Battlecry Hands-On Preview: 32 Players Take On Pre-Industrial Melees

Imagine a world without gunpowder, where superpowers settle their differences by sending warriors to arenas to tear through one another.

That, at its simplest, is Battlecry, which is being made by the studio of the same name. The 32-player multiplayer title pits teams of players together in huge battles with swords, bows and an assortment of semi-magical powers. As Battlecry Design Director Lucas Davis explained at a Bethesda Pre-E3 Event earlier this month, the free-to-play title is looking to bring the kind of third-person action gameplay usually reserved for single-player titles to a multiplayer throwdown.

I got a chance to check out Bethesda’s entry into the free-to-play space in a few multiplayer matches of Battlecry’s impending beta, which featured three of its eventual five player classes. Those three classes encompassed major archetypes: the tank-like Enforcer, with its massive sword that can be changed into a shield; the fast, damage-dealing Duelist, who can turn invisible to escape battles; and the raged Tech Archer, who can quickly ping enemies from across the game’s expansive maps.

The emphasis in each of these battles is on tight, fast combat, but team tactics play a large role in the proceedings. It’s easy for a Tech Archer to stumble across an Enforcer and get thrashed; out of its element, the ranged class can do little but run and try to deal as much damage as possible. Running into groups of enemies on your own also usually means a quick death; teamwork is key.

But that doesn’t mean that individuals don’t have the means of dishing out serious punishment. Each class of character has standard class attacks, as well as a few cooldown-based extra moves. The Enforcer can cover ground quickly and block blows, the Duelist is all speed and hit-and-runs, and the Tech Archer can fire off area-of-effect attacks that can throw enemies backward.

Each arena in Battlecry is dubbed a “warzone,” and they’re made up of villages and light industrial areas, their buildings smashed by past wars. Littered throughout the arenas are elevated locations where ambushes can be staged, and grapnel points at intervals make traveling quick and easy. Smart use of topography can turn the tide of a battle, keeping archers clear of damage and providing players a way to get out of fights and then back into them in a hurry.

The multiplayer battles shown during the preview did give a sense of how classes worked together. A team front-loaded with Enforcers was a powerful force for a short while in one match, as they tore through players with their huge swords and made a wall of shields, but it couldn’t last; before long, faster characters were firing away from across the map or executing ambushes on players who had wandered too far from the pack. And smart players were able to use their abilities together in tandem with others, positioning Enforcers to absorb damage while Duelists and Tech Archers thrashed unwary enemies.

Apart from the differences in character class, Battlecry’s two factions are a big choice for players. Though the two factions have the same classes, the Royal Marines (a take on the British Empire) and the Cossack Empire (an Eastern European-leaning group) each have different move sets for their classes. Over time, Lucas said, players will see their battles contributing to a greater “war effort” system, which consists of a persistent worldwide metagame that can result in rewards for each faction.

Each of Battlecry’s battles ends with one particularly interesting element: rather than encouraging players to taunt one another, matches end with players congratulating each other on a game well played. You’re able to salute other players you encounter on both teams, and each players has a limited number of medals to hand out as well. Salutations and medals also result in extra rewards for both the player giving them and the recipient, and it engenders something of a more poignant “GG” feeling than most other multiplayer titles.

The element that isn’t yet clear is how Bethesda means to compete in the rapidly expanding, somewhat crowded free-to-play multiplayer space. Battlecry’s 16-player teams help set it apart at the outset — that’s a pretty large field for a game based mostly on melee combat, but it never felt too crowded during our press preview.

Battlecry also differentiates itself with its gunpowderless alternate history, with more lore and worldbuilding to come later, Lucas said. It carries a painterly art style that seems to take inspiration from comic books and cel-shaded animation, giving it a distinct look. And the game counts Viktor Antonov, who formerly served as Dishonored’s visual design director and who is known for creating Half-Life 2’s City 17, as its creative director. A heavy emphasis on Battlecry’s visual style gives it a unique feel in battle, something of a cross between Final Fantasy VII, Team Fortress 2, and the Revolutionary War aesthetic of Assassin’s Creed 3.

And in general, Battlecry was pretty fun, even for a band of newbs trying it for the first time. The PC-based multiplayer title is easy to pick up and offers a lot of potential for depth, but at its heart, it’s a melee game that handles similarly to titles like God of War. That might serve to make it something fresh on the free-to-play multiplayer scene.

Battlecry is slated to launch sometime in 2015.

Phil Hornshaw is senior editor at GameFront. Find more of his work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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