Review: BattleForge; Magic: the Gathering-inspired RTS

30 September 2009
11:24 pm


I have to confess, I'm a little addicted to this game. Although it originally came out in March, the game has mostly escaped my attention until it was recently listed by AMD as one of the titles ready for the upcoming release of DirectX 11. I saw it when it popped up on the New Releases page for Steam in the beginning of the year, but as soon as I saw that I'd have to fork over money for additional cards my eyes glazed over and my interest went away. With the game recently becoming entirely free to play, it was a great opportunity for me to check it out. Having spent a lot of time with it for the past couple of days (seriously, I have dropped all the other games I've been working on in favor of this one), I really wish the additional-cards aspect hadn't turned me off from it months ago. So if you're one of the ones that, like me, missed out on this when it was originally released or just someone who wasn't that intrigued in the first place, here's an exhaustive review of the game.

The story:

You are a Skylord, a human gifted with immortality and significant powers by the gods in order to save humanity from the unrelenting rampage of the giants. In your arsenal, powered by the Forge of Creation,– the gods' floating fortress far above the skies of the planet Nyn– are elite creatures conjured by dreams and legend.

For centuries the Skylords stood as advisers to the gods, watching and protecting the people of Nyn. Then one day the gods disappeared and the planet's sun began to die, plunging the world into a mysterious twilight. The humans were forced into a temporary truce with the giants, who agreed to forge a new sun, but when the humans returned from their underground refuges back to the surface they saw a frightening curse had overtaken whatever forms of life remained above in the time of darkness. Now caught between resumed conflict with the giants and the new threat of the Twilight Curse, humanity again turns to the Skylords (themselves in conflict from their abandonment by the gods) for salvation.


As a kid I really loved Magic: The Gathering, but I've continually found modern-day attempts to recreate the gameplay in video game form to be disappointing and gimmicky. While cards are obviously the central component of BattleForge, their implementation is done in a really magnificent way that avoids the pitfalls of other games and doesn't turn the cards themselves into a stupid mechanic.

BattleForge had 200 cards at release (though 120 more have been added in the recent Renegade update), each of which were divided into four "colors": Frost, Shadow, Nature and Fire. To use a card requires a corresponding Orb of the same color– Orbs themselves are obtained by capturing Monuments on the game playfield, while Power Wells are the game's resource. Power Wells represent a finite number of resource points that trickle over to the player over time until they run out, but the more Wells you hold the faster you will receive resource points. There's also a second resource, void power, which are resource points you receive when you destroy or lose a unit/building– the costs to summon those creatures aren't lost, but instead recycled back to you over time from the void pool. In terms of deck management, you can customize your deck with any of the cards you have available, whether through the ones you start with (in the free set) or cards you've obtained through missions, PvP or booster packs. It's important to pay attention to Orb requirements though– each card requires a specific color, with the number of Orbs necessary growing with the strength of each card. A first-tier unit might require one Nature Orb, while a tier two card requires one Nature and one of any other color. It's possible to craft a deck of one color, but you're going to lose the versatility of having additional powersets available to you. Similarly it's possible to create a deck with all four, but you would be probably gimping yourself due to the increased number of Orbs needed. I personally have kept my decks to two colors and so far have felt that's the way to go. (Additionally, the Renegade update brought along cards specifically with that in mind, fusing two colors into one card for additional abilities.) However, cards don't just represent units. They're also responsible for your buildings and spell powers as well; buildings range from defensive towers to global supportive abilities like getting an instant cash-out of your void pool, for example. Spells go anywhere from a healing aura to direct-damage abilities and give you more utility than simply relying on your units for warfare. As units and buildings can be played anywhere you have existing units or buildings, you don't have to stick to defending your home base as a central strategy; units can be summoned right in the middle of existing combat if wanted, but if you conjure them far away from a Power Well or Monument they suffer from being "dazed," a 30-second debuff that drops their HP by half and prevents you from playing their special powers until the debuff expires.

