E3 2014: BattleCry Hands-On Preview
League of Legends was a game-changer on the free-to-play scene. It showed that you could have depth of gameplay, stylish design, a community of hardcores, and still make money in the freemium format. BattleCry, Bethesda’s upcoming 2015 free-to-play 32 player team combat game, follows in that tradition, with solid, fast-paced, visceral team-based combat that’s surprisingly easy to access.
Bethesda is taking this game just as seriously as any of its more traditional titles, and they were using E3 as a playtest of sorts to collect feedback on an early alpha build of the game. Because it’s such an early build, certain things are outright missing, like some information screens and a few UI things, but overall it looks gorgeous, plays solid, and encourages positive play.
BattleCry is based in a world where gunpowder is banned, in an alternate early 1900s timeline where ritualized battle in WarZones has replaced open warfare. Because it’s an alternative history where swords are primary, I nicknamed the art style “Ironpunk.”
Indeed, the most immediately striking thing about BattleCry is its unique “paint-look” visuals that combine a fully-rendered 3D foreground with a flattened, multi-layered background which not only looks distinct, but is a clever way to conserve system resources. This aesthetic was created by none other than Dishonored art director Viktor Antonov. Antonov was on-site, watching intently as people played, as he’s still refining the look of the game. There are a lot of very pretty female characters in BattleCry, and when I told him that the game would likely be cosplay bait, he got very intent on making sure that the costumes were functional enough to be faithfully reproduced. I think I love this man.
He spoke passionately about intermixing beauty with the brutality of war, and even though BattleCry is still in its early stages, this has been accomplished. The game’s color scheme is designed to make the spilled blood pop, and yet seem totally blended into the world where it’s shed. Death is always somehow present, especially since the look of the game changes depending on whether you’re winning or losing. The graffiti scattered around the map subverted the majesty of the other designs. And even though it’s overall a clean art style, the Cossack Enforcer’s tiny perpetual sneer made me think she’s seen some pretty hellish stuff. It was nice to see an IP make commentary on the inherent violence of their product, instead of just trying to justify it through narrative.
Another thing that indicates the thoughtfulness of BattleCry’s design is that every class will eventually have both male and female avatars. Every character was designed with a backstory as well, which will be outlined in a planned comic book series.
There are also non-white characters present. The Royal Marine archer, for instance, is a Portuguese mercenary, with more classes and character designs on the way. Furthermore, all the characters’ appearances will be fully customizable, both because that’s cool, and because you’ll probably have to pay for that privilege. It is free-to-play, after all.
Only three classes were available to try out so far, but the balance for them was nearly rock solid. There’s a rock, paper, scissors dynamic to the gameplay, and while I felt that the duellists’ movement rate should have been a bit faster, overall the game plays smoothly, with intuitive controls and neat special moves. There are grapple points and “man cannon” style launch pads in the map that help you move quickly and cleverly to catch your opponents off guard or flee from an attacker. But there are also hazards on the map that discourage outright kamaze play.
Combat is tactical without being frustrating. I didn’t feel like any of the classes was significantly better than the others, although the play styles were clearly defined. I did best with the characters that could zip in and out of skirmishes quickly, and became deadly in packs of three or more, but I did get slaughtered by a few enforcers that caught me being too cheeky. Since BattleCry is a 32 player team game, travelling in small groups is usually a good idea. As a lone combatant, it’s easy to get overpowered.
Adding to the team game element is an intent to emphasize positive play. Nobility in warfare is stressed in the narrative and art, but there will also, apparently, be incentives to avoid acting like an idiot. I think that the initial decay of the League of Legends community has been a cautionary tale to many developers. Furthermore, BattleCry promises a persistent metagame that shows how the various factions are progressing. Territory on the world map can change hands, and factions will be able to destroy important installations, but that will affect resources. All this is still just in the planning stages, so I can’t personally vouch for any of it, but it sounds cool.
All in all, BattleCry was one of my favorite surprises coming out of E3, and I’m looking forward to playing more. To get on the mailing list for beta notifications, go to battlecrythegame.com