BattleForge Preview

I’ll see your full house and raze it.

Card-based games and real-time strategy games are both, in their own ways, impressively head-down, nerdy endeavors. They demand determination, strategic instincts, a fair chunk of learning-curve time… and possibly, the loss of a potential girlfriend or two. Fuse the two game types into a single activity and, well, you’re pretty much guaranteeing yourself a Four-Story Atomic Wedgie.

[image1]Enter Phenomic’s BattleForge, which I got some gauntlets-on time with last week at EA’s Redwood Shores offices. Monster Manual-worthy, sword-and-sorcery bestiary? Check. Frantic RTS creature-rushing swarms? Check. Geek-tastic, element-based, custom card-deck building? Check. Come March 24th, your friends at Electronic Arts want to by-Tolkien see those elastic waistbands over some heads, forsooth.

Simply put, BattleForge is a real-time high-fantasy strategy game in a dynamic online environment and heavily focused on crucial card-based elements. During the hands-on session, we got a chance to experience multi-player battles—as well as the thorough, single-player interactive tutorial, which guides first-timers through the basics of being a godlike Skylord, capable of calling beasts, men, and magic into existence on the battlefield.

(Inexplicably, our four-hour gameplay session began with everyone immediately thrown willy-nilly into various hectic four-player, two-team skirmishes. Only after that were we finally turned loose on the helpful tutorial that might otherwise have illustrated to all in attendance what we were supposed to have been DOING in those earlier battles… but verily, I digress…)

In numerous RTS games dating back to the dawn of the genre, you’re often tasked with accumulating resources of some description and then working your way, at a more-or-less gaugeable speed, up a more-or-less clearly defined tech tree (e.g., pikemen and scout jeeps at the bottom, nuclear bombers and capital starships at the top.). While the classic tech-tree is a tried-and-true approach, it has at least one intrinsic drawback; namely, that a halfway-alert enemy usually has a decent mental picture of what, at any given moment, you’re capable of producing and laying on him, or—and this is the killer—what you’re not currently capable of producing. To put it another way: The only thing better than suddenly hitting your foe with some really hellish weapon or creature… is suddenly hitting him with some really hellish weapon or creature he’s not counting on meeting or prepared to deal with.

[image2]So rather than a rigid, completely-predictable tech-tree, BattleForge lets would-be Skylords forearm themselves with customized virtual decks of collectible cards—from which they can select, prior to battle, a veritable full-house poker hand of creatures, soldiers, and spells. These various cards—elementally themed to the Powers of Frost (defense), Fire (aggression), Nature (control), and Shadow (risk)—are presented as icons along the bottom of the screen, and are the means by which players bring new units or special attacks into the battle.

Click on the card/icon for the Northguards, for example, and then click the desired spot on the battlefield map, and zing!, a fresh melee squad of the heavily-armored, hammer-wielding troops will appear, ready for combat. Ditto for cards that aren’t actually ‘units’ but rather magical attacks, such as the Fire-themed ‘Eruption’ spell, which calls down (or rather ‘up’, I suppose, based on its name) a wide-radius blast attack, dealing 70 damage to any enemies who haven’t reached minimum safe distance. (It’s nifty, too, that said huge resulting blast doesn’t deal friendly-fire spillover damage to any units of yours, which may still be hanging about and hacking their way through ground zero).

Normally, new full-strength units are summoned to the battlefield in the vicinity of captured structures that generate your all-important magical energy; so there is a certain territory-acquisition element that must be contended with, to effectively move your assault forces across the map (although happily, there is at least one type of unit, called the Enforcer, in whose proximity new units can be deployed even in far-flung sectors). Magical attacks, such as Inferno meteor strikes or the aforementioned Eruption, can be conjured anywhere on the battlefield, so long as you’ve got at least one live unit near the enemy/structure/stretch of land you want nuked.

Terrain features such as natural barricades, bottlenecks, and destructible fortifications—complete with operating, toggle-able gates—can be exploited by units such as archers or fireball-breathing dragons that work as a sort of long-range artillery.

[image3]I ran into some interesting tactical challenges where the interplay of terrain features and effective unit ranges reared its scrappy head. In one instance, I had to swarm into a natural cul-de-sac to take down a major, multi-story creature. I had my melee guys biting the ankles as best they could, and my fire-breathers hanging back and lobbing fireballs like so many yarked-up, joint stand-off weapons, but said multi-story baddie was being continually, magically healed by an almost-as-large-and-twice-as-irritating mega shaman type… who was up on a separate ridge, inaccessible by the main strike force.

My poor bow-slingers on the Eastern front, with no ‘tanks’ or front-line uber-beasts to protect them, were getting pretty well-mowed down. (This was a pre-arranged demo, after all; I hadn’t been able to hand-pick my deck for this particular engagement, had I? Yeah, that’s why I was getting my ass kicked so badly! That’s the ticket!). I sure could have used one of those castle-wall-style fortifications right about then, for my archers to strike from.

Of course, it would be a poignant geek-trocity if such a game didn’t work the hallowed card-collecting angle, wouldn’t it? You bet your bean-bag-denting ass it would. Accordingly, BattleForge will offer a 200-card starter pack with the main game and promises constant updates thereafter. Naturally, players will be able to trade with one another, and there’s a sanctioned auction area where Skylords on the cheap can hock their duplicate cards and/or purchase booster packs (all with the implied hope of stumbling upon one of those Holy Grail ‘rare’ cards).

With solo and co-op missons, PvP duels (ranked and unranked), guilds, chat rooms, and in-game mail, plus a player marketplace for all your direct-trade needs, BattleForge aims to take an MMO community-style Swiss Army Knife to card-game and RTS sensibilities… and take nerd-dom to new heights along for the dragon-ride. EA hasn’t actually announced any kind of ‘Collector’s Edition’ that includes an anti-carpal wrist brace and a year’s supply of Doritos… but man, they freakin’ should.