BattleForge - hands-on

BattleForge is a game made up of multiplayer online, real time strategy, and collectible card game genres that aims to change the way we think about all three. At first glance, the third person omniscient view and crisp 3D sprites look just like any other RTS on the market. And even when the card deck is introduced in a tray on the right side of the screen, it might still seem like just a bunch of clicking and waiting and clicking and waiting. But after five minutes at a keyboard, clicking and waiting and clicking and waiting, BattleForge felt like no other game we’ve ever played - online, RTS or otherwise.

Above: Those big dudes are Juggernauts

The first thing we noticed right away was how fast everything moves. There was no building phase, no need to inch towards enemies and fling down spawn towers - everything we could ever need to launch a full assault was right in our card deck, from tank-like monsters to ranged healers. To deploy any unit, all we needed to do was left click once on the card (checking first to see if we had enough orbs of the right color to power it) and then left click on the field anywhere near any of our units or generators. The ability to throw down reinforcements on the frontline immediately changed the dynamic of the RTS element, streamlining an otherwise grueling exercise in juggling.

The combat system is carefully balanced on four classes - Fire, Frost, Nature and Shadow (color coded as red, blue, green and purple). Each card is aligned with one of the classes, determining the kinds of attacks and spells you can use, and is powered by orbs of the same color. We thought we’d be badass and have all four colors in our starting deck of 20 cards, but demo guy talked us out of it. Turns out, it’s a bit of a stretch to maintain even two types of color: we blew all our red orbs throwing down melee guys to take over a control point and then were forced to choose which color of orb we wanted for a prize. We ended up choosing red to replace what we spent and made a point of being more careful about whoring a particular color.

Splitting the deck among the classes is where the multiplayer comes in. Our hands-on did not include the chance to co-op with another player, but we did get to see the system in action during a live demo. One guy had all red and blue in his party while the other focused on purple and green. The red-blue player specialized in up-close melee combat with some support healing, while the purple-green guy seemed more geared for ranged combat and massive healing. Together, the two forces moved across a map, setting up ambush points and outflanking enemies as they worked together to reach the boss at the heart of the map.

Once the boss went down, it turned into a card the players could then claim as a prize, and here we started to see the collector’s appeal. Defeated foes become cards for your deck and we’re told cards can also be offered as prizes for team battles. And Phenomic also announced plans to release new cards every four to six months or so, giving the collectors something to obsess over, while keeping things balanced for the RTS and online multiplayer fans.

Above: Particle effects for the win

Take a deep breath, because what we say next might upset you: According to Phenomic, the future of online gaming is micro transactions. “That’s how they do it in Asia,” the demo guy shrugs. “Nothing to get upset about.” And regardless of how we feel about economics, Asia, or marketing strategies - we did see the guy’s point about BattleForge being perfectly suited to the micro transaction model. No subscriptions and none of this expansion pack crap; just things in addition to the full game that you can choose to shell out for if you’ve got the dough. Or not, perhaps; BattleForge is still a ways away (2008 for sure, the developer tells us), so changes to the money making side are still applicable. But we’re pretty sure you can count on a system where gamers only get the good stuff by a) sacrificing their social life for it or b) paying for it.

Our hands-on with BattleForge ended when we blitzed a walled fortress with several comet attacks and spawned three juggernauts to take out the hordes of big ugly blue guys on the other side of the wall - the resulting maelstrom of particle effects, while gorgeous, froze the game and ultimately ended our experience. But while it lasted, it was sweet and we are definitely looking forward to getting our hands on this game before the year is out. Eyes peeled for a demo sometime late this summer (maybe). You can check out the screensherein the meantime.

May 13, 2008