In its early stages, the strategy spinoff feels stuck in the past
In a year when publisher Smilegate Entertainment is trying to bring one of the world’s most popular games to western audiences, Crossfire: Legion feels like something of a black sheep.
Crossfire, the multiplayer first-person shooter, is massive in Asia — particularly in China and South Korea. It boasts 8 million concurrent players and 690 million registered users, according to Smilegate, along with numerous multimedia spinoffs. At E3 2019, however, the company announced CrossfireX, a single-player campaign being developed by Control creator Remedy Entertainment. To bring a multiplayer shooter west, it makes sense to do so with a tailored, narrative-focused first-person experience.
Crossfire: Legion, on the other hand, is aimed at a more niche space: that of old-school real-time strategy games. It helps that it’s being made by Blackbird Interactive, the studio behind the excellent Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak and the upcoming Homeworld 3 — but still, I can’t help feeling like it’s a shot in the dark.
During a recent press briefing, a spokesperson from publisher Prime Matter called Legion a “classic RTS.” I then spent several hours playing an early “technical test,” and I don’t disagree with that taxonomy. Legion is streamlined and simple, focused more on actions-per-minute than deliberate chess moves. Its units comprise the usual infantry/vehicle/aircraft trifecta, along with commander powers that, when timed well, can turn the tide of a pitched battle.
I played custom matches against AI bots, alternating between the factions of Global Risk and Black List. I preferred the latter, which opts for guerrilla tactics over sheer numbers, and can traverse the map more quickly. In keeping with old-school games like Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness and Command and Conquer, Legion is snappy and responsive, and unit pathfinding is seamless – resource-gathering trucks can stack without getting bottlenecked, and soldiers spread out in satisfying arcs before opening fire.
But, also in keeping with those games, the systemic depth only goes so far. By today’s standards, Legion feels a bit too old school.
In a recent story about Company of Heroes 3, I wrote about the greatly exaggerated death of the RTS genre, and how, despite a steep decline in mainstream and esports interest in the last decade, it’s never been more exciting. Whereas the aforementioned World War II game is exploring nuanced squad tactics, recent entries like They Are Billions and Offworld Trading Company found seemingly endless replayable depth. Even the extremely recent Age of Empires 4, a decidedly throwback RTS, deployed engrossing economy-building.
Legion, though, based on my time with its custom matches, feels bareboned. Its units lack compelling environmental interactions; its resource-gathering is sleek but boring; each faction’s power curve ramps up too gradually to be exciting, and the current roster is too standard to entice me.
But, to reiterate, the demo I played is missing some key features. Blackbird is planning a card system that will allow players to customize their armies before each match, and I’m still curious to see how that might shake things up. Legion will also include a single-player campaign, and if it’s anywhere near as good as Blackbird’s work in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, my initial misgivings could be allayed.
But much of me is doubtful: Legion, at least in this early form, doesn’t just revere the games that sparked the genre — it seems actively hampered by them.
Maybe that’s fine. Not every game needs to be a paragon of innovation. But as a spinoff meant to introduce a whole new market to one of the world’s most massively popular franchises, I was hoping that Legion might push the design envelope. Real-time strategy games are close to my heart. I want them all to succeed. But as of now, Legion feels stuck in the past. If Blackbird is trying to appeal to the RTS fans that still pine for the days of early Command and Conquers or the first StarCraft, they’re off to a good start. If they want to bring in real-time strategy fans that have followed the genre’s recent creativity with rapt attention, they might be on the wrong track altogether.