you%26rsquo;ll be doing it with a force you fashioned. At the moment my current deck of choice - Slush II - is a mix of Frost and Fire. Early on in a fight, Master Archers and Thugs (orcs in football gear) wreak the majority of my havoc. Mid-game, I call upon Spitfires (magma-spewing sky galleons) and Tremors (stompy stonemen with mallet fists). In the final stages - assuming all is going to plan - Boom Brothers (goblin-crewed howitzers mounted on ogres) and Emberstrikes (fire-lancing geomorphs) shoulder most of the slaughter.