Wayward Strategist

In Tech We Trust? a First Impressions of Forged Battalion

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Let me admit right up front that I have a soft spot for Petroglyph’s games. In spite of its flaws, I enjoyed Grey Goo enough to put over 100 hours into its multiplayer, and commentated a number of competitive matches at the dubious “height” of my stint on YouTube. I was one of the most vocal and prolific supporters of End of Nations, a large focal point of my writing for now-defunct gaming publication RTSGuru.com. I was one of the top posters on that game’s Alpha forums. I think it’s OK to say that after something like 6 or 7 years.

All of that to say, it’s fair to take my impressions of Petroglyph games with a grain of salt: I’m coming from a position of wanting to like what they do, of hoping their games are going to succeed with players. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the 8 Bit games (though I did start to warm to them with 8 Bit Invaders), but I thought it only fair to begin a discussion of Petroglyph’s latest title with the twin caveats that I’m at least mildly pro-Petroglyph in general, and I’ve only got a handful of hours with Forged Battalion so far.

That out of the way, let’s take a (really early) look at what we’re looking at with Forged Battalion.

A Hail Of Bullets: the Broad Strokes of Forged Battalion Gameplay

Maybe I’m biased, but I think Forged Battalion is quite pretty… The UI is, hopefully, going to be improving at some point though?

If you’ve played 8 Bit Armies, you’re already familiar with the core gameplay in Forged Battalion. For all intents and purposes, Forged Battalion is a gussied-up 8 Bit Armies: harvesting, building, Power, and even the (in match) tech progression are largely identical between the two titles, which serves to slightly bolster my completely unsubstantiated belief that the 8 Bit games were at least partially created to save Petroglyph financially. It seems to have worked well enough for the graphical upgrade to Forged Battalion, which is a pretty enough game in its own right.

For those who haven’t played the 8 Bit games, the Command and Conquer (Red Alert 2) formula is probably the closest one for reference, though there are some marked differences between C&C and the Forged Battalion/8 Bit model, which I’ll get into in a bit.

In Forged Battalion matches, players start out with their Command Center structure, which provides build radius, is a resource drop-off (in leiu of a Refinery) and builds all structures. It has a C&C-style global reach, but you can only build new buildings within a certain fixed radius of other structures. This is similar to how C&C has traditionally handled building.

Also similar to classic Westwood games, you can only build a single economic/production structure, and a single turret/defensive structure, simultaneously. So, you can build a turret while you’ve got a Power Plant under construction, but you can’t build a Barracks simultaneously with a Refinery. Single-threaded production, baby! This can make proper build order vitally important, since the 35 seconds or whatever it takes to make a Power Plant might put you off from getting Air units out, or delay your next Refinery. It takes some getting used to, but for what it’s worth I’ve always admired Westwood-style single-thread production.

Similar to Tooth and Tail, an early production advantage can snowball incredibly quickly, leading to an inability to keep up with one’s opponent: rushing or early pushes can be very powerful right now

The weakness I see in this one-building-at-a-time model is, unlike newer C&C games, there’s no way to add production queues: there’s no Crane structure that lets you build 2 buildings at once, and to me that kind of hurts in the mid-to-late game. Also, a holdover complaint I have from the 8 Bit games is that expanding across the map is a matter of creeping outwards building by building, an often cumbersome and frustrating process that makes it hard to place Refineries near resource deposits in the middle of the map. There’s no “Sputnik” or MCV type unit that can be placed outside of one’s build radius to start a new build zone elsewhere on the map, which to me is kind of a big “quality of life” thing.

However, I will note that Forged Battalion does have neutral, capturable structures that provide build radius to their owner, which is a change for the better from the “8 Bit” games.

Back on topic… There are 4 different kinds of unit: infantry, light vehicles, heavy vehicles, and aircraft. These are pre-designed by the player outside of combat (I deal with this “meta” layer in the next section) and produced from dedicated production structures. Unlike most other RTS, additional production structures don’t give you additional build queues. Like with buildings, all unit production is single-threaded based on structure of origin: you’re only ever building one infantry at a time, or one aircraft at a time. However, each production structure you build adds a x1 multiplier to the build speed of the primary factory. So, 2 Barracks let you produce infantry at a x2 build speed multiplier, and 3 Barracks let you produce them x3 as quickly (apparently x3 is the maximum bonus you can accrue). You’re still only making one at a time, though. It’s an interesting model, but one that takes some getting used to.

