It is a striking demonstration of how video gaming has been rocked by the rise of smartphones and tablets that perhaps the most well-trodden thematic ground in all the history of video games has been almost totally absent from iOS until now.
Video games cut their teeth on World War II and didn’t stop biting for decades – it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the torrent of games about the war started to slow down. Once Halo proved that console gamers would embrace the first-person shooters, publishers started to push their franchises out of the past and into the sexier, easier-to-market present. Today’s gamers would be surprised to see the earliest incarnations of Call of Duty – relatively staid WWII shooters, devoid of holographic scopes and UAV strikes. This is to say nothing of the turn-based strategy game, which has all but vanished.
Once the core of the gaming audience, the wargamers who midwifed the gaming revolution have been marginalized by the mainstreaming of gaming – served now by niche PC developers like Shrapnel, Battlefront, and Matrix Games.
In the past few weeks, someone has finally turned on the lights in the World War II turn-based strategy section of the App Store. The old guard of developers have stirred, and now Slitherine’s Battle Academy and Battlefront’s Combat Mission: Touch have appeared – both being iPad ports of existing PC franchises. Battle Academy is far and away the superior of the two, though both have their merits and their very existence bodes well for the future of strategy gaming on tablets.
Battle Academy for iPad is the game I’ve wanted ever since I held a tablet computer in my hands for the first time. An isometric-perspective turn-based tactical game set in the Second World War, Battle Academy is full of the little details and polish that you expect in a hardcore wargame: suppressive fire effects, historical flavour text on the unit selection screen, terrain deformation. The core gameplay has you in control of a variety of company-sized mixed groups of infantry and vehicles, always the Allies and often out-gunned and out-classed by the Germans. But for all that the underlying game mechanics are very simple, meaning it’s quite easy to pick and play.
Battle Academy doesn’t model the thickness of the armour on a Tiger tank’s turret as compared that of the front glacis plate, and difference of one anti-tank weapon from another is simply a power rating on a 1 to 100 scale. But it does give a bonus to shots on the rear of a tank where armor is typically thinnest, encouraging players to use suppressive fire and maneuver to score kills. Battle Academy manages to strike a balance between simulation and game, and it rewards tactical thinking without punishing newbies who don’t know a Panzerfaust from a PIAT launcher.
That pick-up-and-play feel extends out from the tactical action and into the whole game, which is a bit of a pity. Your units gain experience (and eventually, special abilities) in combat, but your units don’t carry over from mission to mission – the “campaigns” are really just collections of similarly-themed missions without any kind of persistent connection. The three campaigns that are included with the game (set in North Africa, Normandy, and the Battle of the Bulge) are very satisfying on the whole, with a good degree of variety – though there is a frustrating tendency towards desperate defense missions where the player is charged with holding a victory point against a superior German force. While those scenarios are great at providing nail-biting drama, they can grow wearisome after too many. The upside to the lack of campaign continuity means that any missions that don’t appeal to you can be skipped at your leisure. Other campaigns like Market Garden and the hypothetical Nazi invasion of Britain, Operation Sealion, are available as in-app purchases.
No review of Battle Academy is complete without mentioning the price: at $19.99/£13.99, it is one of the more expensive games on the App Store. Slitherine’s reasoning is clearly that this same game that they sold at that price on PC – and indeed, the iPad version and PC versions are nearly indistinguishable. Battle Academy for iPad features a PC-like save/load system, the ability to challenge PC players in multiplayer games, and mod functionality that provides access to dozens of player-created missions, some of which are very good indeed.
Even though Battle Academy is a port, the game feels like it was made for the iPad. The touch controls are impeccable and the game handles multitasking perfectly. The graphics (especially since the post-release retina update) are lovely and detailed.
From Slitherine’s point of view, Battle Academy is a $20 game because it is a $20 game – tautological, but I can’t argue. The built-in missions alone provided me with days worth of entertainment, to say nothing of the player-created ones. I wouldn’t have blinked at paying $20 for Battle Academy for PC on Steam – on the iPad it’s arguably worth more, given that there are almost no other games worth mentioning in its category.
In price, content, and execution, Battle Academy is a proud game from another time. And worth every penny.
5 out of 5