BBC Battlefield Academy
Wargaming can be an off-putting genre. Intricate details, layers of acronyms, manuals as thick as phone books – it can all make for an overwhelming experience for the gamer seeking something more realistic than that found in more mainstream, combat-oriented titles. Unfortunately, the simplification that is necessary for the green wargamer is what usually turns off the more experienced grognard. As such, striking the right balance between the two camps is no mean feat, doubly-so when dealing with a topic as complex as World War II.
Enter Slitherine. This plucky UK developer has always enjoyed a natural talent at producing titles that manage to distill the essence of wargaming into something enjoyable by a wide audience of gamers. Their latest offering, BBC Battlefield Academy, is yet another attempt to work their magic. Taking a concept first devised by the BBC, and partnering with military historian John Buckley, Battlefield Academy is a turn-based game that attempts to put a smile on wargamers of all ranks. Does it succeed? Read on.
The Color of War
From the beginning it becomes apparent that Battlefield Academy is a different type of wargame. Abandoning wargaming’s often staid presentation, Battlefield Academy boots up with a jaunty tune and a colorful presentation right out of a graphic novel. It all serves to create a welcoming atmosphere.
Battlefield Academy offers over thirty battles spread across three primary campaigns: the Western Desert of North Africa, Normandy, and the Battle of the Bulge. These campaigns are essentially a series of linked battles. Along with those three, there are two additional campaigns entitled Allied Special Assignments, and Axis Special Operations. These two are your basic “last stand” setup where the player must hold out against successive waves of enemy troops. Lastly, you have a brief tutorial that quickly familiarizes the player with the basic gameplay mechanics.
Once a campaign in chosen, the player is given a briefing that quickly details the context of the coming battle in a few graphic novel-inspired colorful panes. With a click of the mouse, the “force selection” screen is brought up. It is here that the player will get to see what units he has at his disposal, from infantry to vehicles, and is also where the game really shines as Slitherine is aware that not everybody is familiar with the differences between a M4 Sherman and a M5 Light Tank, for example. Not to fear, a quick mouse-over is all that is necessary as a handy little description is shown on the right of the screen, along with the three combat values common to all units: the armor piercing rating, high explosive rating, and defensive armor rating. While wargame newbs might need to briefly check the manual for a quick rundown of the differences, most gamers will probably grasp the significance of these combat ratings. With this info in hand, the player can either purchase additional units from a points pool (if available for the coming scenario) or move on.
The next screen is another briefing, this time with a comic book-inspired map with the notable objectives clearly marked on it. These objectives vary from ordering the player to attack a particular location, to placing them on the defensive. Also, special elements might be in place, such as limited visibility due to a dust storm. It is all very straightforward and easily digestible.
Off to the Front
The actual battle map is of moderate size, colorful and presented with an isomorphic perspective that can be rotated and zoomed. Infantry, organized into squads, and armor are nicely portrayed, along with landscape features such as buildings, trees and bunkers. As with any good wargame, the terrain confers different types of defensive bonuses – visible with a mouse-over – and concealment opportunities. All in all, nothing fancy, but just nice and neat. Along the upper left portion of the screen are displayed the battles objectives, along with how many turns are left and how many special achievements have been met (such as destroy X number of units in Y turns). Along the bottom left are any special abilities that can be utilized by the player, such as calling in an air strike, or calling for a medic to heal a unit. Along the bottom right is a simplistic mini-map.
Play proceeds easily enough with the player giving units movement and combat orders during their turn. Movement orders involve a “fast move” (a unit moves quickly but suffers an accuracy penalty), a “hunt” move (a unit will move slowly, but will suffer no accuracy penalty and may even be able to sneak up on an enemy) and a change facing order. Occasionally there will be other orders available too, such as to board a truck or to clear a wreck. Combat is just as simple with your standard “attack” order, which can be given to hit a known target or to suppress a target that might be hidden in a seemingly empty patch of trees, and an infantry assault order to capture bunkers and attack vehicles. It is all very straightforward and intuitive. What is more, Battlefield Academy helpfully provides the gamer with all sorts of info on friendly and enemy units with a mouse-over, from the type of unit, to any special terrain or morale modifiers. It doesn’t get any easier than this!
