There was a lot of talk about Dark Vale Game’s Forge in the months leading up to release. A bubbling mixture of World of Warcraft’s (WoW) player-vs-player (PVP) mechanics and art style, with Team Fortress 2’s (TF2) accessibility and class-based mechanics? Many competitive online gamers were loading up their Steam wallets and hunting through their image folders for that “shut up and take my money!” .GIF everyone seems to have. I’ve been tinkering around with Forge for a while now, and though the game is indeed an accurate extension of that brief description I gave, Dark Vale has some considerable polishing to do before Forge gets anywhere as clean or addictive as the games that inspired it.
Dark Vale promises a lot of new features, modes and options in the coming months, so what they have on offer now is a solid, if limited, foundation, constructed from familiar ideas. Forge’s gameplay is built on its classes like TF2, and these classes are a curious mix of standard fantasy characters and TF2’s more workmanlike division of abilities.
The Assassin is your spy class, with the expected ability to cloak herself but also a quick-leap ability that can teleport her to a targeted enemy. The Pathfinder is really a sniper-scout, but instead of the eclectic variety of items that augment basic sniping, as TF2’s sniper has, the Pathfinder instead has more arrow types than Hawkeye and an accompanying variety of effects, including poison and enemy-slowing. The Warden is a tank, and it’s refreshing to see a female character as this class for once. Her job is to wade into combat, soak up damage with her considerable store of hit points and soften up groups of enemies so the rest of the team can take them out with their various abilities. The Pyromancer is the support class, varying aspects of TF2’s pyro and soldier rolled into one. His arsenal of fire spells is good for dealing damage quickly and in a variety of ways, but without team support he’ll get iced in short order, much like TF2’s pyro. Finally, the Shaman, a dwarf oddly enough, is the medic class, and works best following his team around healing their injuries, but he can also slow down surrounding enemies for a quick escape if he’s separated from his team.
As you might imagine teamwork is pretty important in Forge, and so is team balance. Similar to how amateur TF2 players fill an entire team with scouts, pyros or heavies, a Forge team of just Pyromancers or Pathfinders will get dusted by an experienced team with a healthy variety of classes. It’s just too bad that the game’s confusing, muddled tutorial doesn’t do a very good job getting this across. The tutorial doesn’t even have decent voiceover explaining each class’s pros and cons, so you’ll be squinting at various dialogue boxes trying to figure out the controls while the game explains attacking and blocking at the same time.
The cluttered user interface (UI) is definitely one of Forge’s biggest drawbacks, and presents a serious learning curve when you drop into a match with actual human players. Prepare to get killed numerous times as you learn the interface. Dark Vale has obviously been playing WoW a little too much, because back here in the normal world of non-massively-multiplayer online (MMO) gaming, and especially
in the world of team first-person shooter (FPS) multiplayer, accessibility is king. Forge’s mishmash of powers, health and condensed score keeping just isn’t very user friendly, and while it’s perfectly functional once you get used to it, you’re going to have a hard time acclimating to it unless you enjoy your macro or play a lot of MMOs. I don’t, as a matter of personal prohibition again the insidiously addictive genre, so maybe that’s my issue, but in any case, when you’re a developer trying to move into TF2’s territory, elegance should be your goal.
Thankfully, the controls are a lot more intuitive once you get a handle on them. Dark Vale wisely clustered the class-specific attacks and abilities on the keys around WASD, instead of along the number keys like most MMOs. With some memorization you have all of your primary attacks within close reach of your movement keys, which is a necessity given Forge’s frenetic gameplay. Like any good shooter, Forge forces you to keep moving, and oftentimes vertically as well. Most maps exploit all classes’ shared ability to jump and scale sheer surfaces, often by wall-hopping or warping. It’s another aspect of Forge that is different, disorienting and counter-intuitive at first, but not unwelcome.
If you can grit your way through the early, unforgiving matches as you learn the ins and outs of Forge, you’ll find each class slowly leveling up, as is standard for most shooters these days. The skill trees offer your basic assortment of health, damage, armor and magic increases, the latter of which is called “energy” in Forge. Energy is particularly important because it is expended doing practically everything--using class-specific attacks, sprinting, even jumping. Aside from the basics, you can also level up individual skills for each class, and Dark Vale is promising even deeper ability specialization in the coming months.
When you factor in all of this customization, the well-balanced classes, the unique but practical controls and the clever map design, Forge stands out as an ambitious and naturally flawed attempt to mix two disparate genres. However, getting past all of the front-end and the significant learning curve can really turn off new players, especially those unfamiliar with MMOs, so anything that adds to that initial “culture shock” just hurts Forge’s prospects for long-term playability even more. Strangely enough, one of the biggest culprits here is the art direction; Forge is a real eyesore.
I’m not being mean here--I mean “eyesore” literally. The game actually hurt my eyes, in spite of its meticulously crafted beauty. Forge does have a highly detailed, well-crafted art style. The generic fantasy influence is strongly reminiscent of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and overall, the game has that overly detailed, greeblie-encrusted look typical of games running on Unreal Engine 3. This morass of detail is just the problem though. It makes initially navigating the maps a pain, especially considering you will be moving both laterally and vertically through dank, dark stone, foggy jungles and crumbling dungeons.
The classes and, even worse, teams are difficult to distinguish at a glance, with only colored name tags indicating affiliation. Valve gave the classes and characters in TF2 and Left 4 Dead (L4D) distinct silhouettes for a reason: so you could immediately tell a pyro from a medic or Coach from Ellis. The bright, simple team colors and player models also make it easy to distinguish what you’re looking at in Valve’s games; I always know the enemy when I see them in TF2, and the modeling is so good in L4D that I’ve hardly ever mistaken a zombie for my teammate, which is crucial in a friendly fire environment.
In Forge, memorizing each class’s appearance, animations and attacks, and then filing them away with the rest of the hefty info the game makes you digest, is just one more barrier to entry. I found myself squinting through many early matches, and categorizing everything visually really did give me eyestrain. It’s like trying to play multiplayer in Arkham City; that grungy, pebbly art style might work great for a single-player adventure where you can take your time exploring the environment, but while leaping up and down walls with people spamming fire spells at you? It’s just a recipe for a headache. Even older games, like Unreal Tournament 3, which was running on the same engine and using a realistic art style, managed to keep the gameplay fluid by using distinct team colors and wide-open spaces. Forge is just a little too detailed and claustrophobic for its own good.
Forge is certainly different, and its genre-mixing is a fresh idea--something the game industry desperately needs these days. That said, I can’t help but feel that Dark Vale didn’t quite polish their PVP-meets-team-FPS to the point where it could stand on its own yet. Indeed, every time you quit the game you’re presented with a splash screen promising all the features Dark Vale has planned. To start, a few more modes and definitely more maps would be welcome. This might be heartening to people who have already taken the plunge, but for now I can’t recommend Forge to novice players.
If you’re already heavily into PVP MMOs and TF2, well then Forge will be right up your alley--two great tastes you already like that (might) go great together--and it will probably just get better over the next year. But for people like me who steer clear of MMOs, it’s a real thrash just getting into the game, and even more frustrating that all of the features and modes aren’t present at launch. Still, at only $20 it isn’t a huge investment, a lot better than the $60 flat rate most publishers expect gamers to fork over sight-unseen these days. So if Forge’s launch trailer has you intrigued, give it a shot and come back in a few months when there’s more to dig into.