FORCED Game Review & Gameplay - Co-Op Arena Combat

Written by  Thursday, 24 October 2013 09:41
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Gauntlet -- one of the most successful arcade games of the 80s -- stood as the gaming world's best guess at what a tactical multiplayer dungeon-crawler would look like. It was one of the first, and since its release, we've seen countless attempts to refresh an otherwise classic arcade hack-n-slash series.

forced-slider

FORCED is a modernization of that genre, taking traditional hack-n-slash elements and fusing them with teamwork-oriented gameplay mechanics and puzzles. I first previewed FORCED over here, highlighting its playstyle and Kickstarter campaign and, one year later, they're finally launching.

 

This FORCED game review & gameplay video aims to analyze the game's merits on grounds of mechanics, functionality, and co-op playability. Let's start with the video overview and review.

FORCED Game Video Review & Hands-On Gameplay Impressions

Overview - FORCED Gameplay & Game Explanation 

As noted previously, Forced is a game focused on realizing gladiatorial combat in a fantasy setting with arcade-like appeal; it doesn't take itself too seriously, but does have a legitimately interesting underlying story and certain indie charm. The heart of the game lies in its arena combat, where one-to-four players (co-operatively) fight to complete objectives and survive the impending monstrous onslaught.

Combatants will face puzzles (fairly boggling, at times), bosses, swarms of smaller enemies, and interactive objects on their journey to progress through each arena stage. The game's overall layout is reminiscent of Gauntlet: Dark Legacy, where the player(s) select each arena without sequential order; basically, you play what you want to play. If there's an arena your team particularly loves or hates, or is stuck on, you can opt to favor or avoid that arena as appropriate.

Progression through campaign mode will unlock further upgrades for each of the four character classes (explained below), with unlocks split into active and passive abilities. Your weapon-set is comprised of a standard attack, one-to-three activated abilities (level-adjusted), and one-to-three passive abilities (level-adjusted). Although only three of each ability can be equipped to the character at a time, there are eight separate options, each with different levels of compatibility and tactical potency with other abilities. Players who enjoy optimizing stats or min-maxing should have fun playing with the different load-outs, both independently and as a team.

forced-1Selecting a character in FORCED.

BetaDwarf puts their biggest focus on marketing the co-operative element of their game, emphasizing that it supports both local co-op and multiplayer co-op (we tested both in the review process). It's also got built-in Twitch streaming support (untested), so those looking to stream their gameplay can do so with a bit more guidance than most other games natively offer. This is to encourage community growth and laddered (time trials) competition.

Although each arena is technically a standalone, scripted series of events, I did find myself replaying several of them strictly on the principal that I wanted to rank higher on the leaderboards. By this virtue, competitive players and fans of speed runs / time trials can get a bit of additional value from Forced.

Single-player play is certainly possible -- and I did a lot of that, too -- but the game is really purpose-built to elicit laughs and tactical play with friends. That doesn't mean solo players can't enjoy Forced, though, as the game's scaling will vary challenges based on player count.

Let's talk more specifics on gameplay. I'd recommend watching at least parts of the video review, as it'll give you more of a hands-on feel at different levels in the game.

In-Depth Gameplay Analysis - FORCED Game 

forced-4Boom?

Outside of hack-n-slash basics, there are two central, separating mechanics in Forced: the Spirit Mentor and Marks. Starting with the spirit mentor:

To expand from an otherwise straightforward hack-n-slash core, the game's arenas feature tactical interactive objects -- healing shrines, damage-dealing statues, and destructible enemy spawners, for instance. These can't be activated/deactivated directly by the players, but must instead be passed-through by the players' companion "Spirit Mentor," named Balfus; the Spirit Mentor is effectively a floating, non-combative NPC - think Navi, in nature. Just less annoying. Without the HEY! LISTEN! every other step.

The Spirit Mentor can be positioned on the battlefield and recalled by any of the 1-4 players. By tactfully placing the Spirit Mentor, other players can call him to their own position, ideally guiding the Spirit through actionable prefabs that litter the arena floor. These might trigger healing abilities or defensive shockwaves, giving players a temporary reprieve. Let's take a quick example:

Player A is on the left side of the arena, Player B fights on the right. They're separated by a large mechanism that generates a deadly, gaseous cloud. The cloud expands as time goes on, and if the players come into contact with it, they'll slowly die. To disable the machine, Balfus - the Spirit Mentor - must pass through it. Player A presently has Balfus in his company on the left; he signals to Player B, who calls Balfus to her own location, positioning the Spirit ball so that it passes through the machine on its journey toward the player. By doing this, the players have deactivated the gaseous cloud and live to fight another day.