BattleForge has two modes, PvE or PvP; PvP is simple enough, dueling other players or teams in order to obtain prestige and additional cards. The PvE part focuses on an evolving story with the Twilight and Renegade campaigns; completion of a mission gives you gold, experience points and random cards (selected from a pool relevant to the mission map), and each mission has three difficulty levels that increase the rewards you get on completion. Maps are either single player, teams of two, or four player (the World Map legend also says there are twelve-player! maps too, but I haven't progressed far enough in the campaign to receive them yet if that's the case). The goals of each map are a nice refresh from the usual RTS staple of "destroy the enemy base." For example, an early two-player mission had you coordinating with your teammate as you both advanced towards a boss; the boss would spawn wave after wave of enemies towards one player, while the other could work on progression, but the roles had to be flipped every three minutes, necessitating teamwork on who would do what in that period of time.

One cool mechanic is the update system; special update cards are rewards for PvP play or missions, which can be combined with additional copies of duplicate cards to make them more and more powerful and in turn upgrade the "level" of your deck. If you're buying booster packs it's likely that you're going to end up with more than a few copies of cards unnecessarily, so this is an awesome way to make them more useful if you don't want to trade them on the auction house.

And ah, yes, the auction house. Taking the same token from its card game-inspired life, BattleForge is definitely a RMT game– you cash in real dollars for BattleForge Points which can in turn buy booster packs, Tomes (a larger collection of booster packs) or be used to purchase cards from other players directly. Trade is a big part of the game and you can swap with other players whether through other cards or BF Points if you happen to have a lot of stuff lying around that you don't need. If you're a free player, leveling up your Skylord unlocks certain aspects of the game (you can't trade with other players off the bat nor can you use the auction house at first), while gold is used in conjunction with the upgrade system; some players will also trade cards for gold instead of BF Points.

The finer points:

Visually, the game is gorgeous. It ran fine for me on both my spec'd out gaming rig and a lower-powered laptop and looked awesome whether on full settings or low. The environments of each map are beautiful and don't feel repetitive (at least as far as I've progressed in the campaigns). I had an issue with lag on my main machine that I initially thought was my network connection, but after blackmailing my boyfriend to play a map with me I would see that the points the game stalled for me did not do so for him, which makes me think it's an issue with my computer specifically, but I haven't yet figured out what. It didn't make the game unplayable at all, there were just a couple of pauses here and there while it looked like the game was "catching up." Other than that I didn't have any lag at all to speak of, despite the fact that all English-speaking players operate on a single server.

Something does need to be said about the game's complication factor. At first, coordinating all the decks can be really daunting; the game comes with a couple of suggested arrangements depending on the cards you start with but to be of any value you have to dig in and make your own. To assist with that the game makes use of the Forge as a staging area; cards can be played without penalty if you want to see what is better than another and help you decide, and you can even switch between teams to have your cards fight against one another. Also, keeping with the story can be confusing as well; the campaign maps do not necessarily have to be played in a linear order— the single player map can be played after the two or four player map if you want, even though it really should be required first. That's exactly what I did on my first time, not knowing any better, and I had really no idea what was going on in terms of the story. Thankfully the game includes a "book of knowledge" with not just background plot for each of the missions (that unlock as you obtain and complete those missions) but background on the world, landmarks and even unit cards. I highly suggest that anyone who actually gives a damn about the story sit down and read the knowledge tome in order before they start playing– it really makes the story much more immersive and coherent. And don't worry, because you're locked from reading content you haven't reached yet, there's no risk of spoilers from getting too far ahead.

Although the game originally was not a free title, it has amazing content and quality for one that is free now; there have routinely been lots of patches and additional content added by developers, with assurances that more is still on the way. A recent Q&A talked about adding more PvE maps like a tower defense game, which is a mechanic that would frankly be perfect for this type of game. With an additional map supposed to be implemented in today's patch, they are so far really on top of content and dedicated to creating a compelling, ongoing experience. Though the RMT part might be a downside to some, it's not obligated– the free starter decks are more than capable for the PvE part, though you're necessarily going to get your butt kicked in PvP play. However with the ability to trade and win additional cards just through game play someone who wants to invest the energy (compared to the money) can still get a rewarding experience. I upgraded my free version to the paid box I bought off of Steam almost immediately– the paid versions come with more cards and an starting amount of BF Points that can purchase more cards, so for twenty bucks it was well worth the price. Given how much fun I've had playing just for the past few days, I'm really excited for future updates and more gameplay.

If you want to add me as a friend on there go for it, my Skylord's name is mixvio. Hope to see some of you guys soon!

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