Battalion 1944 feels just like Call of Duty 2.
This isn’t a surprise, Bulkhead Interactive’s multiplayer first-person shooter proudly proclaims itself as a spiritual successor to World War II classics Medal of Honour and Call of Duty 2, in a campaign that saw 10,096 backers throwing in £317,281 to help bring the game to life.
Playing a game on the showfloor of an expo, in team deathmatch, is rarely ideal to get a strong sense of what a title can offer, but Battalion 1944 immediately made a positive impression, a flurry of skirmishes with a low time to kill and clever map design that demonstrated what a strong core package Battalion has to offer, and what Bulkhead Interactive has to work with as it pushes the game towards release.
“The game is in a good place right now,” says senior game producer Joe Brammer. “We're at the ironing out stage, and the biggest part of Battalion, the gunplay, has been in for a long time. We’ve worked with our community to nail the gunplay, the strafing, the movement and it’s been down for months.”
“Events like this give us a chance to see that we’re getting things right, because when I see people saying ‘that was good, that felt really good’ and they’re only playing team deathmatch, I know we’re onto a winner, because for me team deathmatch isn’t even a good example of the game, it’s just the precursor to our competitive mode.”
Brammer is a refreshingly honest interview subject, and bats away a lot of praise for the game with a smile and the defence that no one has seen anything yet, as the game’s competitive mode will blow people away.
The competitive mode, described as equal parts Counter-Strike, old school Call of Duty and Poker, has a card system for armaments.
“So we have this card system,” Brammer says. “This means you get a deck for each half. This is like an economy, instead of having a buy menu. We’re effectively doing the economy backwards, where you get given all of your cards at the start and each one is a class, a grenade, a sniper, a sub-machine gun.
“Some cards will come with a bonus grenade. For instance, the M1 Carbine, notoriously a terrible gun in CoD 2, comes with a free smoke grenade, so you don’t have to dig into your teams grenade pool to pick it up. It’s a better gun here, it’s definitely okay, shoots fast, feels fun and it’s light so you move faster with it. The biggest benefit though is that free smoke grenade, which opens up a lot of options.”
Brammer mentions that there aren’t enough grenades for each player to have a grenade every single round, and there aren’t enough weapons for people to get their first choice each round either. This means that players have to be thrifty and consider how they’ll use their supplies to get the biggest benefit. This creates a drafting phase in the competitive FPS, as players try to guess what the opposing team is going to pick and build a composition to beat that.
At the end of the round, live or die, everyone’s equipment is taken away and the process starts again. The lack of ‘saving’, the process by which a player keeps hold of any weaponry they finished the previous round holding, is simple. Brammer and Bulkhead Interactive want to see people perform nigh-impossible feats.
“The most exciting thing is to watch someone clutch. I remember watching so many incredible clutches, and they would have never have managed those if they had to save their weapon. So we make it so you can never save a card, once you've used the card, you've used the card. And that means, every round you can be giving it your all, 100% and going for the win and not hiding in a corner.”
The drafting process is designed to empower decision makers, giving them the ability to outfit a team a certain way and take bold risks. If the enemy is running low on rifles, they might choose to run with sub-machine guns and take a lot of close range fights. Anticipate this and your team can roll out with shotguns, bringing more firepower to those close range fights and taking the round.
Get it wrong, and you’ve brought a shotgun to a snipe fight, but those are the risks you take. Brammer is excited to see what professional teams do with the competitive mode’s depth, and is excited to see how the meta forms and shifts after launch.
“We’re pitching this game to a whole new audience,” Brammer says. “We're taking what we've seen in the industry and we’re saying ‘Okay well, that's been around for 15 years, let's try it a different way, let's see something else,’” Brammer laughs. “I had someone come up to me at a show and say ‘I love those old school Call of Duty games like Modern Warfare 2’ and I love Modern Warfare 2 as a console game, but it’s not all that Call of Duty has ever been, and all of these players have never experienced older titles, and even things we take for granted, like Quake’s strafe jumping and Call of Duty’s earlier focus on movement.”
“I love Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 4, Enemy Territory and CS:GO are also big influences.” says Brammer, discussing games that have inspired Battalion. “I think they all changed the way the shooter industry works and how FPS games are made.”
“However, we take inspiration from everywhere. I’ve mentioned how we were inspired by Poker and its bluffing, but we also take a lot of inspiration for the UI of the game from Hearthstone.”
He laughs: “People always get nervous when I mention Hearthstone in the same sentence as the shooters. Don’t worry, it’s not Hearthstone! The point is that if we think a game does something well, we take a close look at how and why it works and think about how it could work with what we have.”
Brammer thinks the formula Bulkhead Interactive has and the attention it has poured into making it a strong competitive product, in addition to the tight shooting and movement that’s evident even when I played the game for myself, will make people sit up and pay attention. Not just to Battalion 1944, which has already gathered many fans, but to smaller competitive shooters in general.
“I think when we do show this game off for the first time it's really gonna change the shooter industry. People are gonna start looking to smaller shooters like us, and start helping them grow."
The team are already working on a lot of esports and competitive plans, although Brammer has said that nothing is set in stone. “We’re talking to all the right people, and ESL have been, aside from Square Enix (the game’s publishers) the most supportive company behind this game.”
“In terms of esports, it's always scary to say the word, because people associate it with failing games. Unfortunately you look at guys like ShootMania who say, ‘We're the next esport,’ but then it didn't go anywhere. That’s tough.
“We look at PUBG’s model instead. They never planned it as an esport, but the community wants it to be an esport, and so that’s what’s happening. That’s how it is with esports. If your community want it, it’ll happen regardless of what you want."
“So, for us, if the community want to do it, they'll take it. Our strategy is to let the community plan the events, almost the opposite of Overwatch, but we'll help them come up with the cash. So, for prize pools and tournaments you want to set up, email us. If you wanna run a tournament, you should be talking to us. Because we can get you attention and prize money.
“We don't have years of background player testing, we have our game community and listen to those guys, their feedback and altering the game based on what the populace think is our formula. So, right now Battalion is in a great place, we've rounded the last corner, ready to sprint it into the finish.”
So, Battalion 1944 is on the home straight, and eager fans may not have long to wait. Brammer has hinted at £10.99 as a possible price, although don’t quote him on it, and he thinks that price means this can be an “everyman esport” with anyone who wants to try their hand at the game facing a very small financial barrier to entry.
Bulkhead plan to sell some skins and cosmetic items, and hope to pass the financial benefits from this onto players and competitors. “We’re really hoping to jump in and pick up the competitive PC scene that Call of Duty moved away from back in 2008, 2009.”
“I can't say when we're coming out,” Brammer says. “But I can say it's early 2018 and it's looking good. You may see some scary things from us soon that will surprise a few people but all I can say is look out in January, we're gonna make some noise.”