This adds a whole new level of depth to the game and often results in the Spirit Mentor being a prominent and attention-demanding mechanic. Ultimately, the added layer of player interaction restrictions (disallowing them from direct object actions) encourages strategic thinking and theoretically improves the game's longevity.

forced-6Using the Spirit Mentor to pull large crates, players are able to navigate traps.

Then there are Marks.

In my original Forced gameplay tutorial -- back before its graphics redesign -- I made the analogy that Forced's marks are like D&D 4E's marking system. Don't worry if that comparison is unfamiliar, we'll break it down a bit further:

It's pretty simple, actually. Enemies accumulate "marks" as they're smashed with the player's weaponry; a "mark" is visually represented as a white box above the target enemy's character model. As marks build on an enemy, certain abilities will deal additional damage or trigger special secondary effects. This further encourages active decision-making on behalf of the players, who must decide between quick, decisive strikes (to escape a bad situation) or more planned marking & abilities (to efficiently dispatch a foe).

This is a large reason the game doesn't feel as mindless as other arena combat games can feel. Rather than spamming abilities as soon as cooldowns expire, players are encouraged to more carefully exhaust their options on marked targets. This also furthers the focus on teamwork: When friend of the site DrGong was in a pinch, I was able to blast an electrically-charged arrow over to his closest marked target, coursing arc-lightning through the veins of all marked enemies surrounding him.

Forced uses various types and subtypes of enemy combatants, each with unique assets that require slightly varied tactics to adequately eliminate. Swarmers (take a guess at what they do best), Baneling-equivalents that explode on contact, Uruk-hai-like berserkers, brutal tanks, ranged units, and more each have different weaknesses. Some player classes will exploit these weaknesses better than others, ensuring that each class has its place on a mostly-balanced battlefield.

Speaking of classes, there are four in Forced -- one for each of the (at most) four simultaneous players. An electrically-charged archer, an icy shield fighter with defensive abilities, a magma-wielding tank, and a shadow-stepping rogue all feature different advantages throughout the series of arenas. When I found myself stuck on a boss -- one of the few frustrations I had with Forced -- I was often able to switch-up classes and use new tactics to achieve victory. Again, fitting in with the game design objective of forcing players to deviate from their baseline, ultimately improving replayability.

Enough gameplay.

Story, Sights, & Sounds 

forced-2The Arena hallway -- no combat here, just stage selection and a fitting atmosphere.

Story isn't really the primary focus of a game like Forced, but the team at BetaDwarf seriously impressed me with the overall quality of delivery. I've previously expressed disdain when faced with a try-hard story that fell short, so I'm a fan of the "do it right or don't do it at all" mantra when it comes to storytelling. Forced does it right: It's not central to the game, the story doesn't require your attention (and can be skipped), but it still adds some character and fun to the world. The game's relatively solid voice-acting is a huge boon to this.

In short, you're a tribesman who's been doomed to embattlement within the world's many arenas (think enslaved gladiators in Roman stables). Under the guidance of your Spirit Mentor -- a talkative NPC companion and key gameplay mechanic -- you'll fight your way through the arenas and prove your worth to the game's individual arena guardians. Balfus, the Spirit Mentor, has existing relationships with each of the guardians (whom you must defeat), and these are severely complicated when the player is forced to kill the first guardian in combat. In the game's story, the Charge (that'd be the player character) is only supposed to fight the guardian until a decisive winner is found - not to the death.

Guess who messes all of that up?

Yep. That'd be us. Damn players, always ruining everything.

The game's visuals have improved significantly over the original alpha copy I played last year. I've often mentioned Penny Arcade's old "Graphics vs. Aesthetics" argument, wherein the PA panelist argues that "better graphics" doesn't necessarily equate a better overall visual or aesthetic. Forced subscribes to this model, using light stylizations and a very specific texturing application to create a more fitting atmosphere. It doesn't have high-poly models and GPU-melting renders, but still has excellent visual 'glue' holding everything together. It's easy to look at, not overly cartoony, and not overly serious. Perfect for what is ultimately a casual hack-n-slash game for friends to co-operatively play.

