AusGamers flew to Dallas courtesy of Bethesda to preview BattleCry (but mostly Doom)
It’s time you were made aware of a poorly kept secret within games-critic circles: critics tend to suck at games. You’d be amazed at the sort of inclusions at particular preview events, across publishers: universal ammunition in a survival-horror game, easy mode or, hell, even unlimited health at times, none of which are intended to make it through to the final product and are only put in place for demonstration purposes. These things are there because a lot of critics are well below average when it comes to basic game mechanics.
To be fair, the ANZ representatives tend to err on the side of better than average. Esteemed managing editor Stephen Farrelly is certainly capable of holding his own, and AusGamers guns for hire such as Joab and, well, me pride ourselves on being top of the leaderboard at international multiplayer junkets.
This is relevant to my 30 minutes of hands-on time with free-to-play competitive multiplayer title BattleCry because me and seven other journos from around the globe had our arses absolutely handed to us in three 8v8 matches of BattleCry. We weren’t playing against devs with hundreds of hours of play time under their belts, either (in those instances, devs tend to play nice, which can be a whole other case of infuriation); nope, we were decimated by a team of players that I would only later learn was one of the many clans roaming the halls of QuakeCon 2014 and preying on defenceless games critics.
It was an experience that, initially, left me frustrated; hell, I was pissed. In between rounds I was scribbling down angry notes such as “Cannot lone wolf”, “Evade doesn’t evade” and “No need to use sound”. How dare BattleCry Studios forge such a frustrating experience. Needless to say, I raged the hell out of there.
Instead of sticking to my pre-cooked questions about the bigger picture for BattleCry, I decided to start my interview with Design Director Lucas Davis by exploring the frustration of my experience. According to Lucas, weeding out moment-to-moment frustrations is a big priority at the studio. “Frustration points are something we’re always looking at,” said Lucas. “Any time we hear from a player, ‘I got frustrated here, I should have been able to do this here’, we take that stuff very seriously, so we’re always ironing out those frustrating points.”
The same logic applies to BattleCry Studios own internal testing motif. “We playtest every day,” Lucas explains. “So it’s one of those things that if you get in it and you have a frustration moment, you want to get it out by tomorrow because you know you’re playing it tomorrow. That’s how a lot of those moments really get out. ‘Hey, as a player, this isn’t as fun as I want, and this isn’t as good as I want, and this isn’t as smooth as I want, and we brought a new person in and we understand this because we’ve created it together and got spoonfed it, but this new player doesn’t get it, so how do we fix that?’”
Given the inherent importance of gameplay depth in order to secure player retention with any multiplayer title, Lucas was sympathetic to the importance of accessibility to new players. He did, however, highlight the ongoing discussions at the studio about acceptable periods of time it takes for players to grasp and master a particular gameplay mechanic. “As we design things like [the adrenaline system], we’re thinking, ‘Okay, we accept the fact that not every player’s going to get this on their first session. What is the acceptable period to learn something like this?’” he asks. “For adrenaline, internally, we’re, like, ‘If it takes you four or five sessions to learn that, that’s fine’.”
On paper, the adrenaline system rewards survival and patience, with the option to burn a smaller amount to crank up the power of your weapon of choice. For patient and resilient players, though, they can hoard the adrenaline for use on an ultimate ability that, according to Lucas, “basically puts you in this superhuman state for a period of time and gives you a couple of new attacks and actions”. I can’t tell you what it was like to activate it, because I never survived long enough to earn it, but I had plenty of experience on the receiving end of the ultimate ability. In a word: decimating.
It soon became clear that teamwork was damn near essential for survival in BattleCry. This isn’t the Counter-Strike of team-based competitive multiplayer titles where a skilled-enough player can be a one-person wolf pack and annihilate a full team. But that doesn’t mean lone wolfing is impossible. “The Duellist is probably our best lone-wolf class because she does have the cloak ability, and you have a lot of different ways to get away,” Lucas tells me. “Starting off in the game, if you’re going to lone-wolf it, you have to learn the map and know how to use evade really well. We do actually have a lot of lone-wolf players within our playtest group, but usually the Duellist is one of the best characters to do that with so far out of the line-up. Out of the three [classes] that we have in the game, she’s definitely the best at that, because you can go in there, strike, if you get overwhelmed you can cloak, you can get out of there, you can take a grapple point, you can get yourself free and go back in and find that isolated target again.”
