Premature Evaluation: Forged Battalion

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Premature Evaluation is the weekly column in which we explore the wilds of early access. This week, Fraser’s making his very own RTS faction in Petroglyph’s Forged Battalion.

The drones swoop in first, dropping gas bombs on top of unsuspecting mech pilots. The rest of the horde soon follow, announcing their arrival by launching toxic grenades that slowly corrode their victims, accompanied by the traditional wall of missiles. Anti-tank mechs tear into the defending artillery while buggies with rocket launchers strapped to them round up the stragglers. The base is torn down. These are my babies.

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What if Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 let you build Tesla tanks and Prism tanks in the same army? Or if Zero Hour let you slap nuclear shields on an Overlord tank? That’s Forged Battalion’s pitch: it’s Command & Conquer but with customisable factions and units you create yourself. It’s a peculiar hybrid of old and new, from a studio founded by C&C vets and responsible for Star Wars: Empire at War and Grey Goo.

It’s the future and global warming has inevitably made the world a crappy place to live. Desperate countries have been bamboozled by an Elon Musk-type bloke who — shockingly — turned out to be a villain. Now he’s well on his way to controlling the world, with only a scrappy band of rebels willing to stop him.

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The setting is pretty slight right now, with a big exposition dump at the start and not much else, but it seems to be leaning more towards the vanilla seriousness of Generals rather than the kitchiness of Red Alert and the Tiberium series. Someone give an RTS the budget needed to get Tim Curry back. Like all of them, though, it’s really just an excuse to pit armies against each other as they fight over resources and protect their vulnerable bases.

The base building side is a race, with each team furiously trying to make use of every second — smashing hotkeys and churning out units — so they can go in for the kill. It’s all about rapidly trying to reach a critical mass before sending out a huge blob of tanks and infantry and air support. Get them inside the enemy base and it’s all blinding pyrotechnics and wanton destruction until only one army is left.

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Getting to that point requires sticking to a simple build order that you’ll repeat ad nauseum. I don’t think build orders are particularly compelling problems to solve, but if you are going to make a build order RTS, then you’re probably going to want more than one of them. At the moment, Forged Battalion doesn’t really have enough structures to support more than a single approach. You plonk everything down in a pretty common sense order, and then chuck down a few turrets if you’re worried the enemy might reach you first. In five minutes you’ll have a fully functional base and access to most if not all of your units.

From there it’s just a matter of building more refineries and hitting up new resource nodes when the old ones become exhausted. Building duplicate factories can also speed up the production of units. These are the familiar fundamentals from Westwood’s classics, but they’re still a bit undercooked right now. This in combination with the predictable AI that tends to save up for one massive push leads a lot of simple and brisk matches. This wouldn’t ordinarily be appealing, but it does make them excellent test beds for experimenting with new armies.

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In my first attempt at the campaign’s introductory mission, my faction, Very Big Spiders (I wanted to intimidate my enemies), was a bit underwhelming. I had tanks and mechs and drones, sure, but all they had strapped to them were puny gatling guns. My opponent had flamethrowers and rocket launchers, which didn’t seem very sporting. Their weapons, unsurprisingly, proved to be pretty effective at kicking my arse.

But with that loss and a subsequent victory on a lower difficulty level, I’d gained points that I could spend on making my faction beefier, sneakier and weirder. After a couple of games, I had mechs that spewed toxic gunk at enemies, and after a couple of hours they were accompanied by drones that dropped gas bombs, mechs with toxic grenade launchers and rocket tanks. It’s especially cathartic to be able to go into a mission again, this time bristling with new weapons, and get some revenge instead of just relying on plain old wisdom and experience.

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Every unit class has a weapon, support and locomotion module, so that’s four classes with three points of customisation each. Turrets also have weapon modules, and buildings can be enhanced with new tech as well, so there’s no dearth of stuff to tweak in the faction design screen. You can get points for victories and defeats in both campaign missions and skirmishes, so there are plenty of ways to unlock new tech, and the pace of the unlocks means that you can get your hands on new stuff with every couple of battles.

With all techs eventually accessible, the unit creation tool is a big toy box, but when it comes to putting together a loadout, cuts have to be made. You can only have four of each unit class, and it won’t be long before you’re forced to leave some of your units behind. You can keep churning out as many of those 16 units as your economy can support, though. And if you include your three turrets and your resource-collecting harvester, that’s 20 different types of units you can recruit. It’s hard to keep track of them, especially since the mods don’t change their appearance dramatically.

