First Look: Bethesda's BattleCry brings one big knife to a gun fight

If you play multiplayer games online, the chances are you shoot a lot of virtual guns. Shooters dominate modern gaming, so it was distinctly refreshing when Bethesda showed us its new arena-based, competitive multiplayer game set 'in a world without gunpowder'.

Essentially, that means BattleCry completely removes the spotlight from gaming's favorite weapon. We played three full matches at a recent pre-E3 hands-on event in LA and didn't shoot a single bullet.

In case you missed the news, BattleCry is a new 32-player online multiplayer team combat game from Austin, Texas-based developer BattleCry Studio. The relatively new developer, founded in 2012 specifically to enter the free-to-play space, promises to deliver a full-fat, triple-A multiplayer experience that will be completely free to download and play to its fullest.

The fiction of BattleCry tells of an alternative history in which strict rules have been placed upon war. Conflicts between nations are settled with small-scale skirmishes heavily governed, like a sport, rather than on large and bloody battlefields.

'In the world of BattleCry a World War has broken out hundreds of years ahead of its time. The result of this is what we call a 'black powder treaty', banning the use of gunpowder in warfare,' explained design director Lucas Davis at the event.

'Additionally, nations have formed what we call 'Warzones' [where] your warriors come and fight for their factions.' These Warzones make up what we gamers would call 'maps'.

'We played three full matches at the pre-E3 hands-on event and didn't shoot a single bullet.'

That's the intriguing setup, but it basically boils down to two teams of 16 players clashing in relatively conventional arenas with comic book-inspired cartoon visuals and a lot of special powers to master. The game features three 'Factions', two of which were revealed as The Royal Marines and the Cossack Empire. Within each Faction, players can choose from one of five Warrior Classes.

The Enforcer is a tank, with a big sword and strong armor, capable of turning his sword into a shield and charging into combat with a powerful spin attack.

The Duelist class has a cloaking power than makes it a more strategic player, with blades that can store energy and unleash a powerful 'arch blast'.

The Tech Archer wields a bow - the closest you'll get to a gun in the game. This ranged class has a special bow that can charge up and shoot multiple arrows in a single blast for long-range attacks, and is equipped with throwing daggers for added lethality.

Those three were playable at the reveal event, but Davis revealed two more that will make an appearance at a later date. The Gadgeteer is a support class with a 'host of sophisticated gadgets', while the Brawler is a melee specialist, with a giant mechanic arm that inflicts heavy damage at close range.

Along with the three available warrior classes, the demo we played offered a single map, Fracture; an old and abandoned English mining town with quaint-looking houses and a central bridge over a deep chasm. A bog-standard team deathmatch was the only playable mode, which was unfortunate considering the intriguing setup and the promise of a 'new breed of multiplayer'.

The action is fast and and promotes team play and agility. Without guns, you cannot win over opponents simply by being a better shot. The seeming focus on melee-based combat - which all but eliminates 'aim' as a critical skill differentiator - means players must band together and work in packs to overcome enemies. Getting the first blow in is critical, so sneaking up on opponents seemed an important strategy - as was knowing when you can't win a fight and deciding to retreat.

Players are agile, with the ability to jump and dive their way through the tight, obstacle-filled map, and zip lines stretched over greater distances offer an additional way to traverse the war zone more efficiently. This attack-and-retreat mechanic was prominent - it would only take a few hits for one player to realize it wasn't going to end well and make a desperate dash for the support of their teammates, making for frequent games of cat-and-mouse.

To mix things up, you can deploy the use of various special abilities that are unique to your warrior class, such as the aforementioned spin attack or stealth cloaking. Special moves are activated by using Adrenalin, a limited energy resource that's charged up as you engage in battle and kill enemies.

Adrenalin is BattleCry's momentum system - get a few kills and you build up Adrenalin, which can be used to activate lethal attacks, as well as making you faster and stronger and an even more effective killer. While everyone in the room was new to the game for obvious reasons, the ones who figured out the timing and execution required to make effective use of Adrenalin powers appeared to emerge dominant.

At the end of the match, instead of instantly fading out to menus the game gives you a brief moment to find players who did particularly well and salute them. Then newspapers appear on screen with headlines on the top players' achievements, where you can also award medals. This unique feature, according to Davis, will help 'develop a really strong community'.

