Sunday, August 22, 2010

Battlefield Academy Review

Battlefield Academy, developed by Slitherine and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Straightforward use of mechanics (suppression, assaults, ambushes, morale), server-based play-by-e-mail, excellent use of cover makes infantry actually useful, mix of scenario types, veteran bonuses, scenario editor
The Not So Good: Limited interface, inconsistent AI, seven bland multiplayer scenarios with no objectives to discourage constant defending, heavily scripted scenarios reduce replay value, no AI skirmishes, $40 seems a bit high
What say you? This entry-level turn-based strategy game provides streamlined gameplay and online contests with some limitations: 6/8

In 2004 (that was six years ago?! We are so old), the BBC commissioned an online turn-based strategy game which covered four conflicts throughout the history of Great Britain. For a full-fledged PC release, Slitherine has decided to upgrade the graphics and add more features while restricting the warfare to (of course) World War II. This game is meant to appeal to a more casual wargamer, those who are slightly intimidated by the likes of Command Ops and totally intimidated by the likes of War in the Pacific. The other main feature is the server-based online options, an increasingly popular feature for turn-based games. Does Battlefield Academy deliver a solid curriculum, or lose its accreditation?

Battlefield Academy tries a relatively unique approach of making the game look like a comic book (or a “graphic novel” for all those people in denial that they read comic books), and it works somewhat. The menus and scenario introductions look good and is a nice contrast to the usual bleak, realistic approach most wargames utilize. However, this presentation doesn’t carry over to the actual game graphics, instead using a simplified 3-D engine with sporadic unit animations, poorly detailed models, and obviously tiled maps. A cell-shaded format would have worked well for the game (even in isometric 2-D), but sadly the graphical innovations are not carried over. The sound design is similarly uninspired, with repetitive unit voice acknowledgements and generic background music. Despite the inclusion of an animated feel in the menus, the gameplay graphics are below expectations for a $40 title.

Battlefield Academy features three campaigns covering the color highlights of World War II: north Africa (yellow), Normandy (green), and the Battle of the Bulge (white). While you are required to complete the two tutorial levels before attempting any of the campaigns (or online play) and the Africa campaign is the first one unlocked, the others open up soon enough. The game displays a comic book summary and briefing for each mission, but doesn’t indicate which ones you’ve beaten or the achievements you’ve earned along the way. Before a battle, you can choose some of your units, giving you a small amount of strategic freedom. The missions offer a variety of objectives, usually involving controlling specific map locations in a set amount of turns. More difficult optional achievements give you reason to replay completed missions, although the heavily scripted nature of the AI (usually in the same defensive positions or attacking in the same general directions) makes subsequent attempts less interesting. That is probably why there are no AI skirmish battles. There are no difficulty settings in Battlefield Academy, but I found the missions to be balanced pretty well, requiring cautious attacks and smart defending to complete the objectives. Some of the scenarios are difficult, especially if you are attacking against greater numbers, but overall the difficulty isn’t insurmountable. If the thirty scenarios aren’t enough, Battlefield Academy features a nice in-game editor that allows you to create custom maps and scenarios by placing tiles, overlays (hills), objects, units, bonuses, and AI data.

A major selling point of Battlefield Academy is the online play, and the game uses a centralized server to keep track of all your games (this requires online registration for matchmaking purposes). This is how all turn-based games should do multiplayer: keeping your turns in “the cloud” so you can conduct all of your warring in-game, instead of having to mess with e-mails and file downloads. It’s similar to the equally-fantastic system used in Frozen Synapse and works quite well, clearly displaying games that need turns and allowing you to issue open challenges to any comer. Unfortunately, the good multiplayer features stop there. Battlefield Academy only has seven scenarios for online play (I would have liked more or randomly generated ones) and you can’t choose your units; this would have made for more interesting strategies instead of being “stuck” with whatever the scenario designer chose. A larger issue is the lack of objectives for multiplayer maps; there is no reason not to simply defend the entire game (since defenders hold an advantage through ambush) and the lack of a time limit makes stalemates even more likely. It’s too bad the central server system isn’t surrounded by better features.

