Every now and then a great title manages to show up in the video game scene, only to fail to get the attention it really deserves. Maybe it’s put out by a company or even a one-person team that relied on word of mouth over a major advertising push. Maybe it showed up in the midst of some major releases when the collective gaze of gaming journalism was directed elsewhere. Maybe it’s just a title so niche that most people are reluctant to give it the chance it really deserves. Whatever the reasons, sometimes many games either fail to get much notice at all, or don’t nearly get as much as they deserve to get – and these are the titles I want to cast a spotlight on, to let you know what you’re missing. The inaugural choice for this column happens to be a personal favorite of mine, one I’ve been playing on and off since 2011 on the iOS platforms, and which is currently in need of some Steam Greenlight votes to bring it to the PC. I’m talking about Z2Live’s Battle Nations – quite possibly the best free-to-play turn-based combat and city building games out right now, and it’s a title which brings story, depth and long-term fun to a genre that desperately needs all three.
Now, I can understand the initial skepticism. Free-to-play city-building? It’s not only been done before – it has been done to death. From FarmVille to the now-defunct Facebook SimCity game to various other titles, there are a slew of options available on this front – most of them bad, or excessively gimmicky affairs largely made with sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder in mind. The first thing that sets Battle Nations apart from its competition is visible before you even start to play the game: while other city-builders have a mere setting, Battle Nations has an actual story to it. A damn good one, well-written and played out by characters who have interests and personalities and lives beyond simply giving you tutorial advice and then trying to talk you into spending cash on in-app purchases.
For the Empire’s Glory! Not the Emperor, though – he’s a twit.
You can see some of the story for Battle Nations seeping through in the introductory movie. Where other F2P city-building games would throw some adorable big-eyed creature at you and show off some of the cash-shop-exclusive topiaries, Battle Nations tells a silent story about the growth and expansion of the Empire. Two generations of aggressive leaders expanded the nation’s borders through a mixture of conquest and industry, leading to the current state of affairs – the last vestiges of a rebellion being stamped out by the Emperor (the self-absorbed, seemingly clueless grandson of the man who started it all), with the Empire’s greatest general at his side. Unfortunately, right on the cusp of what seemed to be an impending, decisive victory, that same general makes an inexplicable decision… and a war that seemed as if it would end in months has now been trudging along in an apparent stalemate for years. As a member of the 95th rifle company of the 3rd army, you’re tasked with reinforcing the northern territories against some local threats – and helping to search for this “uranium” resource that the Empire seems to be keenly interested in…
That’s the eagle eye view of the situation in Battle Nations, but the geopolitical situation on the fictional continent of Asteria isn’t the only story being told here. The experiences of your initially tiny outpost are largely lived through a cast of colorful, well written characters. Heading the list is the lackadaisical and alcohol-loving Lieutenant Morgan, head honcho of the 95th rifle company and the central leader of the Empire’s northern presence. Alongside him is the chain-gun-toting, battle-loving Sergeant Ramsey (and his cat Mr. Purrface), the long-suffering private first class Perkins, science specialist and civil engineer Floyd, and the unpredictable and explosives-loving mechanic Zoey. These are just the central characters around whom the story revolves in Battle Nations, and as you complete missions you’ll run into an expanding roster of characters – the Northern Territory locals who aren’t too happy about the Empire’s occupation, the masked and tribal Raiders who are really unhappy about the Empire’s presence, the mafia-esque and petty thug Silver Wolves, the deadly and inscrutable Rebels, and more. Each of these factions are represented by a slew of characters who – and I cannot stress this enough – are shockingly well-written for a game of this type. Not just the characterization, but the story itself is engaging – and you’ll find yourself moving from one mission to the other just to see what happens to these characters as their experiences shift from humorous to the dramatic and back again.
To have not only a story, but a truly entertaining story in a Free to Play game of this type is enough to make it stand out. But Battle Nations has something else going for it: a reasonably fun city-building and economic sim, along with a turn-based small-scale tactical gameplay aspect that is slickly polished, surprisingly expansive, and gives players something to do other than check in once a day to make sure their factories keep chugging along.
You got your Ogre Battle in my SimCity!
As I said, Battle Nations has a major city-building aspect to it: you build houses to host your population, which then allows you to build shops and factories, which in turn give you gold and resources to build even better houses and shops and factories, and almost everything gives you experience points to level up with on top of it all. The building portion of the game is reasonably depthful, with a wide range of resources to gather: there’s gold, wood, stone, iron, oil and coal to collect, with wood later being refined into lumber, stone into concrete, and coal and iron into steel. In addition there’s a slew of other resources gained by alternative measures, and of course the cash shop currency (which can also be earned by watching advertisements and fulfilling other such offers) which gives access to some exclusive buildings and units. Let me attest, by the way, as someone who is currently at the game’s max level (and close to finished with the current run of missions), you can play the game and have a lot of fun without spending so much as a dollar on this currency, or to do much else besides. There’s plenty you can spend your time and effort on, and a whole lot of fun to have – though frankly, you may end up eventually invested enough in the game that you’ll justify picking up some nanopods (Battle Nations’ premium currency) just to show your appreciation to the developers. And to get a shiny new toy to play with too, of course.
