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’s inside? That’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’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 “spawn anywhere” 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’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’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’re carving your way through the story or skirmishing with fellow skylords, you’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.
And those units are just the tip of the iceberg/volcano. The basic Twilight Edition of BattleForge comes with four faction decks of 16 cards each, plus 3,000 BF points (in-game currency sufficient to purchase 12 eight-card booster packs). Right from the outset you’re in possession of a good mix of the 200 card types, and the potential for crafting interesting and robust battlegroups is huge.
Your first taste of deck fashioning is likely to come in the campaign. On logging in (even solo play requires a net connection) you find yourself in the forge - a hub area in which auctions can be organized, cards traded, and units tested. In front of you is a large map. As missions unlock, they appear on this map. Some will be solo affairs, some will require the combined efforts of two, four, or even 12 players. Comrades are easily found. Just click to establish a game and strangers will come.
The missions themselves have a pleasing whiff of Warcraft III about them, and feel like they’ve been honed over many months for maximum fun. One excursion might involve escorting a treasure blimp through badlands; the next, exterminating Twilight-infected villages or destroying fortified walls blocking the path of a Titan-pursued potentate. Often in the co-op scenarios, different starting positions mean different roles. Red and Green could find themselves rescuing prisoners, while on the other side of the map, Blue and Yellow might be destroying siege artillery or overseeing an arcane ritual.
Invariably you’ll bump into your brothers-in-arms at some point, and embark on BattleForge’s trademark activity: the Rampage of Kill. Storming through unconquered portions of a map in a vast angry conga line is a riot in both senses of the word. I’m grinning just thinking about it. One of the few things that could improve it is integrated voice chat - right now, everyone’s too busy slaying to exchange typed messages.
Sadly, the Warcraft III vibe doesn’t extend to backstory brilliance. The plot cobwebbing all the missions together is poorly relayed, and stale as old buns. There’s a book of lore in the forge that explains what the hell is going on, but, frankly, cutscenes and load-screen briefings should have had this covered. After many days of play all I can tell you about the story is: Twilight = bad, Rogan Kayle = good, and some lady with a name like a venereal disease has lost her mind thanks to a SoulStone (or possibly a SoulTree) and MUST BE STOPPED. And, oh yes, wrath - there’s lots of that about.
Crafting a coherent plot in a game where players can romp to victory with Frankenstein armies is obviously no easy task, but Phenomic should have done better. Right now, fighting your fellow players is nowhere near as appealing as cooperating with them. Whatever the map, I seem to be getting trounced on a horribly regular basis. Losing RTS skirmishes is rarely fun. Losing them inside two minutes because you’ve been rushed by units you simply don’t know how to counter is miserable.
Such defeats bring bitter “They only won because they had the best deck!” feelings. Though there is something called a “tome mode” where each player takes to the field with a deck built from virgin booster packs, there’s no option to play with the vanilla 16-card faction decks, so there is never a truly level playing field. For all its checks and balances, BattleForge would seem to favor the player with the fattest deck.
Not bothered? Only intend to play single-player? Sorry, things aren’t quite that simple. To have any chances of conquering the later campaign challenges (many of which are just harder versions of earlier ones) you’ll need to upgrade your cards. Upgrades - non-tradeable cards dished out as single-player rewards - can only be utilized with the help of multiplayer victory tokens. A lack of success in the arenas means the story’s later stages will be bastard-hard.
But that’s not the most controversial aspect of the design. What’s creating the most furor in forums is the availability of BattleForge points. Many different currencies - gold, honor tokens, battle tokens - slosh about inside the game (most for no apparent reason) but BF points are the only way to buy boosters and cards at auctions. Once you’ve exhausted your initial fund (3,000BF) you must cough up real cash to acquire more. For one dollar you can buy 100BF, so an eight-card booster pack costs around $2.50.
Bargain? I’m genuinely undecided. You could argue that buying a few booster packs a month is no different from paying an MMO subscription. Even if you don’t get cards you need, you can always auction off the cream of your haul. Every pack is guaranteed to include one “rare” card. Perhaps one in 20 will contain a precious “ultra-rare.” That $2.50 is also buying you the nerve-tingly excitement of a treasure-hunt.
The trouble with the MMO argument is that BattleForge, for all its savage splendor and addictiveness, doesn’t provide the player-versus-environment scope and color of a WoW or a Lord of the Rings Online. There isn’t that comforting sense of progress, either. You can spend 30 minutes on a mission, get defeated, and emerge with absolutely nothing.
The game’s best defense against accusations of commercial cynicism is something I hinted at earlier: extra cards are by no means essential. The initial batch will take you far, as long as you upgrade them (meaning plenty of multiplayer play). Rares and ultra-rares will turn heads on the battlefield, but they aren’t silver bullets. A skillful pauper with a modest card selection will still be able to vanquish a talentless spendthrift with a monstrous stack.
As long as you approach BattleForge knowing that it will take all your money and leave you sleeping under cardboard in an underpass given half a chance, it’s hard to envisage disappointment with its deck-building and co-op carnage.
PC Gamer scores games on a percentage scale, which is rounded to the closest whole number to determine the GamesRadar score.
PCG Final Verdict: 81% (excellent)
Mar 20, 2009