BattleForge Review: Collectible Card-Time Strategy

What happens when you mix together real-time strategy gameplay with collectible card game sensibilities? BattleForge happens.

Developed by EA's Phenomic, BattleForge is an intriguing mix of real-time strategy and collectible card game on a massively multiplayer online level. Where a standard real-time strategy game has units with various powers and abilities, BattleForge has a set of 200 cards, from which players can build their own customized army. After selecting a mix of cards from from four elemental spheres - fire, frost, shadow, and nature - players take to the field, completing single player and co-operative missions or simply battling it out between themselves. Need more cards? EA is more than happy to oblige, with booster packs available for purchase via the game's online store using real-world cash.

It's certainly an interesting concept, but what about the execution? Is BattleForge just a waste of money that could otherwise be spent on real tiny paper cards, or should you totally tap that?

Loved

Quick And Dirty RTS: At the heart of BattleForge is a quick and dirty real time strategy game that is perfect for players that love the concept of the genre but don't want to deal with the micromanagement of a deeper title. There are really only two resources to keep track of, and once you've captured them they are yours until the enemy takes them out. Dropping units onto the battlefield happens nearly instantaneously, so as long as you have the power and the orbs (think mana), you can have an army set to attack or defend in no time flat. Some might consider it a bit too easy, but the bulk of the strategy lies in countering your opponents forces, whatever they wind up being.

Pick A Card, Any Card: A traditional real-time strategy game features a number of factions with a limited number of units at their command. In BattleForge, the player picks their units, buildings, and special abilities from a pool of 200 different cards, with each deck they create effectively becoming their faction. The sheer number of combinations available make this one of the most versatile RTS games on the market, and that's before EA and Phenomic start releasing the inevitable expansion packs.

This Ain't Solitaire: While BattleForge includes a capable single-player mode, perfect for learning the ropes, much more enjoyment can be found by teaming up with 1, 2, or 11 other players in co-op missions. Co-op missions generally feature mechanics that require and promote working together intelligently, rather than simply creating as many units as you can and hoping for the best. One of the biggest joys of co-op is seeing what your fellow players bring to the table. You can learn a lot about deck building by watching what works for others.

The Titular Forge: The Forge can be a hell of a lot of fun, or a strategic boon...or both. Basically the Forge acts as a central hub for the game, but also a testing ground for your decks and strategies. You could spend hours simply placing your cards on the playfield to see what they look like, or build up defenses and then set enemies against them to see how you fair, or just randomly click the hell out of the enemy calvary spawning button to see how many will fit on the screen before your computer explodes. It's like a sandbox filled with fantasy war toys.

The Sheer Spectacle: While the cards are lovely and the battlefields well-rendered and detailed, BattleForge truly shines when two massive armies clash. Spell effects fill the screen, dozens of smaller units swing swords, cast magic, and fire arrows while gigantic behemoths wade through their ranks, with little or no slowdown, at least on my machine (see below). Some of the game's smaller frustrations can be completely forgotten in the heat of battle.

Buy, Sell, Trade: One of my major worries going into this review was that BattleForge would be complete unbalanced due to people with more money buying more cards. As it turns out, buying cards isn't too much of a factor when it comes to winning. Each deck only holds one of each card, so you don't have to worry about deck stacking, and can trade off extras using the game's trade channel or auction house, limited as the latter may be. There really are no "I Win" cards in the set. If you really worry about being on equal footing, Tome Duels are a form of PVP using decks built from one set on booster packs, or a Tome. Since the game comes with enough BattleForge points to purchase at least one Tome and a couple boosters, sticking to Tome Battles keeps things even, somewhat.

Hated

One Is The Loneliest Number: As entertaining as the multiplayer experience can be, the single-player missions in BattleForge play like a slightly above real-time strategy game, at best. The lack of real resource gathering makes it far too easy to simply steamroll over many of the game's objectives. Once you've captured your full allotment of power nodes - the globes necessary to activate your cards - everything becomes of matter of making sure you build as many troops as possible in the right places. Playing through the first through solo missions gives you a good enough feel for the game to move on to multiplayer, where the real fun lies. Also be warned that BattleForge is effective a massively multiplayer online game, so there is no playing offline.

Once Upon A Bleh: Phenomic missed a real opportunity to shine with BattleForge's background story. Some might argue that the story is secondary to the gameplay, but when the game features an entire book filled with lore regarding the world you are fighting for, one has a right to expect it to be entertaining. As it stands, the whole Skylords helping the poor humans reclaim the world bit is downright dull. Hopefully future expansions will add a bit more flavor to the flavor text.

The Chaos Factor: The wonderful variety that makes co-op such a pleasant and surprising experience has the reverse effect in player versus player matches. BattleForge allows players to buy additional cards, eventually massing up to 200 different units, spells, and fortifications to use in their deck creation. The sheer number of different deck combinations means you'll never know what you are going up against. On one hand, it forces you to adjust your strategy on the fly to try and counter any surprises thrown your way. On the other hand, that deck you worked so hard to balance can become relatively useless in the blink of an eye. It's an issue that any collectible card game faces. Some love the challenge, others prefer a more level playing field.

BattleForge is the sort of game where you get back what you invest, and happily in this case I'm not talking financially. Taking the game as it comes, utilizing the starting cards you are given and simply going to battle is a pleasant enough experience initially, but the deeper you delve into the art of deck building, learning how your units work together and complement each other, the more satisfying the game becomes. Investing a great deal of thought, time, and perhaps even money into developing your arsenal also tends to make the more chaotic nature of the collectible card game side of BattleForge frustrating on occasion, but if you can open your heart to a little chaos, you'll do just fine.

BattleForge is better than the sum of its parts. It's not a particularly deep real-time strategy game, and were it a real card game it would be rather rudimentary as well, but put the two together and give them a good shake and you've got a fast-paced card-based real time strategy game that's worth its weight in cards.

BattleForge was developed by EA Phenomic and published by Electronic Arts. It was released on March 23rd, 2009 for Windows PC. Retails for $49.99. Completed single-player missions on standard difficulty, multiple multiplayer co-op missions (both 2 and 4 player), and lost many PVP battles, both open deck and Tome. Spent only the included allotment of points on new cards.

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