Since its announcement this past Tuesday (as of this writing) I’ve been immersed pretty deeply in the technical test (effectively something like a public alpha) for Crossfire: Legion, the new deck/loadout based RTS from Blackbird Entertainment.
I feel the need to stress right up front that this game has been put into the hands of players fairly early in its development, in some ways. While the actual moment by moment gameplay runs without many issues or bugs (though balance and pacing still feel fairly in-progress as of this writing), some critical systems like the actual deckbuilding are not available to players at this time. So, this test is more a glimpse into the foundational gameplay than an actual full taste of how it’s going to work when it’s eventually feature-complete.
I believe they are still accepting signups for the test, and are going to be running it for a while I think, if you are interested in giving the game a spin for yourself.
Parts of this article will include some tough love for the game, but I would encourage you to stick with this piece until the end. At the end of the day, I actually think that what Blackbird are attempting here has a lot of promise, and I’m writing this in part to do what I can to help ensure it’s the best product it can be. But there are some things in this build of the game that… surprised me, and not always in the best way.
Fundamentally, there’s something about Crossfire: Legion that has captured my imagination. I’ve spent more time in its test this week (and on its Discord) than I have on any new or in progress game in quite a while. In some circles, I’m known as an advocate for 2015’s Grey Goo, and while I do find it to be an underrated game it kind of grew on me gradually and I was not much involved in the game’s beta or discussing it during its early days. There’s something about this game that feels more than the sum of its parts to me, as I think you’ll see as I continue on with this piece.
Laying the Foundations
First off, what are we dealing with here?
Crossfire: Legion is a traditional base-building RTS. Its core systems are very similar to those in StarCraft or StarCraft 2, to the point where large portions of the core gameplay feels almost… uncomfortably familiar.
Crossfire: Legion is, or will soon be, a game where the player can customize the units they’re bringing into battle. Similar to 2017’s Tooth and Tail or Company of Heroes 2’s Commanders system (2013), players in Crossfire: Legion pick one of 3 factions (2 are currently in the game as of this writing and it’s possible more than 3 are planned) and customize that faction with a Commander. In Legions, the Commander provides 2 abilities to the player. This is actually somewhat similar to the faction customization in the upcoming Immortal: Gates of Pyre, which I’ll get back to in a bit.
I have an example of gameplay below which I recorded in a 1v1 match:
It doesn’t stop there though: as in Tooth and Tail, players in Crossfire: Legion will be able to select all of the units that their Barracks, Factories, and Air Factories will produce in a ‘loadout’ that they will bring with them into battle.
For now, players can pick one of 2 factions: the more defensive Global Risk or the more stealth-oriented Black List. Loadouts aren’t really in the game yet, so each faction has a pre-set loadout consisting of a Commander and 7 units (the developers have stated that they’re increasing this number, but not what the final number of options/slots will be – it’s likely they’re still deciding).
This is where things break down a little for the game.
… Copied Homework?
Because as of this early build, there are some striking similarities with StarCraft. The Global Risk’s basic infantry (called the Trooper) has exactly the Stimpack ability from StarCraft’s Marine – even the icon is virtually identical. Also, there’s a vehicle called the Cavalier that is a fast scout vehicle that has the same minelaying ability as the StarCraft Vulture, which certainly… invites comparisons. And the Logistics Depot that increases the Global Risk’s population cap looks strikingly like the Supply Depot from StarCraft’s Terran faction. There is also a capturable structure on maps that has the same effect as StarCraft 2’s Xel’Naga watchtower, and is controlled in the same way.
There’s nothing subtle about some of the cribbing that’s currently going on in the game.
It doesn’t stop there either: the game’s core gameplay shares a tremendous amount of DNA with StarCraft. There are 2 resources – both are harvested in basically the same way as Vespene in StarCraft. Harvesters are trained from the Command Center, and build structures. Workers have basically the same build system as Protoss Probes: they drop down a building and can move on to another task. There’s only so many ways for builders in RTS to handle producing structures, so that’s a bit of a fiddly sort of complaint. It just stands out more since you’re already kind of comparing everything in the game to StarCraft in the first place. At least, at first.
The game does have some issues that are unique to it as well. I won’t wax poetic about the balance, which would be completely unfair given that this is basically an alpha test, and while the game might be a bit generous with income at this point it’s hard to determine before more testing is done. Plus those changes are fairly easy to implement.
