Great ideas, mediocre execution.
Petroglyph Games is a studio with a reputation for making good real-time strategy games. Not great RTSes. Good ones. You might know them for Grey Goo or Universe at War, but if you recognize the name at all it’s probably because of Star Wars: Empire At War, which holds the dubious title of “second-best Star Wars RTS.”
Which brings us to Petroglyph’s latest offering: Forged Battalion. The game unlocks later this week in Early Access so that the devs can test the balance in multiplayer, with a full release expected sometime later this year. We were given an early copy of the game and after playing through the available campaign and dozens of skirmishes I can safely say that it’s another good RTS.
Good. Not great.
Forged Battalion is a fast-paced arcade RTS whose actual gameplay is marked by an emphasis on simplicity and speed. In my experience most matches only took about 20 minutes or so, more Starcraft than Age of Empires or Dawn of War.
The real hook of the game is that you get to completely customize your faction and units (“forge” your “battalion,” if you will.) There’s four basic templates: a mobile infantry trooper, a fast buggy, a slow-but-powerful tank, and an airborne quadcopter. As you play skirmishes, multiplayer matches, or campaign missions, you earn an in-game currency (no microtransactions, thank goodness) that can be spent on various upgrades with which you can turn these basic templates into something more unique and interesting. You can also unlock more generic upgrades for buildings and for your superweapon, a massively powerful endgame attack which in many cases will win you the game if you can get it out first.
In theory, this lets players build a faction that best fits their playstyle, or perhaps several factions to respond to several situations like decks in a TCG. Fan of the rush? Build a civilization out of cheap, high-value infantry. Don’t like taking early-game risks? Focus on building incredibly powerful aircraft, with weapons so boosted they’re guaranteed to steamroll a foe – but since each extra piece of tech makes a unit more expensive, you’ll have to defend your airbases for a goodly while before you can get them out.
Here’s the thing: these are more or less the same strategies you’re presented with in any RTS. The main difference here is that they’re not all available to you at start. The points you can spend on better tech come frustratingly slowly, especially at the beginning – you’ll basically get one new blueprint for each game you win, maybe two if they’re cheap. It doesn’t feel satisfying to play a whole game with a barely-improved version of the starting four-unit army only to unlock a marginal armor or weapons improvement.
Around the second tier of the three-tier tech tree the strategic possibilities open up quite a bit more – your infantry can turn invisible, your tanks can hover and shoot glue guns. You also unlock options that are less sexy but more practical – better armor, faster movement, hard counters like anti-tank weaponry. Playing the game without these options is incredibly frustrating, especially when your enemies (even the AI) already have them, so when they’re finally unlocked it feels less like you’ve achieved something and more like you’ve spent hours getting to the level of fun and strategic possibility that every other RTS starts with.
The problem is that Forged Battalion has essentially set an impossible task for itself. Every upgrade needs to open up new possibilities and feel like a good reward for progress. But at the same time, if every upgrade is incredibly powerful, balance becomes impossible and progression becomes pointless. If I can build super-quadcopters from the get-go, I never need to build anything else. Unfortunately, the devs have swung too far in the opposite direction, and until you get certain upgrades the game just isn’t very fun.
To be fair, after it picks up steam Forged Battalion settles into a flow that’s comfortable, if not particularly surprising. Gameplay is bog-standard RTS fare: there’s two resources, you send workers to collect them, you build buildings so that you can build other buildings and build units to kill the enemy. There’s a couple of interesting if not unheard-of twists, like the fact that you can only build buildings within a certain radius of your HQ or near outposts which must be captured and held.
This combined with how quickly resource deposits run out is interesting because it doesn’t promote early-game aggression like Dawn of War’s capture points, but rather requires late-game territorial expansion. Turtling is impossible, and if you want that late-game deathball of aircraft or tanks (or you want to build a superweapon) you’re going to have to take and hold those capture points, which are often very exposed and hard to defend.
There’s three game modes, though they’re all pretty similar: one that requires you to destroy enemy buildings, one that requires you to completely wipe the enemy off the map (don’t play this), and one that only requires you to destroy the enemy’s HQ. I found the last the most enjoyable – standard Annihilation will be won by whoever builds the most units the fastest, but destroying the HQ opens up the possibility for a player who’s behind to win with a desperate, well-micromanaged strike. I built a specific type of airborne bomber designed for precisely these kinds of strikes and had great fun tweaking them to fit that kind of strategy. (And yes, longtime readers, they were called Scrungocopters.)
I was unable to try much of the multiplayer since I was playing before the game was made available to the public. I expect that, at least at first, the game is going to be nightmarishly unbalanced, ruled entirely by those who’ve bothered to grind enough to get the objectively best upgrades. Of course, the devs are anticipating the same thing, which is why they’re planning on six months of early access to get the game into a place where competitive multiplayer is actually viable. Fortunately for me, I prefer the simple pleasures of singleplayer skirmish, and was happy to see that the hard AI actually provides a good challenge even as I advanced to the upper echelons of the tech tree.
There’s also a five-mission campaign, and it sucks. Technically what’s on offer is only the “first act” of a campaign which might be better, but as a proof of concept this doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. The story, something which Grey Goo proved Petroglyph can do quite well, is a half-assed waste of text. There’s a global authority called the “Collective” which we’re just meant to assume is bad based on the fact that they’re a global authority, and a Resistance which is good because they’re resisting things. The voice acting is bad, the writing is dull beyond compare, the stakes feel non-existent, and the best thing I can say about the story overall is that it’s entirely skippable. As for the actual campaign missions, they’re essentially Annihilation skirmish games with a single extra objective thrown in, like protecting a particular building. They don’t even use different maps or assets, and sometimes the triggers don’t seem to work properly – on a mission where I had to protect a Comm Center, I lost because a different Comm Center I had built got destroyed. When I played it a second time, the actual Comm Center was destroyed, but the loss didn’t trigger at all and I had to quit the game manually.
Actually, speaking of losing, this game is in desperate need of a resign button. See, you’re awarded faction points whether you win or lose, which is a really nice touch and a good way to encourage players to keep playing. Unfortunately, you don’t get points if you quit a match – you only get them if you actually play to the end. This means you will often get to a point where you absolutely cannot win (you’ve lost all your Harvesters and are out of resources, for example) but will have to sit and wait for your opponent to hunt down every single one of your buildings if you want those precious points.
It’s never a good sign when I’m “playing a game” and have to reach for a book, and this seems like a pretty easy fix. One that could be exploited, sure, by unscrupulous players who’ll just start a game and quit it over and over again to grind for tech, but firstly: the game already deals with this by giving you far fewer points if you lose, and secondly: somebody is already gonna find a way to break this game and grind for points. It’s what gamers do. At least with a proper “resign” those of us who are playing the game properly wouldn’t feel like we were being punished.
Forged Battalion is a great idea, but one that seems like it would be almost impossible to execute perfectly. If nothing else, I commend Petroglyph’s ambition. But while I’ve certainly played much worse RTSes, I can’t help but feel like I’ve played much better ones, too. Perhaps when it leaves Early Access this will become something else to write home about, but as it stands I fear it will remain suspended in the limbo of “pretty good.” Fine but forgettable.
Good. Not great.