Building on that foundation, gameplay is mostly a matter of managing build queues and income: the larger army is likely to come out on top in a single combat, and overall income is typically key to supremacy in a match. Combat tends to feel kind of spammy in my limited experience (not necessarily a bad thing, just trying to relay the feeling) though some unit weapons and Support options (I’ll cover this in the next section) act as a force multiplier to help tip combat in one player’s favor.

There’s promise here, and the idea of big, spammy battles and careful basebuilding is in my humble opinion a valid avenue to pursue from a game design perspective, though I’m not totally sold on its implementation here: I can’t help but wish for a bit of equilibrium in the gameplay, to make the game feel less like it’s entirely decided by building up overwhelming armies as quickly as possible.

The Rocket Strike is the default superweapon: players can unlock a variety of different superweapon types, both offensive and defensive, and can only bring one of them into battle

There are also some interesting tactical and strategic options a player can make outside of combat: the cost and power of their units is just the tip of the iceberg here. Players can also provide passive effects on their HQ that change how a player would approach the game, and of course they can choose which superweapon they’d like to have access to in match.

Which provides me a natural segue into talking about Forged Battalion’s meta tech tree, so let’s move on to that.

In Nomine Meta: Forged Battalion’s Tech Tree

As players beat campaign missions and engage in multiplayer or skirmish battles they earn points that can be spent to unlock weapons, movement types, Support passives, HQ passives, and superweapons.

Weapons and superweapons are hopefully relatively self-explanatory. Weapons are applied on top of one of the 4 basic unit types: infantry, light vehicles, heavy vehicles, and aircraft (drones) to change how its attack works. Weapon types can have passive effects (toxic weapons damage their target over time after initial hit), be area-of-effect or direct-target, and may only be available to certain chassis types.

Superweapons range from the default missile barrage (seems to be designed to take out clumped up units, primarily) to one that makes all of your structures temporarily invulnerable, to the classic Nuke and Ion Cannon from C&C or 8 Bit Armies – there are some more, I think, too.

Now, let’s get to the fun stuff. “Support” tech are passive, optional upgrades that change how the units they’re slotted into function. For instance, they could provide damage reduction for Nuclear, or Fire-based weapon damage, or they could increase a unit’s hit points, or provide a unit with self-regeneration. Things like that. Or stealth. Weapon type and Support, as well as movement profile, work together to increase/decrease the unit’s cost and build time, so the armored version of a unit would take longer to build and cost more than the same unit with a less impressive weapon and no Support options slotted.

Also, Support and Weapon might cause the unit to become Tier 2, so it would require a Comm Center (tech building) to be produced before it’s able to be built. Petroglyph have obviously worked pretty hard to make this system understandable, though balance for Support options and Weapons in particular is likely to be an ongoing effort.

Similar to unit-slotted Support options is the Headquarters type, a passive upgrade that slightly changes how the faction as a whole operates. This is one of the best things in the game, and I really hope they expand on this system (I think the tech tree in general needs to be expanded on over time to keep interest up, but this system in particular exites me). Headquarters type basically changes how buildings in the faction work: it can mean that buidings are harder to kill, or have resistances to certain damage profiles. It can mean that Power Plants produce more Power, so you have to build fewer of them. It can mean that all non-turret buildings are permanently stealthed.

See the potential here? What Petroglyph has in the Headquarters type is the foundations of a system that can have wide-ranging implications for how the game is played, and that excites me.

From what I can tell, the combination of weapon, Support options (though some of these seem very underwhelming to me), movement options (though again some of these seem more bad than good), HQ profile and Superweapon provide a pretty decent array of strategic and tactical options to allow players to design units and build a faction that gives the player a reasonable degree of freedom to play the way they want. There’s still one (or, hopefully, more) “tier” on the tech tree that hasn’t been completed yet, and I hope that they get a little more creative and push the boundaries of their system more with these higher-tier tech options… Really allowing players to do creative and off-the-wall things is going to be memorable, is going to be what keeps them coming back for more.

Let’s see minelayers, maybe teleportation? Let’s see Support options that drastically increase the cost of a unit type, but also drastically increase their speed, or health, or passively boost weapon damage, or allow the unit’s attacks to speed up over time. Let’s get crazy, and really validate this ‘design your own faction’ idea.