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Specialisation is the way to go, with my preference being an army of Captain Planet villains. But, depending on what you’re facing, you might need more long-ranged units, and perhaps you’ll have better chances with heavily-armoured units rather than ones with regenerating health, especially if you create some units that can repair their pals. Objectives inform loadouts as well. And maps. If there’s a time limit and a lot of ground to cover, you might not want to weight down units with heavy weapons. If the ground’s muddy, switching out the wheels for treads would be a good call, too. Hazardous terrain isn’t just an obstacle that you have to live with or avoid, it’s something that can be overcome with tech.

When you start to consider the ridiculous number of module combinations, the three slots and 16 units doesn’t seem as big as it once did. It also makes it hard to prepare for random battles. There are just so many things that you might need to counter. In the campaign, where you can replay missions, you’re gearing your army towards fighting an enemy you’ve already faced, but you have no idea what you’re going to be matched up with online. But then you also get to enjoy the surprise of finding out you’re duking it out against someone who has given all of their units rocket launchers, or that your opponent has cloaked their base and is preparing a nasty ambush. According to Petroglyph, abilities aren’t better or worse than each other, they’re just different, but I’d argue that an invisible base is absolutely better than one that just out there in the open with a big target on its back. That’s the sort of experience that makes you want your own cloaks, spurring on another trip to the faction editor and another 30 minutes of tweaking.

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I’m into anything that shakes RTSs out of the rock, paper, scissors format and throws a bit of uncertainty into the mix. When Forged Battalion is at its messiest and most experimental, it’s at its best. I just hope some of that bleeds over to the extremely conservative base building. In the meantime, having things to do in the mid and late-game aside from churning out an endless supply of units wouldn’t go amiss either.

Forged Battalion is out now on Steam for £15.49/$19.99/€19.99.

22 Comments

  1. BaaBaa says:

    “The base building side is a race, with each team furiously trying to make use of every second — smashing hotkeys and churning out units — so they can go in for the kill.”

    That’s a shame. I like RTSs that focus on unit/squad tactics rather than base/blob building busy work. I wish someone would make a World in Conflict with customizable units.

    • Crafter says:

      I just hope that somebody takes notice of Dungeon Keeper and its imps.
      I would very much like an RTS with mostly indirect control over the construction units (or maybe just remove them entirely)

    • Kollega says:

      I myself like the C&C-like rush tactics and relative absence of micro that are in this game – mostly because I haven’t had any of that in a long, long time, and was still playing Red Alert 2 when Forged Battalion was announced.

      That being said, I totally agree with you. A Ground Control/World in Conflict style of game with customizable units would be a total riot. Someone make that too, please.

    • Blacksilver65 says:

      Have you played any of the Wargame series? Reminds me of World in Conflict but at a larger scale. You select your units with decks you build and can comprise of all types of units from Nato or Red countries. Very fun games with a huge emphasis on tactics. The campaign maps are played almost like a risk game where you move different battalions around territories. I like to outplay the AI by throwing attack jets at their battalions that come to s fight worth no AA support. Never played a game like it.

      • dontnormally says:

        Sounds interesting!

        Is there something other than “wargame” I can use when searching for more information about these games? Unfortunately that word alone isn’t really bringing up what you’re talking about (I think)

        • Kollega says:

          The proper game titles are “Wargame: European Escalation”, “Wargame: AirLand Battle”, and “Wargame: Red Dragon”. I think you should get the info you need by searching for those.

          (I know I was not the one asked – hopefully I’m not being overly impolite.)

      • BaaBaa says:

        The part of WiC I loved was multiplayer, and when I tried Wargame back in the day it sadly didn’t have a lot of people playing it.

    • MrUnimport says:

      In most WiC missions your squad of tanks was significantly superior to the enemy horde of light vehicles and jeeps, and you spend a fair amount of time calling in chained airstrikes on enemy formations while your units sit in place and pump out shells at the bad guys. I wouldn’t really call it ‘tactical’, at least not on normal difficulty. It’s just a well-scripted set of missions with good voice acting.

      • BaaBaa says:

        The tactical side of WiC really shines in multiplayer. I didn’t bother finishing the campaign.

  2. ScubaMonster says:

    I’ve been keeping an eye on this game and it seems a lot of people are not happy with how the unlock system works, where you have to grind games for points to unlock stuff, as opposed to just having access to them off the bat to mix and match. Don’t know how long of a grind it is though.

    • KDR_11k says:

      Having to unlock things in a permanent progression in an RTS seems like a really bad idea. But then again so does having to commit to a unit set before the match starts. Both sound like many games will be decided before they even start because one player didn’t or couldn’t bring the right answer to their opponent’s loadout.

      Overall that sounds like a design that should only ever be used in a player versus AI setting, not a competitive PVP game.

      • clearb says:

        Committing to units is fine – competitive TCGs have been a thing for ages.