This is a community that the developer hopes to keep further engaged with a 'war effort' feature - a persistent game in which teams of players 'watch the tides of battle move back and forth weekly across the factions', earning rewards for you and your teams' participation to your factions' success.

Winning battles in the game will also earn you Iron, the in-game currency used to unlock 'multiple tiers' for your warriors, new skills that alter and enhance their abilities in combat, and alter the look of your soldiers with an extensive customization system including armor, helmets, skins and more.

'We had hoped for something more impactful... But there's still an awful lot we don't know about the game.'

After all the flair and intrigue of the game's background story, characters and no-gun premise, it came as a slight disappointment that our first glimpse of actual gameplay amounted to little more than a fairly unremarkable hack-and-slash deathmatch. We had hoped for something more impactful... more pizzazz (remember the first time you played Gears of War online?).

But there's still an awful lot we don't know about the game. To begin with, our impressions come from a short play test in which a match full of new players - including ourselves - defaulted to the simplest-to-understand class, the Enforcer, and ran around swinging a sword in careless melee skirmishes, oblivious to the deeper strategies potentially offered by the class-based warrior system and the Adrenalin powers.

And then there's all the content we haven't seen yet; what other gameplay scenarios will there be? How will the other two classes affect play? How varied will the other maps be? All critical questions, the answers to which will make or break the game.

BattleCry Studios certainly makes big promises. It'll be a free-to-play shooter that's void of any pay walls, CVG was told. You will not have to pay to advance through the game - Iron (currency) earned through organic play is all you will need to experience all of its core content.

BattleCry Studios also pledges a long tail of DLC content and support, including several entirely new Warrior Classes and other expansive add-ons.

The premise is unique and with Bethesda's backing the potential is there. But the ball is firmly in BattleCry's court to prove that it truly will be the 'new breed' of multiplayer game that its developer promises. A beta is planned for launch in 2015.

BattleCry Studio was formed in 2012 with a sole key mission - to break into the free-to-play market with a multiplayer effort that rivals traditional retail games in terms of gameplay and visual quality. At its helm is Rich Vogel, the man who formerly lead the Austin, Texas-based BioWare Studio behind Star Wars: The Old Republic. He certainly knows a thing or two about online gaming, then, but his studio's first game, BattleCry, is not an MMO. It's a 32-player action combat game that aims to bring something a little different to a world saturated with online shooters. Free-to-play is a thriving space but, still in its infancy, is a sector rife with under-par offerings. CVG spoke with Vogel on how he hopes to change that, and got his thoughts on where the free-to-play market is headed. BattleCry appears to focus heavily on melee combat. What differentiates a skilled player from an unskilled one in the calamity of two people repeatedly bashing each other with sweeping attacks?

Rich Vogel: There's melee and there's range combat. Most people migrate to the Enforcer, but if you play as the archer, and we'll have the gadgeteer coming online, and once you learn that you'll see the power of that. A lot of our designers come from backgrounds with Call of Duty, Half-Life 2 and other shooters - the map is very much shooter developed. It is very fast-paced. You'll notice a lot of things we've put in there was because a lot of designers have done FPS games before. So we're trying to attract that audience to this game. But it's a different game, and we want to offer a different experience to FPS players.

So how does a skilled player stand out in BattleCry?

You have different character classes in the game that have different abilities. And the key think, like in any FPS, is about the silhouette - about how they walk and what they're carrying. That will tell you immediately what that person has the ability to do. And you can tell through advancement as you play through the game, you'll see a guy coming at you and you'll say, 'I know exactly what that guy has, I need to take this course of action'. You need to be teamed up in this game, you cannot play solo very easily, unless you're a range guy and that's even hard. So if you look at the verticality of our levels, they were designed for people with range and for melee.

I think your issues about people running around very melee oriented, when we get all the classes in the game I think you're going to see a different thing. And what's interesting is that you watch people when they first play and about four or five sessions later you start seeing the tactics come in.

We just finished playing the demo on PC, but you had Xbox 360 controllers available and the game already seemed pretty well set up for controller play. Are console versions on their way?

