Review: Forged Battalion02 Apr 2019 3
Review: Forged Battalion
Released 14 Aug 2018
Once upon a time, in the deep prehistory of 1995, a little company named Westwood Studios released a game that created a legacy that spread throughout real-time strategy gaming. Command & Conquer really gave birth to a formula which not only its own successors but many other games to follow took on board.
You have a core. A single building which must be protected. You have harvesters which are little units which rub up against bits of the terrain, collective material, and bring it back to a refinery where it’s turned into a resource. Eventually those resources will be depleted and the harvesters will move to another patch. You will build other buildings which are capable of making the units which you will use to fight and which support those units. Erecting some buildings unlock the ability to raise others. Each unit has a particular strength in mobility or weapon and combat is as much about picking the right weapon to engage with as it is manoeuvring to strike your enemy where they are weak. Your goal is to destroy the other side. There are probably buildings on the map which give you certain advantages and allow you to build forward of your main base and closer to your enemy.
That’s the Command & Conquer way. It also describes most of the RTS titles released in the late 90s, from WarCraft to, well, StarCraft, both of which have received major remasters. You don’t have to get a time machine (or a re-master) to get your dose of RTS era retro-nostalgia. Petroglyph (containing some of the guys who originally put out C & C and a ton of other RTS titles over the last decade or two) brought us Forged Battalion which left early access in August of 2018, a game which should give Conquer-ites an excited feeling deep in their loins because all the old strictures have returned but with a new twist.
The teaser video shows exactly what it needs in order to communicate how this game is going to look and feel. For those who like their Command & Conquer raw and wriggling, this is going to tick every box that I used above to describe the game. You have a core base building which you start with. You pretty much immediately have to build a refinery near some gold outcrops to start making money to buy your units and more buildings. You’ll also probably very early on start building power production to maintain your buildings, because without power your buildings will work, just very slowly.
Factories can have rally points set, and there’s one factory for each of the major type of unit: infantry (more like small mecha), light vehicles (wheeled machine gun carriers and the like – though this can change), heavy vehicles (big stompy tanks), and air (which have the fewest movement options, oddly enough). Units can be grouped in the very classic Control 1-9 scheme so beloved of RTS players and familiar to pretty much everyone at this point. In fact, aside from one quirk, the whole interface should feel very familiar to anyone who grew up on late 90s real-time strategy. Deliberately so.
The attentive in the audience have probably noticed something very important: the absence of factions. One of the things that made original C & C what it was were the opposed factions of Nod and GDI, each with character and very different styles of vehicle design. In fact, the asymmetrical conflicts were arguably the best part of the way games played out. Factions have not yet been discussed! Why?
For that, we need to start digging in where FB departs somewhat radically from the C & C formula.
Persistent One, Ain’cha?
Forged Battalion has a story to tell you. There is a 15 mission campaign with three levels of difficulty available for each mission. You might think this is a game which intends you to win, ultimately, and takes into account that you will do so along the way pretty regularly. Friend, you are in the wrong game.
FB is not Nintendo-hard, but you can see it from here. That comes down to one of the core differences between FB and of the classic formula, a persistent tech tree which you unlock with tech points you accrue by playing the game, primarily in campaign mode, but also in online/offline skirmishes and being involved in ranked online multiplayer.
If getting on the leaderboards sounds good to you, expect to see this screen a lot. Despite coming out of early access eight months ago, I don’t see any kind of real online community going on from day to day.
The tech tree has multiple tiers and multiple branches, with a reasonable selection of techs which effectively unlock the ability to put different kinds of weapons, armors, and mobility options (like treads or legs on light and heavy vehicles, or jump packs on infantry) on to the four core chassis, your turrets, your HQ, and your super weapon. This is how the game gets around the absence of factions with pre-selected vehicle designs – you design the vehicles yourself from the grab bag of tools you have at hand, and he play the game (win or lose) to accumulate research points to unlock more of the tech tree, to unlock more of the gadgets, to make your army better.