Gameplay has that good, turn-based feeling of scoping out the terrain, formulating a plan, and then executing it, all within the fog of war. Be warned, though, as the enemy will react to your orders during your turn with reaction fire, so every moment is a real nail-biter. The AI is merely competent, but it still capable of dishing out damage to a poorly executed attack. As units advanced, the enemy will be revealed, firefights will break out and casualties will mount. Units can be suppressed by heavy fire and, if their morale falls low enough, even retreat, rout or surrender. Vehicles that are hit can deflect shots (tanks seem to be nicely modeled for realistic armor penetration results) or just explode, leaving a burning wreck behind that might just block a vital road that will later need to be cleared.
In an interesting gameplay twist, Battlefield Academy allows units to be promoted when they destroy an enemy. Usually this means that a unit will gain a special ability, such as an infantry unit that gets a deadly sniper for a guaranteed kill. I found this system adds a nice element to battles, albeit, I wish you could take these promoted units with you from battle to battle. I also would like to see a few more unlockable special abilities as it seems most units only have one or two.
During a fight, reinforcements will occasionally arrive and players may call in special attacks, such as a naval bombardment (be sure to press “shift” for the spread pattern on that one!) or a strike by a P51. After each use, these special attacks take a few turns to recharge.
All in all, battles in Battlefield Academy are enjoyable affairs that are just long enough to satiate. When it is over, a quick debrief is shown, detailing enemy and friendly casualties and any special achievements that were met. Then it’s off to the next battle in the campaign.
The Human Side of War
Slitherine has created a nice multiplayer server for those looking to take on a smarter, flesh and blood opponent. When logged on, a player can offer or accept challenges from other players. Simply select from nine different maps (strike that! Slitherine just added four new maps with unique objectives!), not including any player-made custom maps, specify whether to play as either the Axis or Allies, and password protect the game if desired. That’s it; Slitherine’s server does the rest! The match will be displayed and other players can agree to the challenge. Turns are handled in a standard PBEM fashion - except without all the hassles of attaching files – with players are being notified via email when it is their turn. It really is a joy to use and adds even more value to Battlefield Academy. Trust me – once you get your feet wet with the single player campaigns, head straight for the multiplayer as this is where Battlefield Academy really shines with incredibly tense battles.
Make your own Battles
While the included campaigns are nice, I suspect the real good stuff is going to come from the community. Slitherine has incorporated a full-featured editor which players can use to make their own missions. Much to my surprise - and keeping with Battlefield Academy’s newb-friendly theme - it’s not that difficult to use, either! Players can use the many, many included objects (roads, buildings, trees, rivers, fortifications, etc.) to make a map as intricate as they desire. Add units from the wide assortment of American, British, German and Italian available, and you have a battle. Well…not quite if you want the AI to fight it out. In this case, the editor includes a scripting component that allows the player to set up the strategy to be used by the AI (this is the one part of the editor that players will need to visit the Slitherine forums for a bit of help, though). Considering how easy it all is, I have no doubt that there should be a lot of custom battles quite soon.
So what’s not to Like?
Very little. In fact, the only things I can think of are what could best be considered tweaks. For example, I would like to see vehicles be able to reverse out of combat. As it is now, they sort of make a U-turn, something that’s never a good idea on a battlefield. It also would be nice to be able to call in smoke for concealment. What is more, I have noticed that infantry squads have a facing. Alright, I guess everybody could be looking in one direction, but I think it might be a tad more realistic to have squads that don’t really have a blind side.
There is a LOS issues that need to be addressed as well. I’ve seen units on the side of an incline fire at targets that they would have had no way of seeing without looking through the side of a hill. There’s nothing worse than being killed by a tunneling projectile! In a somewhat related issue, it would be nice if I could not see my opponent’s forces when he is taking his turn (the game insists on displaying the info card for every enemy unit). This sort of dispels the fog of war that is so essential to a game like this.
The AI, while competent, will not prove a challenge to more experience grogs. In fact, it would be nice if Battlefield Academy had more than the default difficulty setting for the campaign missions because some of them can be way too easy (especially the Axis and Allied special operations/assignments), limiting any replay value.
Finally, the multiplayer component could use a few tweaks as well. For example, it would be nice if players could select units at the start of a battle, rather than just be forced to play with a pre-selected set of units. Such a decision limits the possibility to explore new strategies. I also wish I could pause and replay the previous turn’s combat resolution. As it is now, it just starts playing out my opponent’s moves and then it is suddenly your turn. Lastly, it would be nice to have the ability to set time controls for individual matches (e.g., 2 days per move, etc.) along with some leaderboards to gin up some competition.