Forged Battalion: hands-on with a nuts-and-bolts RTS from the Command & Conquer creators

If Forged Battalion does its job, you should be able to tell a lot about how someone likes to play games based on the armies they create. Do they have a min-maxed RTS army? Are they focusing on swarm units? 

Me? I took all the unit mods that sounded fun and named the resulting fodder dumb things like ‘Angry Freddy’ or ‘Dhumpus’.

Such was my time with the Faction Creator—the central hook of Forged Battalion—where players can customise their units to create unique factions, all Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts-style. It feels like a more approachable version of Command & Conquer, which makes sense. Forged Battalion is the newest project from Petroglyph Games, a studio formed by ex-Westwood developers, best known for their work on games like—you guessed it—Command & Conquer. At some as yet indeterminate point in the future, Forged Battalion will release as an Early Access game, but I got some hands-on time with an early build at Petroglyph’s Las Vegas office.

In Forged Battalion, rather than playing with a faction or race designed around a certain set of ideas, players craft their own armies—categorised by infantry, light vehicles, heavy vehicles and aircraft. Each category supports four unit types, and how powerful they are can define your strategy. Your aircraft, for instance, could all use deadly late-game tech, catapulting you to air superiority in the closing minutes of a skirmish. Alternatively, you could stack your barracks full of cheap, low-tier units, and try to catch your opponent off-guard with an early rush.

Unit customisation is limited to weapons, armour, and (in some cases) mobility. So you could make a tank that would be recognisable in a modern-day army base, or a hover tank that fires globs of glue. Petroglyph says that there is a crazy amount of possible army configurations, which reminds me of the way Borderlands’s gun system was first pitched to the media. There are technically more possibilities than stars in the sky, but I suspect a proportion of that value comes from identical armies with one variation. The team plans to let players share configurations, but only if they can figure out a profanity filter that makes sense.

It’s a sci-fi game, set in a “lighthearted post-apocalypse”, so every infantry unit rocks an exoskeleton suit, the aircraft units are drones and the world has gone to the darkly comic dogs. The battle economy focuses on harvester units, which run loops between resource nodes and foundry buildings. You’ll want to build foundries near resources so harvesters can make faster loops, and you’ll need power plants to keep everything running, but building management never goes far beyond those basic points.

Unit options are locked behind a tech tree, which (along with most of the game) was still at a very early stage. Nodes in the tech tree are unlocked through research points earned through battles, even ones you lose, which makes every battle a learning experience. Since we were operating on limited time, the dev team unlocked the whole tree for me, although I found myself splitting the difference between real-world and sci-fi weapons. It’s not like you directly wield any of these tools in an RTS but there’s still something comforting about old-fashioned machine guns and rocket launchers.

I don’t know how battles will actually play out in the full game. I took my new army into two AI matches: one on easy, to get a feel for the game, and one on normal once I had a better grip on combat. In both, the AI tried to rout me on the same thoroughfare, so I responded by forming a wall of early-game units between the road and my base. Call me Patton, because that strategy was unbeatable.

Eventually, I built enough heavy vehicles to crush the enemy base, so I pointed my comically large army in the right direction and let them do what they were born to do. It was a joy to watch my units swarm over the paltry enemy forces. Laser blasts were popping off in every direction—before I knew it, victory was in my grasp. Marring the victory only slightly was the fact that my success was less due to flawless manoeuvring and more the fact that the AI hasn’t been fully programmed yet.

First draft

In the final game, AI that you fight in the one-off skirmishes will be able to pull behaviour data from characters you’ll encounter in the campaign mode. So if you want to relive a fight against a memorable enemy without any of the story trappings, you’re able to create a custom AI match and play against that same character on different maps.

As my time in Vegas winds down, Petroglyph president and cofounder Michael Legg told me the team was nervous about this appointment. They told publishing partners Team17 that Forged Battalion wasn’t ready, and that it needed more time before Petroglyph could show it off to press. I think Legg was correct in his assessment. I don’t think Forged Battalion looks bad, especially for a pre-alpha build, but it’s too early for me to say whether it looks good, either. There’s a gulf of difference between your standard polished vertical slice and what I was shown at the Petroglyph offices, to the point where it’s hard to form any kind of value judgement as a result. Yes, the bones of the Faction Creator are there, but the UI isn’t finished, the last third of the tech tree is missing, and the battles feel more like a proof of concept.

The Faction Creator is still one hell of an idea, though. It’s what makes Forged Battalion unique, theoretically turning the game into an RTS where the moment-to-moment combat hinges entirely on what the player likes doing. Do you want an army full of high-damage glass cannons that you can spawn almost as soon as the game begins? How about some tough early-game infantry that will hold the line until you can start production on the late-game tanks that you’ve chosen to round out the rest of your army? It can be done. The game encourages unorthodox play and out-of-the-box thinking, which is incredibly my thing.

There’s still the question of balance, which is why Forged Battalion will launch in Early Access: so the team can develop alongside their community. “We’ve had situations in the past where players will say, ‘This is an unbeatable combination,’ and then a week later, somebody will go, ‘No it isn’t,’ and prove them wrong,” Forged Battalion senior game designer Patrick Pannulo says. “But in the cases where there is an unbeatable combo, we’ll go in and tweak those upgrades. We have lots of ways to do that: we can push it up a tier so it becomes a late-game upgrade, decrease the damage, change the costs, etc. There’s always a flavour of the month in every game, but sometimes that’s driven by the perception of the players and not by the numbers.”

“I’d definitely second that,” says producer Ted Morris. “[In previous games,] I’ve seen our fans come up with this one-size-fits-all playstyle, but when someone says that…”

“Someone takes that as a challenge!” Legg interjects.

“Yeah, they’ll all work to debunk the other guy,” Morris says.

Westwood's ghost

The entire Petroglyph executive team are expats from Westwood Studios. The team is so committed to its Westwood origins that, when it came time to form Petroglyph, Legg convinced Kroegel to register the old Westwood phone number. “You could take my old business card from 1997 and still call me,” Legg says.

I suspect that long-term dedication to the RTS is what drives Forged Battalion and its unique hook. “People think older developers can get very set in their ways or not trying to advance the genre, but we’re always thinking of ways to get more people to play [RTS games],” Legg says.

If that was the impetus behind Faction Creator, it worked. I want to mess around with that system more. It’s too early to tell how battles will feel in the full game, but Petroglyph has made a strong pitch for the Faction Creator. Any system that gives players room for improvisation should be heartily encouraged, regardless of how the rest of the game might turn out.

Forged Battalion launches on Steam Early Access in 2018