When it comes to household names for RTS devs, it seems most of them have gone the way of the dodo but still, in some way or another, live on today. Westwood Studios was the name when it came to old-school RTS, building the mostly impressive Command & Conquer series and Red Alert spin-offs.
The sooner we agree to forget about Command & Conquer 4, the better. Not that C&C4 was built by Westwood, even if EA Los Angeles (now called DICE Los Angeles) did include Westwood Studios team members, but I digress. Ensemble Studios was praised for its fantastic Age of Empires series, then unceremoniously shuttered after the release of then console-only Halo Wars. Today, Halo Wars: Definitive Edition enjoys a Very Positive rating on Steam and Age of Empires: Definitive Edition lands on Windows 10 PCs later this month.
When it comes to contemporary RTS devs, there are three big ones: Blizzard, Creative Assembly, and Relic Entertainment. The last one is building Age of Empires 4. The second one recently built Halo Wars 2; Total War: Warhammer II (admittedly, only half-RTS); and is currently working on Total War: Arena (for Wargaming), Total War: Three Kingdoms, Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia… and hopefully Total War: Warhammer III. Blizzard, meanwhile, concluded its years-long StarCraft II arc not so long ago and released StarCraft: Remastered last year.
Basically, the big RTS names in the biz are working on a whole lot of existing IPs. Jump over to some of the smaller RTS devs on Steam, though, and things are a smidge more unique, if only a smidge. Tooth and Tail has received attention for its well-presented RTSing. Early Access RTS Northgard is on track to be a Settlers spiritual successor. They Are Billions is the latest punishing RTS/tower defence addiction. And Petroglyph recently rolled Forged Battalion into Early Access on Steam. At first glance, the Command & Conquer influence is clear, even if the stylised art holds a unique charm. The C&C influence is likely there because, like EA Los Angeles, Petroglyph is a studio comprised of ex-Westwood Studios employees.
Unlike EA Los Angeles’ last RTS effort in Tiberian Twilight (we should have known; I mean, come on: it has “Twilight” in the title!) and subsequent rebranding, Petroglyph knows how to make an RTS that’s worthy of Command & Conquer’s legacy. After the untimely death of free-to-play Command & Conquer: Generals 2—which, as a massive Generals fan, upset me a lot—I’ve been searching for an RTS to fill that Generals-shaped hole.
From what I’ve played, Forged Battalion is closer to core C&C than the Generals spin-off which, of course, isn’t a bad thing. For those craving a Generals fix, I’m hoping to take the Red Alert 3 Generals 2 mod for a spin and will do a write-up if I can get it to work (on Origin… pray for me). Instead of being a straight Command & Conquer clone, Forged Battalion has its own distinct look and, perhaps more importantly, its own unique gameplay spin that makes it stand apart.
Outside of the core moment-to-moment gameplay, the real kicker is the customisable army metagame. This is as intimidating as it sounds, especially when you consider that you have to wade through walls of words (in a static tutorial with some mostly unhelpful example GIFs) and other text-based tutorial pop-ups to start to wrap your head around it. You’re essentially smacked over the head with this point of difference as soon as you start the game in an optional customisation tutorial which, despite its information-heavy presentation, really shouldn’t be skipped.
I’m labouring the point here not to rag on the game—it is, of course, in Early Access, with tweaks and other features to come, which will hopefully include a more accessible tutorial—but I do want to emphasise that the learning curve feels steep, out of the gate (which carries over to gameplay). It’s worth noting that the army customisation is less Earth 2150 (thought clearly inspired by it), and external to the moment-to-moment gameplay.
Thankfully, you don’t have to worry too much about customising your army or armies straight away, and there are a couple of default Blueprints to choose from that can let you jump straight into the action. In reality, you won’t have earned enough upgrade points to unlock or create anything new at this stage, so you’re better off going with the Default Blueprint.
There are five missions of the campaign to try, or you can jump into skirmish. There is online play on offer, in ranked and unranked forms, but even solo play proves challenging. During my first attempt at the campaign, played on the default Normal difficulty, I learnt about the aggressive AI in a big, bad way. They’ll leave you alone in the early game to build a base and an army to defend it, but if you focus on figuring out the intricacies of the game or base-building instead of doing either of those things, well, you’ll get rolled like I did.
My second attempt fared a lot better, but that’s because I ensured I had a standing army and a network of turrets to defend my base from that initial attack. That worked for the initial rushes, even if I couldn’t find a way to repair my increasingly banged-up army. I had a defensive line at the bottom of my base that stopped every midgame attack. Like Command & Conquer, Forged Battalion has super weapons, and I had most of my army obliterated by a single nuke.
The jaded part of me wants to argue that the AI cheated. But considering I left my army in the same stupid spot, it’s more likely that the AI just nuked where it was last time. That’s what I would have done if it’s a multiplayer match, so it’s hard to get too salty about it. In terms of structures, you can only build one at a time. Higher-level structures require lower-level structures to be built first. Building more of the same structure improves unit build speed, and you can expand the boundaries of your base by constructing buildings on the periphery of your base.
That, or you can cap outposts, but considering I couldn’t spot one on the map, let alone find one when I went scouting, I wasn’t able to take advantage of this feature. There are other janky things, like weird unit animations and pathfinding woes, and the enemy isn’t so much bright as it is just a fan of aggressive blob tactics.
They seem to have access to better units than you, including stealth units, which makes the starting difficulty seem even higher. It actually feels like Petroglyph wants you to play through on Easy first, use your Research Points to build a better army, then replay on Normal and then Hard. On one hand, this is a neat progression system that rewards you for playing the game. On the other, I foresee a point where grinding is the most viable strategy to unlock new tech tree items. This will likely become less of a gripe as more campaign missions (and other content) are made available.
Outside of this, the restricted nature of the starting units helps to push things back towards accessibility. You only need to worry about cash and power in terms of the economy, and both are easy to manage. I’ve yet to jump into unranked multiplayer—you can’t even access ranked until you’ve unlocked 10 Tech Nodes—but considering Normal AI is challenging me, I don’t think I’m ready for unranked play, let alone ranked.
That doesn’t really bother me, at this stage, because I’m still enjoying the challenge of the solo experience. It’s clear that I can’t employ my old-school Age of Empires turtling/base-building preference and have to be more aggressive with my midgame army. Really, though, that’s probably the best training for multiplayer that you could have in these tank-rush-loving RTS games.