Battlefield Academy gives you a typical assortment of military units ready to shoot others in the face: infantry, engineers, panzerschrecks, anti-tank guns, mortars, transport halftracks, and (of course) tanks. You also have off-map resources like air strikes, artillery, and naval bombardments that attack at the start of your next turn and additional support items like medics who heal an infantry squad. Unit attributes are very straightforward: every unit has an AP (tank) attack rating, an HE (infantry) attack rating, and an armor defense rating. Damage is one shot, one kill if you get lucky (there is a chance of hit against armored units and “effectiveness” against infantry), although infantry squads consist of multiple units (two to five) so it can take multiple turns to dispose of them properly. Units that destroy the enemy earn veteran bonuses that grant new abilities like more efficient attacks. The interface does an average job: while you can cycle through available units using the TAB key, Battlefield Academy needs to clearly indicate units that have attack moves available.

Each unit can move and attack (usually twice) during its turn. Additional orders include the ability to load or unload passengers, turn (placing the strongest armor in the front towards the enemy), hold fire (for surprises!), assault an adjacent tile, overrun infantry with tanks, flame, bombard, suppress, remove wrecks, or snipe. Battlefield Academy takes usually complicated gaming concepts and makes it easy to understand. Suppressing an enemy unit prevents them from returning fire when attacked: an extremely useful tactic. Hidden infantry units in cover can ambush others they spot and won’t get fired upon in return. Add in line of sight effects and appropriate weapon ranges and you have a wargame that makes grasping important rules a straightforward process.

One notable aspect of Battlefield Academy is the importance of infantry. They are the only units that can use cover and the only units that can spot other infantry units in cover. This means a tank can easily be taken out by a hidden infantry squad if it ventures past a building or forest unawares. This is far more interesting than the usual role of infantry: dying at the hands of tanks. The use of cover in Battlefield Academy is outstanding and it makes the tactical combat much more measured; you have to be careful and use infantry units to scout for concealed enemies in advance of your more powerful tanks and suppress areas where you suspect enemy units may be present. That said, cover almost gives too much of an advantage, where defensive units have the distinct benefit of ambushing incoming attackers. This is where off-map support is helpful, allowing you to dislodge pesky infantry units fortified within the surrounding terrain. Flanking units is also effective, as tanks have less armor on the sides and rear, which increases your chance of penetration, and we all love rear penetration. Your AI opponent for offline action is erratic: the heavy scripted ensures they will be in good defensive positions and on the attack they do coordinate their attacks to occur on same turn (staying out of the firing range or line of sight of your units), but then will go past the same unit, getting ambushed and killed every time. Life is always better online, so it’d be nice if the campaign missions, while probably imbalanced, were available for multiplayer.

I like what Battlefield Academy tries to do: bring traditional hardcore wargaming to a larger audience. And it succeeds in several areas while failing in others. First off, Battlefield Academy does a fantastic job making the game concepts easy to understand: suppression, ambushes, assaults, line of sight, morale, and cover are all abstracted enough to make them uncomplicated but remain integral strategic parts of the game. There are units for every situation and all are useful thanks to the great use of cover that makes infantry a viable strategic option instead of the typical cannon fodder. Using artillery and air strikes is also interesting, as you have to anticipate where the enemy will move during their turn. Veteran units can earn bonuses and extra abilities, giving you rewards for being more careful. The AI is uneven and ultimately less satisfying to play against: they coordinate their attacks but put their units in poor positions. The interface is good but not great: there needs to be clear on-screen indication of units who have not fired their weapons. The thirty-ish mission-long campaign servers up a variety of objectives, but it’s too heavily scripted for much replay. The concentration appears to be multiplayer, and the server-based play-by-e-mail works very well; I just wish there were more scenarios to play online and you had the ability to choose your starting units. Also, there are no objectives in online matches to discourage stalemates while each side patiently waits in defensive positions. There probably will be more content in the future, thanks to the easy to use editor. The unique comic book presentation stops at the menus and interface, which is disappointing. I would have liked to see this game more along the lines of $25 (that’s £15 for you British folk) instead of $40, but Battlefield Academy is a fun temporary diversion from more hardcore strategy offerings.