However, some units – especially those in Tier 3 – are large and bulky enough to have some notable pathing problems. It’s unclear what path BBI might take to address the game’s various pathing related issues – it can be a tricky topic since path finding is very complex and hard to get spot on. It’s likely changes will be coming with it sooner or later though.
I’m possibly being a bit harsh. The Command Center has 2 upgrades – actually kind of reminiscent of central structures in Warcraft, or the Zerg Hatchery. Additionally, each factory has a Tier 2 upgrade which unlocks the more advanced units for each faction.
Each factory not only trains the units for a faction, but contains an upgrade which unlocks an ability for each unit it can train. Each faction, additionally, has an upgrade structure that provides infantry, air, and ground units with upgrades that increase their health and damage by a fixed amount. In a surprisingly nice touch, units’ upgrade levels are shown next to their health bar.
For better or worse, the game also kind of evokes a bit of the philosophy motivating the development of Forged Battalion, Petroglph’s ill-fated “design your own units and armies” game from 2018.
I can’t help but kind of picture Crossfire: Legion in some ways like the StarCraft version of the highly C&C-inspired core gameplay systems of Forged Battalion.
The comparison might be a little unfair or unflattering: after all, FoBa (as it’s called) launched kind of like a lead balloon. FoBa’s unit designer didn’t give players a lot of ability to create interesting and deep units and interactions, and while Petroglyph tried hard to turn that around before they ran out of money to keep pushing on improvements it ended up not being enough to save the project.
In a lot of ways I think Crossfire: Legion is setting itself up to be a lot more successful than FoBa did. As I said, the developer and publishers of CF:L seem to have deeper pockets than Petroglyph did at the time when they made Forged Battalion. Also, I pre-designed units provide more room for depth and dynamic abilities (and active abilities) and interesting synergies than Forged Battalion’s system. There’s a lot of mechanical advantages to doing it the way Blackbird is approaching the idea rather than how Petroglyph attempted it.
Standing on its Own?
There are also a couple of kind of fun touches. The Global Risk’s supply depot increases the damage resistance of nearby structures, and the Black List’s version can be upgraded to be permanently invisible.
The Global Risk gets an upgrade at Tier 3 that allows them to temporarily boost production from any production structure (while getting a penalty to build speed after the boost wears off). So each faction gets a couple of little unique toys sprinkled about their core buildings and design that help them stand out a little bit and maintain a more unique character that is likely to appeal to players.
Units are almost Blizzard-style: most units have 1 or more active abilities, and the better abilities must be unlocked by researching them at the factory which produces the unit (I think they did this to make it easier to tie these upgrades to the unit via the game’s loadout system). There’s a touch of C&C to the units, though: the Global Risk’s Rocket trooper feels like something out of a C&C game, in particular. Damage bonuses based on unit type exist, and feel a little more like something you’d see from C&C – I don’t think I’d classify the counters as ‘hard’ as in Red Alert 3, per se, but the damage bonuses feel like they might be a little greater than you’d see in StarCraft. It’s actually a fairly good balance to me at this point.
There are some compelling unit designs, like the Global Risk’s Herald which is a Tier 2 support unit that can provide allies with a defensive forcefield and can debuff enemies with an EMP projectile (I’m a sucker for forcefields, what can I say?) or the Black List’s Chameleon vehicle (the closest thing they have to a main battle tank in this build of the game) which reduces enemy damage on units it attacks, and has a variety of snares for combat control.
The Black List’s default infantry, the Bulldog, can also stealth (though it must remain in place and not attack to remain invisible) once it unlocks its upgrade, which can be a… fun challenge for a player trying to stop them before detection is unlocked. Lastly, once unlocked, all Global Risk infantry gain the ability to build temporary turrets, which I’ve had fun with in skirmishes and multiplayer in the technical test. So, the unit design in the game is promising (aside from some really StarCraft-derivative units which I mention above) and I’m looking forward to seeing where BBI goes from here with it.
Laying a Foundation
In a way, I’m pretty hopeful and positive about the promise of what BBI are doing with Crossfire: Legion. While I’m skeptical of some of the core gameplay they have going on, I think it does provide them a solid foundation from which to explore their ideas.
With a system of expanding Commanders and unit choices to be combined via their Loadouts system, along with each faction’s unique built-in abilities and upgrades, I feel like BBI was trying hard to give themselves a good base gameplay formula from which to build.
