Real time strategy/collectible card game BattleForge and I first met at EA in March of this year. We got to know each other, exchanged pleasantries, and it seemed to me then that BattleForge and I were destined to be BFF's. (Or in this case, BFFF's.) The sad truth is, many such relationships start on a high note, then fail to live up to expectations, especially when you jump in too fast and let BattleForge move in with you and after a week it doesn't care about its appearance anymore and lets itself get fat and won't do anything other than sit on the couch and eat all your cereal. Uh...the point is, BattleForge is beautiful and exciting at first but spend more time with the game and the attraction starts to fade.
The game was very polished when I saw it in March and looks much the same right out of the box. I still maintain it's one of the best looking RTS's out there, with colorful, cohesive art direction that takes into account every aspect of the game: UI, in-game units, visual effects, even loading screens. The tutorial does a good job of explaining the basics of the game, as do multiple pop-up hints which you can turn off at any time, but that's all it covers—the basics. Advanced deck-building concepts are not covered and so RTS and collectible card game novices may have trouble understanding the strategy behind building a strong deck and will likely need to spend quite a bit of time in the Forge.
The Forge is a test arena where you can experiment with different unit combinations against generic bandit enemies. It's a useful place to hone your skills before facing the merciless online community. Another useful tool in learning how to play are the single-player PvE maps. Mind you, learning tools are mainly what the single player maps amount to since there are only six of them. In what looks like a bid to ease solo players into multi-player, the story campaign continues after the last single player map only on two and four player maps. This method of revealing the story and the world map is confusingly non-linear and means it's impossible to experience the entire story without embracing online play.
Speaking of the story, it's a pretty confusing tale (involving humans and Giants and Gods and feuding Skylords and a dead sun and a plague-like horde called the Twilight) that fails to integrate fully with the game-play. Sure, if you want clarification you can click through what might be a couple hundred pages of Journal entries. I just think it would have been more fun if the majority of the story had unfolded as game-play rather than text. Nevertheless, the PvE maps are fun and offer a range of objectives which include frequent voiceover and interaction with the game's heroes and Skylords.
The main hook of BattleForge before it hit the shelves was that you didn't have to choose unit cards from only one of the four elemental powers or factions. You could choose from all four, mixing and matching the best cards to make an unbeatable deck. Unfortunately, the actual game-play doesn't support this idea. The problem is resources: specifically, orbs. Each unit has a power cost and an orb cost and naturally, the higher level units require more of both. Monuments, the structures that grant orbs, are not something players can build and so each map has a finite number of them. As a consequence, with only four or five monuments per map, it's impossible to support more than one or two elemental powers. If your deck is made up of three or more, you're likely to have to play the entire map without using some of the coolest and most powerful units in the game. Bottom line is, you can't make an effective deck from all four elemental factions at once.
That said, the faction decks do provide you with interesting choices since they play fairly differently. The Fire and Ice decks are the most straightforward, offering a good range of units, defensive structures and spells. The Shadow deck takes a bit more finesse since most of its cards do damage to friendlies as well as enemies which means if you're not careful you'll wipe your own army out before the enemy does. The Nature deck, being the only deck with healing cards, works best as support to the other three. Whatever the deck, its cards can be powered up with upgrades earned by completing both single-player and multi-player scenarios. You can also buy booster packs (BattleForge starts you off with 3000 points to spend and you can buy more online) for your decks. Booster packs contain eight cards—five common, two uncommon, and one rare or ultra-rare but since the packs are random you may end up with many copies of the same cards. Extras can be traded or combined to increase their frequency of use, however combining can't be done until various PvP requirements are fulfilled.
Through resource streamlining, BattleForge aspires to take the RTS to a higher level of intensity. In spite of that, the game seems to suffer from the same issues that plagued its more traditional predecessors. Whether single-player or multi-player, PvE or PvP, the maps play much the same. There's still plenty of dead air as you wait for unit timers to tick down and resources to build. And no matter what deck each player is using, the winner is generally the player who spawns the biggest units first. Multi-player matchmaking is easy enough but there's still the problem of people flaking out and leaving the match after a few minutes, apparently without penalty. In an interesting twist on the usual multi-player team issues, there appear to be no dedicated English servers and the high number of German players on my server often meant I was locked out of matches or had players leave my games because I didn't speak German. Because of this, I was never able to play anything higher than a four-player map so the promise of taking part in a totally insane six-on-six battle went sadly unfulfilled.
BattleForge contains some interesting ideas. The best things about the game-play are the simplification of resource-management and the ability to keep the battle raging by spawning units anywhere near friendly ground units. The game looks fabulous and much of the enjoyment comes from having such a wide array of creative and custom-made units at your fingertips. Once armies clash and the spells and explosions get rolling, it's pretty dazzling. Unfortunately, the game's RTS/collectible card approach fails to deliver the freedom it promised and the story and game-play feel oddly separate from one another and never reach their full potential. Ultimately, BattleForge isn't the embodiment of the next-gen RTS but it's a beautiful, flawed step in that direction.