In Half-Life 2, Viktor Antonov dreamed up a bleak, dystopian future in which the human race has been subjugated by a multi-dimensional empire. In Dishonored, he envisioned an oppressed and disease-ridden steampunk world inspired by late-19th century London. And in BattleCry, the upcoming free-to-play online combat game from BattleCry Studios, he’s drawn out a painterly playscape in which warring factions stage gunpowder-free wars in agreed-upon fighting zones.
It’s Antonov’s knack for crafting the visual side of end-times scenarios that elevates this latest effort beyond its stigmatic “free-to-play” designation. Even a short preview session sells the vision: for anything else about BattleCry, it’s not lacking in style.
Leave the gun, take the alt-history. In the early 20th century, a globe-spanning war rocked the peoples of Earth, redrawing map lines around newly formed empires and leading to the famed Black Powder Treaty. In the peaceful times that followed this worldwide gunpowder ban, the great thinkers harnessed iron and energy to trigger an industrial revolution like nothing we’ve ever known.
When war eventually, inevitably returned to the briefly peaceful people of Earth, it was reimagined around a more civil, less potentially devastating vision. All disagreements would be settled in designed WarZones, with teams of champions — elite warriors, trained from birth — replacing the once-massive armies that marched to their bloody deaths.
Class war. BattleCry‘s 32-player matches split players up between three different empires, two of which have been revealed thus far: The Royal Marines, a stately warrior force drawn in shades of imperialist Britain, and the Cossack Empire, a fierce band of Eastern Europe-inspired fighters that laugh hysterically in the face of death.
There are five warrior classes in total, each with two main attacks and three cooldown-managed abilities. Their appearance varies by faction, but the basic layout of combat skills and abilities doesn’t. Of the five classes, we were able to try out three.
- Enforcer: A melee-focused tank class that strolls into the WarZone with a giant sword that transforms into a shield. The Enforcer is able to give nearby allies a combat boost, execute a devastating charge attack, or spin around with his sword arm fully extended, like a horizontal windmill of death.
- Duelist: A sneaky backstabber armed with one short blade in each hand. The Duelist is BattleCry‘s stealth-oriented class, able to cloak himself, Predator-style, and get the drop on his enemies.
- Tech Archer: The sole ranged class of what’s playable so far, with the ability to fire volleys of arrows or charged shots, or throw knives at shorter range.
- Gadgeteer: The support class of the group, the Gadgeteer carries an energy-powered magnetic gauss gun and a range of high-tech gadgets.
- Brawler: The melee-focused damage dealer; unlike the healthful Enforcer, the Brawler is all about dishing out high damage very quickly at short range. This class can physically grab hold of foes and swing them around like rag dolls.
All classes have an Adrenaline meter that breaks into multiple bars, which fill as you deal damage and score kills or assists. You can “spend” a single filled bar to soup up your character’s combat capabilities for a limited time, or you can wait until all of the bars are filled and spend them in one go to unleash your Ultimate Ability. Characters in this state are at their most powerful, with the ability to cut through most any foe in seconds.
Totally not Team Fortress. BattleCry feels stylistically similar to the darkly humorous, high-speed action of Team Fortress 2. The third-person perspective works best for this particular game, especially with a wide range of traversal techniques, from grapple points and jump launchers to the simple act of hoisting oneself up to low-set ledges.
The different classes all seem to support one another as well. It’s hard to say for sure at such an early point, and after playing with a group of fellow first-timers, but it seems like BattleCry has been built with an eye toward empowering those teams that work together effectively. The winners during our play sessions put their Enforcers on the front lines while Duelists created confusion in the rear ranks and Tech Archers chipped away at health, bit by bit.
A colorful deathworld. For all of the violence and wanton death in BattleCry, there’s a cheery feeling to the proceedings thanks to Antonov’s eye-catching art direction. Surreal, heavily stylized environments seem to be part of the mission statement. There are clear echoes of Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, Wizards) in every texture, but there’s a liveliness to the color palette and character animations that — as much as it nods with vigorous approval at Team Fortress 2 — is uniquely Antonov.
Rep yo’self. While the studio isn’t quite ready to start talking about the actual costs connected to BattleCry, we do know that there’s an element of customization in the game. Using currency earned from matches (or, presumably, purchased with real dollars), players will be able to outfit their warriors with new (purely cosmetic) weapons, helmets, armor, skins, and gender options. That’s in addition to a multi-tiered, skill tree-based leveling system (we didn’t get to see it).
Bragging rights and building a reputation are also a key component of the social aspect of the game. In addition to “The War Effort,” a persistent faction-vs-faction-vs-faction game mode (with rewards attached), there’s also a brief period at the end of each match during which players are able to dole out a limited number of salutes and medals to foes that earned a level of respect. All of this feeds into the expected online leaderboards.
There’s no escaping the free-to-play label that tends to carry so much baggage, but BattleCry Studios appears to have a sharp, well-designed multiplayer action game on its hands. For every dozen poorly executed F2P efforts, there’s a Team Fortress 2. The beta isn’t set to kick off until 2015, so it’s hard to predict much right now, but early impressions suggest that BattleCry could end up being the rare pearl-filled oyster in an ever-rising sea of mediocrity.