The city-development portion of Battle Nations is rather straightforward – you get together the gold and resources necessary to build what you have your eye on, and then in typically 5 minutes to 24 hours the task is complete and you have either your building, your upgrade or your unit made. The units in question are what lead to the real meat of Battle Nations: these are the soldiers and vehicles you’ll use in combat. And let me tell you, there is at this point a huge variety of tanks, soldiers, and (as of the latest patch) planes you can pick up. The variety here is considerable, ranging from simple riflemen and flamethrower-wielding front-line troops, to tanks and APCs, to eventually far more exotic units like mammoth-riding allied raiders, laser troops, and suspiciously Solid Snake looking snipers. These units aren’t just distinguished by differences of appearance either – they differ in terms of base stats, abilities, bonuses and penalties, and more. On top of all of this, the game has an experience system that works on a unit-type basis – use your riflemen enough to gain sufficient experience with them, and you can spend resources to collectively upgrade all riflemen from that point forward. Each unit type has 6 levels of upgrades to go through, requiring greater amounts of more precious resources with each successive level.
Battle Nations’ combat is turn-based, with two sides facing off against each other showing all of their units and their positions on the field. Players and enemies (whether fellow players or NPCs) take turns, with each side able to use an ability of one of their units during their own turn. Some abilities can strike multiple opposing units, and the focus here is not only on using the right abilities at the right time, but on properly placing your units on the field to begin with. The most heavily armored, high-health units ideally go on the front line, with the more damaging but fragile units being lined up behind them. Some units – such as artillery – can hit back rows and circumvent front-line defenses, while still others have attacks which will randomly strike in a certain spread of an area. In PVE, can choose to retreat at any time in combat, incurring no losses save for those units that were already destroyed during the exchange – and said units can always be repaired (at the cost of resources and time) back at your town’s repair or medical bay. Battle Nations also features optional PVP in the form of skirmish matches and raids/occupations of fellow players to sap resources from their land – and units lost in skirmish confrontations don’t even require resources to recover. They’ll simply be placed back in your inventory once a couple hours has passed.
For those of you who enjoy small-scale turn-based combat, Battle Nations’ system is really a delight. It’s just plain fun to spend time building up a huge assortment of soldiers and vehicles, then deploying them in the various combat challenges the game presents you with. Eventually you’ll notice that some units have a particular synergy with each other, or others do well against particular opposition – wild animals are particularly weak to fire and chemical sprays, while more armored opponents require explosive attacks to really do fast and serious damage to. There are story missions to select from, random encounters on the world map, raids and occupations that can be conducted within participating friends’ cities, skirmish mode PVP for chances at prizes – and, as of the latest patch, asynchronous guild cooperative multiplayer in the form of Boss Battles. The latter are a particular treat, letting players spend resources or face off against direly challenging opponents in order to unlock rewards (including coveted airplane units) not only for yourself, but your entire guild. For all but the most obsessive of players, there is always something to spend some time on in Battle Nations – whether you’re buying some bonus-granting decorations to place in your city (making it both look more impressive and yield more resources, gold and exp in the process), engaging in PVE combat to advance the storyline or just plain acquire some gold or unit experience, or messing around in the various PVP options or boss battle conflicts.
Which brings me to the final reason you should check Battle Nations out: the support Z2Live gives to their game.
Free, substantial updates from a team that seems to love their own game
I’ve been playing Battle Nations on and off since its launch. Over that period of time, I’ve seen the level cap raised higher and higher, from an initial 30 start to the 60 that’s currently in place. Multiple story arcs have been added, whole classes of unit types have been introduced, new gameplay mechanisms have been implemented, and seasonal or limited-time events have popped up repeatedly. With the exception of some nanopod-only units and houses, each and every one of these updates has been an injection of free, fun content into the game that all players can enjoy, and the excitement with which Z2Live has introduced their latest content update is practically infectious. The sense I get from the developers is that Battle Nations is a game that many of them actually enjoy working on and developing – something they take pride in, the way Richard Garriott clearly invested a real part of himself in the Ultima series, or how Chris Roberts views creating space sims not just as a job, but as a thing he’s truly passionate about. When developers have that kind of interest in their own game, it really shows – and it shows with Battle Nations in particular.
It’s this last bit which is really driving a lot of the praise I’m throwing on Battle Nations, and it’s the reason I’m writing about What You’re Missing. It’s very easy to take one look at Battle Nations and pass it by – I can even name the red flags about it that will pop up for many people. Free to play? Strike one. A game with Farmville-style waiting-for-buildings-to-finish aspects? Strike two. PVP with cash shop only units? Strike three. But I’ve played this game enough to know that it’s one of the best titles in its genre, and if you have a love for turn-based combat, city-building and a great story filled with humor and drama, give this one a shot. Whether you decide to stick with it or pass it by, I bet you’ll at least understand what you were missing by not trying it out in the past – and if you think it’s a worthy game, be sure to let the folks at Steam Greenlight know.
By the way – I’m always on the lookout for other truly great games, indie or not, that gamers at large may have missed out on. If you’ve got a suggestion for a title for me to look at, either command below or contact me at [email protected] to give me a heads-up about a game you think is worth some attention.