How does the free-to-play End of Nations actually play?

, | Games

After spending some time with an early build of End of Nations, I can safely say that it’s a bit early to conclude much about how it plays. That last phase of unit balance and interface polish does a lot to a real time strategy game. That won’t happen to End of Nations for a few more months. Suffice to say that at this point, the game shows every sign of developer Petroglyph getting back in touch with their Command & Conquer roots.

After the jump, some commanding, some conquering

I got to play a few matches during a press demo, and these played out very similarly to Command & Conquer 4 in terms of the moment-to-moment gameplay. You earned deployment points, which you spent to call in and later reinforce the handful of units you’d pre-selected for the battle. You could swap out one set of units for another if you found yourself on the wrong end of a rather rigid rock/paper/scissors equation. Each unit had some sort of special attack or ability to activate. You could also spend your resources to activate the equivalent of “god powers”, some of which were based on your choice of commander, and others that required controlling a point on the map. It wasn’t anything new, and the stakes didn’t feel very high considering that End of Nations will eventually rely on a persistent commander who earns experience and money, as well as units you can upgrade.

However, I really enjoyed a head-to-head tower defense mode. Each player has a base at either end of the map. The base is under attack by waves of AI units. You spend your resources to build up your defenses, buy more units, and even to spawn more powerful attacks against the other player. If you’re feeling brave, you can strike out onto the map to grab control points for more resources or special powers. You could even help the AI attack the other guy. It was a pretty nifty head-to-head variation on the tower defense theme. I’m sure there are a dozen Starcraft II mods that do exactly this, but I’m glad to see Petroglyph making it an official way to play End of Nations.

Probably the most prominent fact about End of Nations at this early stage, before we can get a solid sense for how it plays, is the business model. This is arguably the first RTS with traditionally AAA production values going free-to-play. And I don’t mean that Age of Empires Online faux free-to-play. According to publisher Trion, End of Nations will be completely and entirely free when it comes to gameplay. You will be able to use any commander without a limit on your level. You will have unrestricted access to all the units. Multiplayer games and the full range of advancement will be entirely available without paying a cent. Trion intends to make money selling cosmetic frippery for your army. For instance, bacon, pizza, rainbow, and tie-dye skins, each of which is exactly what it sounds like. I wouldn’t be caught dead fielding units with any of those skins. I am strictly a polka dot man.

Given that this is a game in which you upgrade persistent units by adding mods (these are often loot drops or mission rewards), there are plenty of options for Trion to make money selling these. Note, however, that the more you upgrade a unit, the more it costs to deploy it into a match. The idea is that you won’t be able to buy your way to a gameplay advantage. End of Nations will gradually roll out its single player campaign only after the multiplayer has been online for a few months. I can imagine selling packs of single-player content will also be an option for Trion to monetize End of Nations. But the takeaway point is that End of Nations is intended to offer the same basic experience to players who pay for it and players who don’t want to spend a dime.

Currently, the plan is that End of Nations will enter beta sometime this summer, with an official roll out shortly thereafter, and the single-player and cooperative story missions appearing sometime this fall.