The most important point in Lucas’s quote being “isolated target”, as my attempts at lone-wolfing were incredibly ineffective against groups. BattleCry certainly isn’t the type of game where flanking ensures omni-kill potential, even when employing the hit-and-run tactics of the Duellist. While the Duellist loves the shadows, the Tech Archer was best used for attrition-style tactics, which would force enemy players to move in close for the kill where fire-and-evade manoeuvres worked a treat. The only other playable character at the time of preview was the Enforcer (read: tank), the only class that could block or employ a shield for mobile-cover purposes. There was, however, the tease of two more classes: the Brawler, that’s all about area control; and the Gadgeteer that is designed to disrupt groups of enemies.
The lack of a universal block mechanic was concerning for a first-time player, as it meant evasion was your only other choice for avoiding incoming blows. Timing was crucial and while the third-person perspective allowed some idea of where you’d end up rolling, it was still tricky to master in my first half hour. Additionally, at this stage of the code, button mashing was deterred, as the game stacks input commands, meaning you can’t break away mid-combat if you’d been overzealous with that left mouse button. According to Lucas, this was all about increasing the combat pace.
“Early on, we did play with [a block] mechanic and it impacted the tempo of combat,” he says. “There are games like Chivalry out there, and in a lot of ways I’d almost compare it to the Rainbow Six of shooters: it’s a very tactical game. We definitely wanted a jump in, friendly arcadey approach so you can have a lot of fun from the get-go. So having to time the blocks, having to balance a lot of that, it just didn’t give us the pacing of combat that we really wanted.”
This is further emphasised by the encouragement of close-quarters combat, even for ranged combatants. “For ranged [combat] in a first-person shooter, a sniper could be using a kilometre out, but in our game those ranges are closer,” said Lucas. “We want characters to move fast and we want you to get to this combat quicker, so a lot of it has been defining that. Polishing our levels and just making sure that this speaks to those sizes and those kind of break-ups in the map, that’s what we’ve really kind of learned a lot of in the last year.”
To keep the combat from descending into chaos, the game includes a neat squad mechanic that can be altered on-the-fly, with the press of a single button and no need to look at menus. “In the game we wanted to support squad play, so you have a lot of awareness of your squad, those are the names you can see across the map,” Lucas explains. “Let’s say you’re in an objective mode or you have the option to defend or attack, during the game you’re probably going to change your opinion several times. The idea is, I might be running along to an objective, I might see somebody, I know we’re going to do the same thing, I can look over that person, hit ‘T’, we’ll team up together and do that. The idea is that we want players, instead of thinking about squads as something you’re staying in for the entire session, squads are basically: what am I doing this life? Let me grab the people that want to do this with me. I’m running to this, you’re running to this, let’s do this together. You can squad hop and really quickly form these groups just as you would want to in the game.”
Given the exclusive multiplayer nature of BattleCry, it was strange to see such a strong emphasis on the game’s mythology. On top of this, at the end of each map, the losing team was encouraged to salute opposing standout players for additional in-game currency rewards, before the match-report screen turned into a newspaper with headlines based on the achievements of the best-performing players. “How do you make a Triple-A experience?” poses Lucas thoughtfully. “The reality is you need a purpose to your world. As a player, I can always feel it when somebody has just come up with something for the sake of something. It’s, like, it’s a game, there are going to be things that need to be there that are just gamey, they’re gamisms
. Having that story allows us to do something that’s true to our world. And by doing things that are true to that fiction, it reads to the players. We’re always looking for ways in our game that, how can we express all of this story that we’ve built up just to make a better game. We don’t want to just dump it on a Wiki and force-feed it.”
BattleCry Studios’ plans for storytelling aren’t just limited to the multiplayer matches, either. “We’ll be introducing a lot of that stuff in the website,” Lucas concludes. “A lot of that stuff is going into the game, a lot of that stuff over time into our beta and beyond -- we’ve got lots of plans going [into] the future: how we can get this huge story we’ve built to make us a better game, out into the world.”
By the end of my time with Lucas, my frustrating preview experience had evolved into intrigue, and I was eager to play BattleCry on even terms. He mentioned matchmaking would be an important part of the final product, but the promise of a team-based competitive title that unashamedly pushes players to work as a combined unit in order to secure victory is a tantalising prospect in the public-server space.
Nathan Lawrence can be found fragging n00bs in a variety of digital battlefields, but most commonly the ones from the franchise with a capital ‘B’. He loves games with a strong narrative component, and believes in a gaming world where cutscenes are no longer necessary. In his lack of spare time, Nathan can be found working on a variety of wacky script ideas, and dreams of freeing cinemagoers from unnecessary sequels and pointless remakes by writing films with never-before-seen twists and turns. But mostly he’s all about the fragging of n00bs.
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