Well, you noticed there's a controller, right? We can't go into what we we're doing, but you can draw your own conclusion.

You must find the recent rise of free-to-play multiplayer games on consoles quite encouraging though...

It is. Very encouraging. And this being an action combat game fits really well with console players. Because they know that genre really well.

Do you have to change much of your game design when you think about bringing a PC game like BattleCry to console?

No. We have a ton of people who are already console developers, so basically if it plays that well on PC, it should play that well on the console. Basically, that's why you see the controller there - we play both.

Typically on Xbox Live, players need to be paying Gold subscribers before they can play any games online. Do you consider this a deterrent to bringing free-to-play games to that platform?

I look at that as an all-access pass. So you can get access to many games, so that doesn't make me feel bad about it, because it allows you access to all those games. I see it as a value proposition; the more content they have, the better off they're going to be. So if we offer something like this with great content they'll come after us because they need it.

The game is free to play in full. Is monetization being done via DLC content?

Monetization we haven't really talked about. There will be vanity items and things like that. One of the thing we're not going to do is we're not going to have gates in the game by design where you have to pay your way to advance, or get into an area. We're not doing that. You earn Iron in the game, and from earning Iron in the game you can play the game for free.

So will Iron be purchasable with real-world money?

Iron is not purchasable. We have another currency that is, but we'll have to talk a little bit more about that later. I don't want to talk in more detail about that because we're still working on it. But there will be another currency that you can purchase.

You mentioned plans to roll out lots of DLC, including new Warrior Classes.

Yes, there will be Warrior Classes, maps and game modes. It's very early - we have several game modes and several maps in development for launch, and another faction which you haven't seen.

You announced a beta launch in 2015. How much of the final game will that beta represent?

We're going to come out with a very complete game when we start in beta, and then we'll grow it with features and game modes as we move along to what our final launch will be.

When we launch, we plan to support this title for a very long time. We're very excited about that, we have lots of great ideas that we'll be evolving, but it's really about players and what they want. Once we're into beta players will be able to tell us what they want and we will make sure we listen.

Free-to-play has really blown up in recent years - at least it has become more visible in the mainstream eye. Is this something that pushed you into going free-to-play with BattleCry?

Well I look at the games I play a lot, which are World of Tanks and League of Legends, which I love. And they're hugely in depth games. And we felt that we could do that. And we want to offer triple-A, high quality gaming experiences that people know from Bethesda. And that why we wanted to enter this market, because we believe it's growing, there's a lot of good fight space - if you want to call it that - to grow into, and we want to take a piece of that.

In that sense, it's still a sector that's in its infancy...

Absolutely. And there's just not that many good, triple-A, high quality gaming experiences in free-to-play yet, and that's what we want to bring.

Do you see free-to-play advancing to the point where it may overtake traditional retail models as the primary way to access games?

I don't know. I think there's a value to having both. A lot of people love the single-player experience and that's why they buy the $60 products. So I think there will be a ton of people who enjoy that, and then there'll be a ton of people who like to enjoy a multiplayer experience that feel like being connected to a persistent online game, like the one we'll have. If somebody wants something, they'll purchase it - it's valuable to them. But I think this market is in its infancy.

Our whole purpose of forming with Bethesda was because they wanted to get into that market. They saw that it was a growing market and they wanted to get into it offering a triple-A, core gaming experience. And that's how we differentiate ourselves, and offer things that people want to purchase because they want to, not because they have to.

That's been our mission. And our mission has also been to allow for playing anywhere at any time, so when tablets get there a couple of generations from now, or even a generation from now, they will be able to play this kind of quality game. And we'll be there, because we believe tablets are going to be a huge market.

Interesting. Do you not think tablets will need better controller solutions to support a game like BattleCry?

If you look at the new Bluetooth controllers that are out there now, they're awesome. I do believe tablets around going to get to the quality level you see on consoles and PC, and when that happens I think it could be a huge market.

I don't see them replacing them, but I see a lot of people migrating towards them. With the new Nvidia (Tegra K1) chip they just introduced, that will play our game. So with that coming out - it'll be in tablets within a year or so, that's it. I think there'll be a lot of people - not everyone but a lot of people - who will enjoy being able to play this kind of game anywhere.


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