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Platform(s): PC
Genre: Online Multiplayer
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Phenomic


PC Review - 'BattleForge'

by Jesse Littlefield on July 2, 2009 @ 3:32 a.m. PDT

BattleForge is a new fantasy online real-time strategy game where you assemble your own army with collectible trading cards. Win, trade and buy your cards online to create your ultimate deck. Mix and match the elements of your cards to play with your friends online and conquer massive online battlegrounds.

Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: EA
Developer: EA Phenomic
Release Date: March 24, 2009

Every now and then, some new games come along and try to blend genres.  Sometimes it works better than others, and in the case of BattleForge, it pans out into something that's certainly unique but will never lift itself into the upper echelons of any genre.  The end result is a game that feels a bit lacking, and some questionable design decisions will either frustrate most players or leave them scratching their heads.

BattleForge is primarily a real-time strategy game.  You'll be managing resources, building armies and outwitting your opponent, just like in every other RTS.  Where things change here is that base building and unit management has been dramatically altered so that they're handled with a card-based system.  Before starting any match, you need to build a deck of 20 cards that you'll bring into the fight.  Each card has resource requirements that must be paid before you can bring them into the field.  The result is a very fast-paced RTS that rewards quick thinking and smart unit management; it also essentially removes a major element of base building.

Building bases in BattleForge is largely a background task.  There are three buildings you can construct in the game (aside from defensive tower cards, of which there are plenty).  Power nodes will slowly give you monuments, which are the resources that you need to play your cards; you'll need to attune them to one of the game's four elements.  Monuments are by far the most important buildings because to play your most powerful cards, you'll need to have four of them under your control, and they'll need to be reasonably well-managed.  Every card requires a certain amount of monuments to be under your control and a certain amount of each element.  Cards fall into the categories of frost, fire, nature and shadow.  When building a deck, you'll want to try and keep your deck limited to one or two of these elements.  Each deck has its benefits, and I found my best play was coming from the frost decks.  Finally, every map will have several destroyed walls that you can rebuild and man with archers to defend.  These walls can become instrumental in trying to protect your monuments from attack by other armies.

Assuming you have the resources, calling out units in BattleForge is as simple as clicking on the card and then clicking where you want them to spawn on the map.  Of course, you can't just spawn any unit anywhere, or else games would devolve into players spawning massive armies in the middle of an enemy base.  Units can be placed near other friendly units or near friendly buildings.  This creates an interesting dynamic where losing the upper hand in a battle doesn't mean you need to retreat.  Unlike a normal RTS where reinforcements are all the way back at your base and you'll likely need to back off to get them, BattleForge will let you spawn allied soldiers right into the middle of the fight.  A long and drawn-out battle will often end with the victorious surviving units having arrived late in the fight.  A second thing players will have to consider when bringing in reinforcements to a battle is that if there are no friendly units nearby, they come in with 50% of their health and get the rest about 20 seconds later.  Fighting like this is so fast-paced, different and fun that it will win over many players after their first good fight with another player.

Unfortunately, much of that thrill just mentioned is limited to the player versus player, or PvP, aspect of the game.  BattleForge has roughly 20 story missions that range from anywhere between one and 12 players, where players must work together to defeat an enemy.  The mission design is incredibly bland, and the enemies aren't nearly as interesting as fighting human opponents.  Enemies have set places they spawn from that can be destroyed, tend to not adapt to whatever you're throwing at them, and generally, the entire scope just gets boring in a hurry.

Further frustrating the story missions is the story itself.  The basic gist of things is that you're a skylord, a god-like creature who can dabble with creating fantastic creatures and spawning them on the earth to do as you please.  Unfortunately with the story, that means helping humanity survive the end of the world from some sort of twilight curse.  There's a very rich and detailed story linking together all of the characters and every single story mission, but it's been almost completely tossed to the side.  Upon completing a mission, you're shown a storybook that's entirely skippable but details the story.  When each mission has 40 pages of reading to get the story between each mission, you're going to have a lot of players who won't sit through it. They'll end up frustrated, even though there's very little explanation that doesn't require them to sit down and read for 30 minutes after every 45 minutes of gameplay.

That's how I started playing BattleForge:  I went straight into the story mode and tried to learn the ropes.  The story wasn't well explained, the gameplay wasn't anything special, and I was ready to toss in the towel.  Then I tried the multiplayer, and I have to say that this title was designed with competitive multiplayer in mind.  Actually, you can't even play the game offline because the instant your Internet connection goes away, the game will close.  As I've ranted and raved earlier, the fast-paced, strategic combat of the competitive multiplayer is where the game truly shines.  It's spectacular and some of the most fun I've had with an RTS online this year.  It's unfortunate then that the current size of the community is fairly small; it often takes up to 10 minutes to get a four-player match going.

When one isn't actually in a match, the thing players will be spending their time doing is trying to build a deck in the "forge."  As you play, you'll be rewarded with cards and upgrades for cards you already own to help you build up a deck.  If you don't have it in you to play for extended periods of time, you can go buy cards from the game's somewhat-functional auction house (it doesn't hold a candle to any MMO auction house), or you can go buy booster decks.  All of this is done with a currency similar to Microsoft points, so you'll need to spend real money on this title. 

Ultimately, the game favors people who are willing to spend a lot of extra money on it, and this is where there's a divide: people who are willing to spend money on the game and people who are not.  BattleForge comes in two versions, one of which is free, ad-supported, and doesn't allow players to make purchases in the auction house until they've proven their worth in the game's campaign or PvP content.  The other version costs $30, gives the player access to everything right off the bat and gives them $30 worth of points to spend on buying new cards.  There's definitely an incentive to buy the game, but it also puts the free players at a distinct disadvantage.

When one looks at BattleForge, he'll likely think of Warcraft III, as the game's environments do bear a striking resemblance to those found in Blizzard's prior RTS effort.  Since the game was developed in 2009, it looks significantly sharper, but it is evident that the art style is derivative.  Where BattleForge is able to carve out its own identity, though, is in the characters.  There are a ton of distinct and impressive-looking characters in the game that correspond to each card, be it a monster, human, building or spell.  The game seems to have some major bug issues, but I was not able to get the game to run stable until I started running the game in windowed mode.  Every single time I finished a mission in full screen mode, my computer would get the infamous blue screen of death.

Musically, the score is about what you would except from a fantasy RTS.  The score tries to be epic and sweeping and largely succeeds, but it never really stands out from everything else you've already heard multiple times before when playing a fantasy game.  Voice work is largely solid, although the narrative between missions can be a little buggy, sometimes playing and sometimes not.  Effects are pretty standard fare, clashing, explosions, nothing sounds distinctly wrong at least.

BattleForge largely succeeds in trying to blend together RTS and card games.  It's a fast-paced RTS that really rewards players for being able to adapt quickly in the middle of battle.  However, it's also a game that rewards players for spending large sums of actual money to improve their decks.  Basing a game on micro-transactions will likely frustrate most players and quickly turn them away from the game.  A weak campaign does drag down the game, despite the incredible competitive multiplayer.  There's a lot of fun to be had here, but the dwindling community and the micro-transaction system have to be dealt with.  If you can get past those, you'll find a compelling competitive RTS that will entertain for months to come.

Score: 7.9/10

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