Genre: Real-Time Strategy, Card
First, a little backstory. A few years ago I started getting interested in Magic: the Gathering. I don't remember why I decided to start buying into a collectible card game that had its hayday in the mid-nineties, but I quickly became infatuated with the it. It wasn't so much playing Magic that took my interest, but building interesting decks and seeing how they performed against opponents'. For about a year I entered (and lost horribly) a few local tournaments, bought boxes whenever a new set was released, and even started grabbing individual cards online to create more refined decks. I eventually eased up on the habit and haven't really played much since then, but remained interested in the CCG scene. This might be what made me interested when I first saw BattleForge during last year's Penny-Arcade Expo. It looked to take the aspects that drove people to CCGs and mix them with the addicting gameplay of an RTS; a match seemingly made in heaven.
In many ways, EA has done a wonderful job bringing the two genres together. It's amazing how well the concepts blend without changing the basic framework of either. It isn't like Henry Hatsworth, where the second genre adds another layer to the gameplay - it's more seamless than that. The card mechanics of the CCG completely replace unit building side of the RTS, creating a wholly different experience without sacrificing the aspects that make each genre alluring. Most control aspects of RTS remain, and points on the board can be captured to unlock more powerful units and additional resources.
There are differences, though, and most tie in to the card-based gameplay. Instead of needing to create units in barracks, any card can be played within short range of an allied ground unit, cutting loose restrictions that often slow down gameplay. This might seem overpowered, but it's a fine example of how well BattleForge is balanced. Sure, it's possible to create units anywhere, but when created away from a base, units spawn weakened with "summoning sickness," far from fighting capacity. These somewhat different mechanics might sound a little exotic for some people, but they aren't far removed from the same basic rule structure of every game in the genre since Red Alert. In all honesty, once units are on the ground most of the technicalities of the combat drift into the background, becoming second nature. What makes BattleForge different is what happens outside of the battles, where cards are king, and hours can be spent tweaking decks and looking for the best combinations.
At purchase, players begin with four pre-made decks. From there, they're free to customize and tweak as much as they want, building as many decks as their hearts desire. Additional Booster packs can be purchased using BattleForge Points, which require real money transactions, and come with 8 cards (5 common, 2 un-common, 1 rare or ultra rare) for 250BF, which translates to $2.50. Luckily, every copy of the game ships with with 3000 points, which is more than enough for the average gamer to build a large pool of cards to choose from. There's incentive to continue buying more cards for anyone who becomes interested in the game, but the initial pool gives a completely adequate playing ground.
The cards represent different things that should be all too familiar to anyone who has played either genre: creatures, spells, and structures are all represented by cards, with their stats and features spread across the surface. Fans of collectible card games undoubtedly know the joy in ripping open a booster pack and shuffling through, looking for the rarest card, and that feeling was absolutely transferred over to BattleForge. There's something simply euphoric in it, and pushed me to spend an additional $20 to buy more boosters after I had a better understanding of what everything meant. BattleForge Points can also be spent and earned using the in-game auction house, which, while somewhat laggy and feature-incomplete, helps justify purchasing new packs in the first place. It's much easier to justify buying additional boosters when the fear of duplicates isn't a permant problem, and rare cards can net hundreds of BattleForge points on the AH.
Above all else, the ability to build decks is what separates BattleForge from other real-time strategy titles. The game doesn’t have races or factions, but it does have four elemental powers: ice, fire, nature, and shadow. Each element has features that should sound familiar to anyone who has played an RTS: cost, unit types, and focus. Nature, for instance, has units that can heal, while fire has more of an emphasis on direct damage over preservation. The difference between elements and races is in the customization and the ability to create different 20 card decks using a mixture of the powers. On the top right of every card there are anywhere from one to four circles. Each solid circle means that a power orb of that color must be controlled to use the card, and each empty circle means a power orb of any color can be used to activate the card. There are plenty of cards with empty circles, pushing for a wide variety of multicolored decks to be created and allowing customization on the RTS scene at a scale never before attempted.
As for story, well, let’s just say it’s better not to think about the plot; it’s obvious EA didn’t. The story is told in brief audio clips and blocks of text during load screens. After each mission is completed a bit of dialog is unlocked in the game’s story book, but there’s nothing worth looking into. Players are "Skylords," the BattleForge equivalent of MtG's Planeswalkers, who have two options. They can either fight through the game's 19 campaign missions, trying to worry themselves with the trite story of disappearing gods and giant invasion, or they can battle each other, vying for supremacy and putting their deck building and strategy to test. The game's focus is online, and most of the story missions are actually made for multiple players to join together. After successful battles, the players receive upgrades to their cards, giving a reason for jumping back into the game's story from time to time to empower cards. Sadly, EA didn't take complete advantage of the online focus of the game, and it's obvious there were opportunities left unexplored. In a way, the game's very much like an MMORPG, but it leaves out persistence, which could have worked well with the other aspects that makes it unique.
Though the idea of micro-transactions in a full-priced game might turn some people off, BattleForge provides plenty of content for the retail price, and doesn't require additional funds to stay competitive. In that, it does feels like Magic: the Gathering brought to life, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. While the units battle in typical RTS combat, the inclusion of spells and abilities make the game more than that, and the ability to customize decks creates an extremely deep and involved experience. The actual mechanics can feel a little bit unrefined compared to games with more of a focus on combat, but it's more than made up for by the fantastic deck creation, which trumps any other game's factions or races. It's a creative risk, an extremely ambitious title, and if nothing else it deserves credit for taking a chance and rewarding anyone willing to give it a try.