Really, it’s quite brilliant as long as the core gameplay loop appeals to you, if you like the C & C game formula and you don’t mind playing a game that is hard enough to drive you to play more of the game in order to get points with which to improve your technology to win more but lets the computer unlock more to face you with, you’re in the right place.
There is an actual story driving the campaign, though it almost feels like an afterthought to talk about it. Humanity has gained access to an amazing technology which allows them to live underground as the ecology goes south but the man who provides it demands in turn to be the ruler of the world.
People go along with that, move into giant underground cities, turn over control of global society to the inevitable whack job, leaving only a few pockets of small communities living on the surface, making do. Of course, some of them want to push a rebellion and go their own way, get their hands on control of some of the super underground technology that can make buildings sprout up in the middle of an open field, and then – there is war. War never changes.
As excuses to stomp around, blow things up, and kill a bunch of men go – it’s not too bad. There is a surprising amount of nuance to be experienced if you take the time to read the rather significant walls of text that the game provides at the beginning of every scenario and pay attention to the narrative dialogue along the way while things are stomping around. Your forces are betrayed, you’re ambushed, and you’re outplayed all along the path – and that’s just in the first five missions.
Unfortunately, we don’t get one of the greatest things about C & C, the live-action cut scenes. No Kane chewing on the scenery, no surprise stunt celebrity casting, no cardboard sets. All you get is some vaguely pixel art-style close-ups of faces, moderately talented voiceover, and some scrolling text. It’s a missed opportunity but one it’s easy to understand why it’s not there.
Is the Murder Good?
Well, it’s not unpleasant. FB wears its inspirations on its sleeves right alongside it’s heart. That is both good and bad. If you like the C & C style of combat, which involves making sure that your weapons are matched up against opponents they have an advantage on, sometimes dealing with some micromanagement of range, and largely shoving blobs around the map, this is going to tickle every single point that it can reach. If you want something more squad based, something with more frequent micromanagement, with units that have special abilities that must be activated, you are not going to like this game.
It’s a shame that it never seems to have caught on in the competitive scene it would clearly like to be a part of. Watching gameplay has the same sort of push and pull that WarCraft and StarCraft (particularly the latter) have. My guess is that the problem is the very thing that makes this game interesting to play: the tech tree.
If I create a force which is largely focused on pushing a lot of late game flamethrowers, for example – unless you have taken the armor that lets you take 50% less flamethrower damage, you’re probably going to be in trouble. If you’ve both taken the fire damage reduction armor and toxic weapons (which I don’t have the armor for), you have a vast advantage.
Over a number of engagements, we can feel each other out and get an idea of what the other person likes to use, then try to counter it – but that is very much at odds with what the esports environment has settled on by way of presentation. It doesn’t make for a simple team bracket, which is a shame.
There is another aspect of the tech tree which may explain part of why the game never seems to have caught on: it can sometimes feel like a bit of a grind. Sure, you can eventually unlock everything on the grid by way of just playing the game – even if you lose. You get fewer tech points for losing, and you get fewer tech points for beating a campaign mission at a difficulty level that you’ve already done, but you can. Unless you’re really invested in the gameplay loop, you probably won’t.
Tips and Tricks
- Never ignore the possibilities of the infantry chassis with the cannon. It’s cheap, low tech to produce, fast to produce, and in numbers can lay waste to almost anything it faces.
- Be careful adding things from the deeper tech tree to too many units. Deeper tree tech needs more expensive buildings to unlock, so you may not have the bulk of your army available until late-game.
- Don’t skimp on turrets. They look goofy but they serve two purposes:
- Defense, obviously, but also …
- Increasing your build range. Turret creep toward expansions as early as you can reasonably afford.
- Legged vehicles go splendidly with infantry. The closer speeds make it much easier to have them arrive as a focused group.
- Watch your spend-rate! So important that it merits exclamation. Like Supreme Commander and Plannetary Annhilation, cash streams out as things are made, not up front. No cash, no building. Make sure you have resources coming in to support growing that army.
- Stay ahead on power. You have a very convenient bar that shows your production versus consumption. Do not go red; slowing production for even a few seconds paralyzes your growth.