        Though, admittedly, they have a sideboard, and games aren’t decided in a single match…

    • Kollega says:

      I’m only partially unhappy. The tech tree system would fit perfectly into a campaign, especially into a Risk-style metagame… but in skirmishes, it doesn’t hold up as well, and multiplayer outright needs a point build system of some kind, because tactical flexibility is essential to victory, and normally you can’t win just by spamming your starting units (I don’t know if it’s technically possible, but it’s very hard even if it is).

  3. khamul says:

    Somewhere around, I have my copy of War.inc which did all of that, many years ago.

    Of course, I don’t know if it did it well because (A) I’m not much cop at RTS, and (B) I think the actual RTS part of the game (as opposed to the unit design) was kind of broken. I certainly remember some serious path-finding issues.

    So I never got further than the second mission. I loved the idea of it, though. Anyone ever play it properly? Was it good?

    • KDR_11k says:

      I don’t remember that specific game but there are like a hundred different RTSes with unit design, some more flexible, some less. Though I guess most of them allow you to (re)design units during the match.

  4. Thats no moon says:

    Yay for customisation.

    Boo for clicky clicky Starcraft-style base management and building. That style of game has its place and that place is called Starcraft. Was hoping for something a bit different. Ground Control Remastered would be nice (the original, not the shite sequel).

    Anyway, didn’t Warzone 2100 do the customisation thing too, about 20 years ago?

    • Kollega says:

      This game is heavily inspired by Warzone 2100 – I’m pretty sure that the bad guys being named “The Collective” is a reference to that game, and not coincidential. And the gameplay is basically old C&C, not Starcraft. If it was Starcraft, a single infantryman would take 20 seconds to build, and you would have to babysit each and every one of them and manually lead them out of the line of fire in batches of twelve >_<

      I can understand why you want something like Ground Control, though. Damn it would be awesome to have the GC/WiC style of RTS back. I played WiC in its heyday, and it was both different and very fun. And I would welcome this style of RTS once again, especially if it was hard sci-fi with a military slant.

    • Rich says:

      I hoped the Wargame series would scratch that itch. Sadly I just suck too badly at keeping my units (particularly infantry) alive, so the fact that they don’t get replaced after every mission prevents me from actually enjoying myself.
      Also GCII was good. It wasn’t really GC anymore, but it was still good. WiC was better than GCII by far though.

  5. Kollega says:

    I’ve been playing the Early Access since day one, pretty much, because I really liked what I’ve seen in pre-release gameplay videos. And as flawed as the game is for now, I was not disappointed. The basic game feel is basically Red Alert 2, but with modern graphics and units that you can create yourself. And in the age where every RTS tries to be like Starcraft, and there are something like three of them in total (exaggeration), this is just so damn refreshing.

    That being said, the game really is flawed. But I think I know what would fix its flaws. My opinion is that the game needs more customization for defense and support: like a choosable building or two for your faction that’d provide economy bonuses or support powers, and more defense buildings besides dinky turrets. More robust set of defenses, and some balance changes to discourage the really big unit blobs, would give the game a lot more variety than just the (admittedly extremely fun) tactic of tank rushing. Hopefully devs implement something like these suggestions I’ve made to them – as it is now, Forged Battalion has tons of promise for people who don’t want to play Starcraft.

  6. Orageon says:

    Oh man oh man, now that triggered a nostlagia attack about EARTH 2150 (more than the follow-up Earth 2160).
    Earth had unit customizations, 3 factions that were quite asymetric in the way they collect resources or build bases, capability to dig under the map for caves or make tunnel networks, had fun nukes/game enders, and so many details for its time (turning on/off the lights on buildings and vehicles if needed, snowing would also slowly turn buildings and non-moving units white…)
    I crave a remake of Earth 2150. Please make a “Have you played” on this game. I think the main problems today is that the camera is quite zoomed in, and the graphics might look ages as well (textures).

  7. Gothnak says:

    Surely the best way for this game to work, is to start each map with basic add-ons and then you find add ons on the map and have to build units based on what you find?

    Then you have an infinitely replayable game with a wide variety of different units rather than a game where you gradually level up, but play with the same (favourite) units at any one time.

  8. Daiz says:

    Every time a new RTS appears on the market that has taken approximately zero lessons from Supreme Commander Forged Alliance when it comes to user interface and unit management, I sigh very deeply. I just have no patience for essentially “forced” clickfests these days, especially when SCFA itself is still alive and well in the form of Forged Alliance Forever too. And just do away with the ginormous bottom bars that are constantly eating up tons of space from the screen already in favor of contextual menus (even the original Supcom fell victim to this but fantastically corrected itself with the UI revamp in Forged Alliance).