But here’s a question I have, core to the very idea of the tech tree: is it, strictly, necessary? the game isn’t free-to-play, there’s no money to be made out of meta-progression. And, take it from me, there’s room to impact a player’s experience with this. The first 2 techs I unlocked were allowing Infantry to slot Toxic weapons (that deal no bonus damage but deal damage over time to attack targets) and a Support that increases unit HP. This proved to be… ineffective, generally, and with no obvious way to undo my tech purchases, I had to struggle to make this choice work in the campaign’s second mission, which didn’t net me enough Tech points to buy sufficient tech to ameliorate my mistake.

Multiply this by potentially hundreds or thousands of players, and I see a system that will slow down players from reaching the meaty content, the fun choices, and potentially trap players with subpar tech options, all for no real financial benefit to Petroglyph. Why not just allow the whole tech tree from the get-go? The player can only bring 1 HQ type with them into combat anyway. They can only have 1 Superweapon type in a battle, and there are limits to the variety of weapons and unit combinations that players can use in a match (4 different unit types total per factory for 16 total unit types in combat).

So… why have this tech tree, that seems mostly likely to frustrate new players? It seems out of place to me, a Clash Royale system where a Wargame system might be more friendly, and more warranted. It’s the most baffling thing about Forged Battalion, apart from the name.

Out of Your Everloving Mind? The Campaign

Forged Battalion is clearly being developed on a relatively limited budget: the game’s introduction is (an overly generous comparison) somewhat reminiscent of Star Wars, in that it sets up the game’s plot through a scrolling wall of text with inset images. Mission briefings, a main mechanism for plot delivery, are similarly text only. That is what it is: at least the game is kind of resurrecting the plot of End of Nations, with the Collective and their revolutionary construction platform taking the place of a tyrannical Order of Nations, and the players serving as an ersatz resistance that’s not quite as compelling as the Shadow Revolution or Liberation Front (a side note, I am wearing my Liberation Front t-shirt as I write this article. RIP End of Nations).

It’s… look, it’s not the best plot out there. It’s not giving us a new Kane or Arthas. But it’s serviceable enough, to me, and the idea of the revolutionary Collective building tech that bought them the world, that kind of works for me. Though, ah, I refer you to the opening paragraphs of this article re: grains of salt.

Much like the initial 8 Bit Armies campaign, the missions I’ve done so far in Forged Battalion use multiplayer maps and don’t really break the mold in terms of objectives: they’ve both been a pretty standard “kill all enemies” though the second mission asks you to simultaneously defend a tech center stowed away in the middle of enemy territory, which made it slightly more interesting.

I found the campaign missions thus far pretty challenging: the AI is pretty aggressive and doesn’t rest on its laurels. But I am a Silver-league player in StarCraft 2, and I know other players have found it underwhelmingly easy. So, mileage may vary. It’s (I think?) the only way right now to earn tech points prior to going into muliplayer, and so serves as a decent introduction to core gameplay concepts and mechanics while you save up for your initial tech unlocks. Hopefully, the rest of the campaign will be more ambitious.

Not a Conclusion, but a Beginning

This entire bag of wind of an article is based on… about 3 hours of gameplay, plus what I’ve gleaned via YouTube videos. It’s definitely a first impressions. I don’t know how well the promise of the HQ profile is going to pay off. I don’t know how the Superweapons are balanced one against another, or how much true depth can be eked out of the tech tree system. I can’t even slot 4 different unit types into each production structure yet.

But, I hope that I’ve shed some light on the game for you. I hope that I’ve produced an overview that has some value for those on the fence about purchasing this game, or even for those who’ve already played it.

The best – and worst – thing you can say about Forged Battalion is that it has potential. It might not be there yet, it might never be ‘there.’ It might not stand with the all-time RTS greats and become an icon of RTS for years to come. The barriers to that are quite high. But it’s fun, it lets you (to an extent) build a faction to approach the challenges it throws at you. It lets you throw as many units as you can build – stealth snipers and napalm drones and heavy tanks with legs that can crush infantry – at whatever subset of the game’s tech tree ends up becoming viable in the competitive meta.

It’s got systems that have promise, and a story that has promise, and gameplay that, while not everyone’s cup of tea, is reasonably recognizable as RTS basebuilding and economy management. It’s not the End of Nations that I was hoping for, nor the Grey Goo whose flavor had potential but whose delivery fell short. It’s interesting, messy, fun and frustrating. It’s a bit of almost every game Petroglyph has made, and I’m kind of excited about the implications of that.

It has promise, and I want to stick around to see if the community can help guide Team17 and Petroglyph to fulfilling that promise and building an RTS that can pull the maximum amount of depth and interest out of what they’re trying to build here.

Thanks for reading.

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