Originally published at: https://statelyplay.com/2019/03/04/batalj-silent-running/
BATALJ, henceforth stripped of exuberant capitalisation, has released. It features three distinct factions, WEGO combat, a crisp aesthetic and the seal of quality you’d expect from DICE alumni. It is without a doubt one hell of a game.
At least. I think it could be. Possibly one of the year’s best, caught in the right light.
But so far, in this online-only game, I’ve yet to find a single match.
In a nutshell, Batalj lets players battle custom squads across condensed hex-maps, vying for kills or captures in a WEGO-driven plot-and-play framework. You plan your units’ moves and attacks based on their initiative, then let the entire gallery have at it. Each unit has special actions; active and passive, ranged and intimate. If you’ve played the excellent Atlas Reactor, think that, but driving handfuls of characters rather than single units.
Before I launch into the well-worn argument that such games should ship with bot matches and, even better, asynchronous play, I do wonder how exactly Fall Damage could have offset the launch desolation. How do you jump-start initial server pop flaccidity? Batalj is a complex, nuanced game caught in the cycle of requiring players to warrant players. And being twenty clams, though not unreasonable, falls outside of an impulsive Punt Range purchase. Lord knows I’ve been caught owning a game with a good idea, and nobody to play it with.
Many moons ago, I recall the Mode 7 Games fellows offering a two-fer with each purchase of their breakout hit. Buy the game, receive a second copy to gift. The original Frozen Synapse was never short of players, and being able to offset the premium indie price tag — or thereabouts for a homegrown watershed strategy game in 2011 — by ostensibly halving the overhead made it an easy sell. Honestly, you were losing money by not owning Frozen Synapse all those years ago. Sound financial advice.
Having a soft launch in Early Access might have garnered a little more interest, but the flipside is, games seem to burn out their novelty window when released in such a state, ending up sitting dormant in libraries as they coast into one-point-zero. Would a cheaper, work-in-progress version of Batalj kindled a greater response or fostered more interest? Spitballs and anecdotes, the Early Access of today is a far cry from a few years ago, where the community-voted and imperfect Steam Greenlight filtered the tide of dross and flotsam that mires the platform today. In short, the App Store-like oil slick of modern Steam is a hard, irritating place to browse. And no doubt, an even more horrid place to sell.
I am definitely not a bloke who thinks everything can be solved by pulling the ripcord on the Free-To-Play Fulton, particularly in relation to Batalj. The factions in Batalj aren’t numerous enough to be rotated, ala League of Legends, and not populous enough to have units nickled and dimed behind micro-transactions. It could conceivably work, but not without some serious post-launch content. More gangs. More units. The kind of work that is required well before the game goes gold.
To bots? Indeed, for a small team, sometimes the act of coding up AI that can put up a competent fight atop a complex clutch of variables is just not viable. Batalj is a complex game, with each unit and faction distinct. Beyond its tutorial, online is about the only way to play the game. For a tactical strategy game, one that demands a certain familiarity with its toolset, Fall Damage are hoping players won’t mind going in cold and taking licks. The tutorial itself isn’t bad, but cursory. A driving test that only really quizzes the punter on how many wheels a sedan has.
And to asynchronous play. I feel this should be mandatory for most games of this ilk, stipulated primarily by the fact there’s nothing else bar the online WEGO. No campaign, no bots. Given Batalj’s phases, with its plethora of tactical hex-hopping and combat, why not at least offer it as an adjunct to the, uh, real-time turn-based mode? Let people enjoy the game at their own pace, on their own schedule and timezone. Nothing would be lost bar real-time bants.
However, asynchronous play isn’t an authorial fit for some, and as much as I’d love for something like Battlestar Galactica Deadlock to tout the Commit / Upload / Notify ideology, the Blacklab Games folk have stated it just wasn’t part of the brief. The same no doubt for Fall Damage. More is the pity if so.
So, while this has spiraled almost immediately into a pithy, backseat driver editorial on options, I want to suggest that, in place of having to join a Discord server for public matchmaking, maybe pick up two copies and gift one to a willing friend? Batalj is a tidy piece of work. It deserves investigation and a big audience. It deserves busy servers tirelessly trading tactical packets. Matches found within minutes instead of a despondent exit after twenty minutes’ worth of — allow me this — no DICE.