It is rare that you'll find a real-time strategy game breaking the mold of what most consider to be a member of the genre. Base building has cluttered our screens for so long now that we expect there to be some form of build order for everything. More surprising than that, it is almost impossible to find a game that breaks the mold and builds a hybrid model that fuses tons of different elements together in an attempt for something unique and individual. With Battleforge, EA brings together the worlds of real-time strategy, trading card games, some MMO elements, and makes a rather enticing package.
In Battleforge, you'll play the role of a Skylord (whom you never visibly see) that must fight against the Twilight forces and bring peace and hope back to the world of Nyn. Yeah, there's a story somewhere in the game, and it drives all of your PvE scenarios. Unfortunately, there's very little that really caught me about it other than a couple of crazy moments. All of it is listed off in a virtual book (almost like the Tome of Knowledge from WAR, but more casual), so if you are REALLY interested in the story, that would be the way to go. In order to fight these forces of Twilight, you'll need to build decks of cards and reign down holy Hell.
There is a relatively deep deck building mechanic in the game, but there is a catch to it all: microtransactions. Your retail copy of the game features 3,000 Battleforge Points (the currency used to buy cards), and after you blow through those, you'll have to visit the EA Store for additional Battleforge Points (roughly $20 for 2,000 Points). I was able to build a reasonable Fire/Frost PvE deck and a reasonable Shadow/Nature PvP deck without every going past the initial 3,000 Points, so even if you don't plan on spending any additional money past the retail cost, you can still play the game incredibly well with what you are given upfront. As you progress through PvE and PvP play, you'll be rewarded with upgrades for cards so there definitely isn't a lack of replay value in the game.
Gameplay is always relatively action-packed, which lends itself well to the smooth graphics engine and lack of frame rate issues. Since there is no base building, you will rarely find a time in PvP matches where you will sit back and just build up your ultimate units. Instead, everything is very unit-based, so you'll always be plopping down units here and there...and everywhere...at the blink of an eye. This might sound like it would eventually collapse on itself, but after your card charges are out, you'll have a 30 second cooldown on that card type before you can play another one. Therefore, timing and knowledge of units is absolutely key to winning well.
The PvE scenarios in the game are few and far between. Despite a range of 1-12 players in scenarios (divided into categories of 1, 2, 4, and 12 players), there aren't a ton of them available. Regardless, there is still replay value as each scenario features three difficulty settings (Standard, Advanced, and Expert). Rest assured that when the difficulty says "Expert", it is not a walk in the park. Even Advanced gets pretty tough and in the larger group scenarios, you'll find that coordination and teamwork are necessary to win. The unfortunate problem with this is that the game's fanbase is a very diverse group of people - meaning there is a language barrier issue. Since EA didn't bother making separate server farms for Europeans, Americans, etc like other "MMO games" do, you'll find it difficult to inform a German player that he needs to get his walls back up when you are speaking common-day leyman's English.
"You mentioned MMO elements. What's that about? Is it like WoW? Is there a subscription fee?"
To answer those questions: Battleforge uses a server setup much like Guild Wars, where you'll be able to chat amongst people within whatever scenario you pick. If you decide to do the 2-player Sunbridge scenario, then you will be in the Sunbridge region. The main problem here is that you can ONLY chat with people in your region. There seems to be no worldwide chat (and if there is, I have not seen it). There is a trade channel as well, like WoW or Guild Wars, where you can trade off cards and such at will. If you don't feel like spamming a chat channel, you can also put cards up on the Auction House (yes, again like WoW), which is a simple and easy-to-use layout. There is also no subscription fee and given that Battleforge proves to be quite a bit more difficult than most common games you'll come across, it's a good thing there isn't one!
There are some flaws with the game that drag it down from absolute excellence, however. Aside from the language barrier issue, there's the fact that the game requires an internet connection to even play. While I can't say it's a HUGE issue, I can say that it makes me think of Battlefield 2142 all over again and the fact that I couldn't even play a single player map without logging in online. There's also the age old argument of balance. In PvP gameplay, it would seem that Nature has a massive upper-hand over all other elements, and that's just the start. You'll often find rage quitters aplenty in the PvP grounds (I've done it a few times myself) because it can just get so frustrating when a deck isn't working out the way you want it to. The biggest issue that Battleforge has is how dated it feels. Harking back to a lesser version of Warcraft III in terms of graphics (obviously to open up accessibility to as many PC configurations as possible), the game does have style...but it feels stolen sometimes. Add a lackluster score and an underdeveloped story on top of that and you find that what could've been great is merely good.
That's the best word to describe Battleforge - "good". While I can personally say that I love the hell out of the game, it's not for everyone and I can easily recognize the flaws in it. Nonetheless, the infinite possibilities of deck building, solid online model, and one of the best behaved online communities I've ever seen make Battleforge a no-brainer game for me. The difficulty spikes will surely turn some people away and those who want base building in their RTS games will probably want to steer clear. However, if you are just getting sick and bored with all the other games you've got laying around, try giving Battleforge a chance...if not just for the amount of diversity the game has to offer.