Audio sort of feels the same way: Not overdone, but not ignored. Indie and Kickstarted games have historically lacked any form of voice acting or - when they do have it - it's done terribly. Forced has refreshingly high-quality delivery of the Spirit Mentor's lines (voiced by Tim Ekberg), and its underlying ambient soundtrack helps keep the setting cohesive without being intrusive.

Just a Few Issues 

I didn't have too many complaints with Forced, but the ones I did have are worth noting. With any luck, maybe BetaDwarf will work to refine a few of these points.

The biggest outstanding issue in Forced was its relocating camera during intense play. It's pretty standard affair to scale the camera back as the players distance themselves, but we did run into issues with map elements obstructing the view of the camera (shown in the review video).

During the second boss fight, namely, my two-person team found itself cornered in the bottom-left of the arena and running out of options. As things started to look up for us (and we continued backing into the corner), the camera attempted to compensate for our movement and ended up inside a cliff-face, completely blocking player view of the battlefield. This ultimately led to our deaths, which was a bit annoying, and happened a couple times throughout the play session.

In the very same arena, the camera would suddenly zoom-out hard and take more of a top-down view when a particular trigger was hit, which was disorienting enough to lose track of the player characters and -- again -- die.

Hopefully the camera will be fine-tuned for problematic maps; overall, it works fine and does its job, but there are some world-object conflicts. This isn't something that'd stop me from buying the game.

I also think there's an issue of information conveyance. During my playtesting, I seated several friends in front of the game to observe first impressions and progression in each player. Each player consistently exhibited issues with keeping track of their own character during chaotic multiplayer brawls (something I've also noticed in the past), often not realized until too late. Although the colors are strongly contrasting between classes (a good thing), maybe BetaDwarf could look into adding some sort of 'indicator' key that instantly highlights the character with a white flash. This might help in locating oneself in thick combat.

Really, though, those are my two primary complaints. I haven't run into any serious defects that were play-prohibitive.

Overall - Who's It For? 

After spending several hours in-game throughout its alpha, beta, and release stages, I've seen the indie team's growth and potential with each step of development. Forced is ultimately a game for two types of players:

- Players who'd like to sit down with friends (locally or online), enjoy simple-yet-tactical hack-n-slash arena combat, screw around with new strategies, and have a good time without the stress of fierce competition.

- Players who enjoy time trials and competing on ladders, who enjoy a challenge, and who favor simple ability-based combat (in the style of Gauntlet and other old games).

If you're not sure any friends would want to play, you need to think back to the arcade, NES, & SNES days and determine if arena / brawler / dungeon crawlers were enjoyable for you. If the answer is yes, go grab Forced. If you never felt fulfilled, maybe try the demo when it's available, or watch my gameplay video (again, above) to get a better feel for it.

FORCED Verdict & My Thoughts

forced-3We quickly learned that Balfus is a pretty dramatic dude.

Personally? I quite like Forced. A couple of small kinks can turn into major frustrations when already struggling with a particular challenge (like the camera), but I'm confident the developers will sort these as more reviews roll in. And if not, it's nothing that soils the overall experience.

The premise is simple and easy to grasp, but a couple of small tweaks to gameplay mechanics add enough depth to differentiate the game from its long-standing predecessors to the genre. Forced has impressive production quality, cohesive aesthetics, and feels mechanically-intuitive. Having personally followed the advancements in the game over the past year, I also think it's safe to say that Forced -- whether it's your type of game or not -- is proof that crowd-sourcing can work. The developers are dedicated to the delivery of their dream, and that's always worth noting.

Forced refreshes PC local co-op -- one of my favorite ways to play games (see: Trine, Trine 2) -- and does so gracefully. Local co-operative play on the PC is meant to be largely casual, fun-oriented, and a good way to fill the night's long hours. The objective is to have fun and explore a game with a friend (without needing to buy two copies, even), and I think Forced accomplishes that objective.

Definitely recommended. Learn more here.

(Note: We're going to be giving away 5 CD keys for FORCED shortly.  Stay tuned to our home page, twitter, and/or facebook pages for more info).

- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.

Last modified on Thursday, 24 October 2013 13:32

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