To that extent, I feel that starting with foundational elements of a known gameplay formula makes sense. While part of me might be a bit frustrated or skeptical at Crossfire: Legion taking such a generous nod from Blizzard RTS, I can see the logic behind wanting to know you’re building upon a model that will cause fewer problems accepting new units, abilities, and all of the various dynamics associated with the systems they’re trying to build.
In addition to allowing players to customize their army by swapping out the units they can use, Blackbird are also planning several different PVE and PVP game modes, like the Payload mode I’ve screenshotted from their website above. This, to me, is reminiscent of either Heroes of the Storm or FPS like the game’s namesake, Crossfire.
Both loadouts and game modes would do better with a simple, solid foundation of gameplay. I wonder whether this will pay off for them in the long run, but I think ultimately the devil will be in the details, as it were. Smoothing out the worst rough edges (pathing, game performance) will be important for the success of the game, as will be providing players with a compelling roster of units with engaging and dynamic abilities. Over time, units like the Trooper will be overshadowed by more unique designs that (hopefully) aren’t as much of a copy of StarCraft’s units and abilities.
I’ll admit, playing the Technical Test has kind of… sold me on their vision, and captured my imagination. Beyond my enjoyment of the actual gameplay – which, I’ll admit, I enjoy more than my words above about the game feeling excessively cribbed from StarCraft might imply.
At this point, I’m kind of rooting for Blackbird and their loadout-based RTS. I do think the game’s vision will live or die based on its game modes to some degree, and to a much larger degree on the Commanders and Loadouts.
There’s a lot of risk in adding loadouts, of course. I feel like I can’t leave that unsaid in this article. The idea of each faction developing a small number of “S tier” meta builds looms large, as well as the idea of a player’s loadout being blind-countered by that of their enemy is a possibility that the developers will have to contend with. Scouting, too, could have issues, since a player won’t have access to much information about what units their enemy will be able to throw at them just by scouting base buildings – this is something Crossfire: Legion will have to address at some point. I am interested to see how these problems, some of them quite thorny, will be approached.
But really, playing Crossfire: Legion has this almost undefinable exuberance for me. It kind of makes me feel like a big kid, and I’m excited for the future of the game as I have been since… I’m not sure when. It’s likely this isn’t really a rational reaction and it’s just my brain’s flips being switched by the raw potential of the game and the loadout system (I do enjoy loadout systems, I admit).
Before I close out this article, I can’t help but bring this up: both Crossfire: Legion and Immortal: Gates of Pyre are to me taking a very similar approach to their game design. Let me clarify.
Immortal: Gates of Pyre is looking to have a lot of factions, grouped into ‘faction families’ which share a common DNA (and possibly, units? I can’t remember off the top of my head) – also, factions will have Immortals, which will function quite similarly to the Commanders from Crossfire: Legion though in an expanded capacity. Immortals provide the player with a variety of support powers, as well as swapping out 2 units from the faction they serve, providing a higher level of customization on gameplay than CF:L is targeting with their Commanders.
Come to think of it, Immortal’s Immortals feel a lot to me like COH2’s Commanders, though with a more standardized set of changes they provide to the base faction. Anyway, I am not saying that CF:L and Gates of Pyre are doing exactly the same thing with their game. Gates of Pyre, after all, has armies of angels fighting plant people at this point in its gameplay. Also, in Gates of Pyre, barracks increase player supply, and uses a standard unit roster for each faction that’s modified only relatively slightly by the Immortal the player picks.
But… the economies of the games share some similarities as well. The StarCraft-like but streamlined economy, a 3rd resource used for support powers (in Gates of Pyre, I believe the Pyre resource is gathered from the map while in CF:L it’s gathered passively through combat).
I think the games are sufficiently different – I don’t think either intentionally copied the other. I just think it’s interesting that each independently decided on what have ended up being designs that share the same sort of mindset and direction. At least, to me. Probably, neither developer would appreciate the comparison I’m making here and maybe I’m the only one who sees a notable similarity. But I had to mention it.
Anyway, look. To get back on the topic of Crossfire: Legion. I’m feeling bullish about the game: I like the idea of a loadout-based RTS, and I think Blackbird are building a pretty compelling game based around those things. I’d certainly feel a lot more comfortable with the game if it didn’t seem to be copying some things so intentionally from Blizzard’s RTS, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for now and see if they try to take their unit design and map design more in its own direction and double down on what is unique to their systems and settings.
The game certainly needs a lot of work: economic balance, sorting out the power of infantry, pathfinding. But like I said, their vision has captured my imagination. I’m looking forward to seeing where they go from here.
Thanks for reading.