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E3 2014 Recap – Battle Cry

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Ask anyone focused on the online gaming side of E3 and they’ll agree, Bethesda coming out of left field with a free to play online battle arena was likely the biggest surprise of the show. With the entire Bethesda spotlight on the recent Elder Scrolls Online launch, this one flew under our radar entirely. We barely managed to sneak in during the closing hours of Thursday to get some hands-on time with the game, and while recording our session was blocked, Zelus and I had a serious blast during the two matches we sat down for.

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What we experienced was incredibly smooth and fluid for an alpha. It seems Bethesda focused on getting the engine working flawlessly and then brought in some distinctly Dishonored graphics courtesy of the beautiful mind, Viktor Antonov himself, to create a sonic-speed gore fest with that kind of visceral satisfaction only a twisted mastermind of violence can envision. The downside of course was that only one map was ready for testing and only three of the teased five classes were currently selectable.

The UI took some getting used to before I feel in love with it. I spawned in round one as an Archer fighting for the Royal Marines against the Prussian Cossacks. Though mentioning a little backstory might be needed to help you envision the world of Battle Cry. You’re in an early 20th century Europe following a monumental treatise that outlawed gun powder. Due to the horrors of a World War that was truly the war to end all wars, nations flourished, advancing technologically far beyond what we imagine of this time in history. Now with tensions on the rise, conflicts are decided more diplomatically… in designated arenas pitting the military elites of each nation in gladiatorial arenas to fight for territorial control for their nations. Oh and did I mention they’re paid for their sacrifice in iron? Imaginative.

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Playing the archer roll in the current alpha state can be a rough life. You’re the squishiest class while also requiring the highest amount of skill of the three possibilities. I was cut down twice before I even understood what was happening by the rogues that carried the ability to go invisible for long durations of time before striking. Once a melee is on you, trading blow for blow is a sure fire method to lose 80% of the time. That’s where rolling comes into play.

Taking a queue straight out of Zelda, the fastest way to get around on a flat featureless surface is to jump and then hit the space bar a second time to perform a diving roll. This roll is slightly higher than your current max speed though, meaning if you were already attacking someone and taking damage, your roll is going to be pitiful. However it’s a nifty feature for the archer class to clear some distance and have a fighting chance before you’re back on the respawn screen.

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Everything happens incredibly fast in Battle Cry. If you’re the type who tends to freeze under pressure during competitive gaming sequences, this game won’t have much to offer. Adrenaline junkies, on the other hand, should be ecstatic about the pacing on offer. On average it will take four to five strikes from melee range to down you. This can happen even faster if your opponent has built up some adrenaline from fighting already and chooses to unleash it. Adrenaline builds up in bar chunks, and allows you to unleash a powerful special attack at your next strike. Should you choose to save up (and survive long enough as the charges are lost on death), to reach a full five bars of adrenaline, you can choose to expend the entire bar on an ultimate ability. This involved a super speed and damage buff for archers and an electrically charged dagger finish for the rogue. To say the full adrenaline charge powers are a nice boon is a terrible understatement as I managed to dismantle three combatants by myself on a rogue at one point.

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The current win conditions are simplistic yet satisfying for the given gameplay. First to 75 kills wins. No worries, it goes by fast! Roughly ten minute matches, thanks to the rather small map we experienced in a five versus five deathmatch mode. Map design overall offers plenty of platforming options, including grapples to allow you to quickly swing over chasms and speed booster platforms that let you rocket around the map. Both are ill advised if one is not in a pinch as nothing reveals your position like flying through the sky in a bright red or yellow jumpsuit.

I’m still a bit iffy on the skill system in Battle Cry. At first the skill use in combat seemed rather pointless. Enforcer skills seemed pointlessly defensive in such a strike first setting. Archer skills required far too much time to properly aim when a foe is dismantling your face. And most rogue skills either jumped you past the enemy you needed to cut apart, or let your motionless long enough to offer up a free kill. Meanwhile ranged attacks were fast and deadly and melee attacks packed a homing assist to them that made spamming auto attack a surefire win if you were first to engage.

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Although I feel there is still plenty of balancing to make the skill system work, I found it to be a beneficial inclusion even at this state of the game. It’s just not the type of game where spamming skills as soon as they are off cooldown is the ideal route to victory. The archer’s awareness ability letting you spot silhouettes of enemies through walls is invaluable on a class that needs to keep its distance at all times. Teamwide map awareness was also a key piece of the victory puzzle. Their explosion arrow when used to support a friend also landed me a few double kills thanks to the heavy reliance on melee in the current build. And though I wasn’t practiced enough to manage it, a well-timed pushback arrow could toss a foe into a bottomless pit when chased along the narrow upper ledges of the map.

Having gained this understanding of using skills as support options rather than immediate win buttons, I quickly transformed into a killing machine in my round 2 rogue match. Utilizing the jump through skill as an escape rather than initiation skill got me out of most any unwanted 3v1 situations. The stand and fire electric attack served as an excellent finisher for archers that reacted and ran after suffering too much damage.

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While I feel it likely goes unnoticed by most participants, the decision of how to portray health in Battle Cry may be its most distinct feature. Rather than an obvious numerical health bar, players see blood splats splash across their screen, blocking their field of vision. The color of the game distorts into orange hues and sound fades ever so slightly as well. Hard to describe as it is, the experience subconsciously puts you into this state of teeth gritting ‘oooooooooh sheeeeeeit’ mental state that left me pausing in bewildered confusion after winning a couple extremely close face-offs. Then as your mind begins to regroup, your screen recovers and returns to normal. It’s a level of immersion I have not experienced in games outside of VR thus far.

While we’re still a good year out from open beta testing of Battle Cry, my brief experience already has me pining for more. The emphasis on persistent territorial struggles, Harry Potter-esque end of match reports, and mysteries held within the currently unavailable armory menu will be invading my dreams for weeks to come.

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