Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: EA Phenomic
Release Date: Q1 2009
Collectible card games have been a huge seller, ever since Magic: The Gathering hit the scene in the early '90s. Though there have been a few attempts to bring CCGs into the digital realm, none have really succeeded. Sony's Eye of Judgment for the PlayStation 3 was a solid attempt, but rampant card counterfeiting has been a thorn in the game's side since it was released. With Battleforge, EA and Phenomic are taking a different approach by merging elements of CCGs with a traditional RTS framework. We managed to get hands-on with an early version, and the result is very promising.
The first thing to know about Battleforge is that all of the cards are digital. There are no physical cards. Everything is stored on the server (yes, you'll need an Internet connection to play), so counterfeiting is a non-issue. Players who purchase the game will get a starter pack, which includes enough cards to form a full deck. The starter pack is comprehensive enough to beat the single-player game, but those playing in multiplayer will want to start stocking up on booster packs.
Booster packs consist of eight cards, with at least one rare card. Cards are split into four deck types (Fire, Frost, Nature and Shadow) as well as four rarities (common, uncommon, rare and ultra rare). Players can have an unlimited number of cards in their account, but a game deck is limited to 20 cards at a time. Much like traditional CCGs, the more powerful cards require more energy to cast so they take longer to put into play. Striking a balance with your chosen deck is key to winning.
Once you have a deck built, it's time to put it into play, and that's where the RTS elements come in. Each of the 40 maps included in the game are fairly traditional RTS designs; however, resource gathering is at a minimum (you simply capture power plants), and building is instant. If you have enough power in reserve, all you have to do is play a card, and the creature is instantly created on the map. Once your cards have been played, you order your troops around via a standard point-and-click interface.
The cards can be used at any time, but there is a range limit, which means they can only be used to summon new troops near an existing army. You can't toss out a few powerful cards behind enemy lines and then take a nap while they wreak havoc. Strategy and tactics are still an important part of the game.
Defensive cards can be an important part of your deck, with tower cards serving as stationary defense posts. These are a vital means of protecting your power plants, but again, balance is vital. If you stack your deck with too many defense cards, you won't have room for a strong offensive army.
In order to keep things fresh, the developers plan to support a player-driven economy. Because the cards are virtual, there will be an in-game auction house (similar to the auction house in World of Warcraft) where players can trade cards. Buying and selling will be limited to in-game money, however, so don't go planning on financing college with this one.
Current plans call for successive card releases, with new editions getting introduced as old editions are retired. There will always be two editions currently sold, so the first edition cards won't be retired until the third edition is released. When an edition is retired, all existing cards will remain valid for play; you just won't be able to buy any more booster packs of that edition. This is a guaranteed method of ensuring rarity, as powerful cards from the early editions will always be in demand.
In addition to selling the booster packs, the Battleforge team plans on releasing free map updates on a regular (hopefully monthly) basis. These map updates will be available to all players, even those who never purchased a single booster pack.
As you might expect, multiplayer is where Battleforge has its focus, and EA has announced support for up to 12-player matches. Getting that many players into combat promises to offer either epic battles or a massive cluster of chaos. While smaller matches will no doubt play well, we are a bit worried when it comes to dealing with 12 players and the inevitable Internet lag monster, especially if a tournament game is involved.
While nothing in Battleforge is new, the way in which all of the ingredients have been mixed together is something we really haven't seen before. After spending some time with a single-player mission, it's easy to get excited about the potential — what's here could be loads of fun. The trick is going to be in the execution. Assuming the developers can keep lag at bay and build a thriving community around an active auction house, Battleforge will be a runaway success. We'll have an update as soon as EA starts the open beta.
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