Do you like comic strips? Slitherine, developers of the World War 2 strategy game Battle Academy, certainly do. Comic stylings are everywhere, from the opening splash screens to the mission briefings and the jaunty font used throughout the game. This isn’t one of those scary wargames, they seem to say, this is casual. There’s nothing to fear here. You’ll be fine.
Like all the best disinformation, there’s a grain of truth in that. Battle Academy is an easy game to play, but that’s not the whole story. It’s the spiritual successor to Battlefield Academy, a BBC-developed Flash game, and it’s clear that some serious historical research has influenced how the battles play out. Enemy positions need to be softened with artillery before infantry go anywhere near them. Infantry are vulnerable and need to be backed up with armour. And armour is great, but it’s expensive and easily neutralised unless it’s supported by antitank guns. And so on. Battle Academy has a veneer of friendliness but, when it comes to the tactical side of things, it’s about as casual as a tax return.
The base game comes with a total of 30 missions spread evenly over three graphically distinct settings. Things kick off with the Western Desert campaign, which is a fairly fluid affair with lots of tanks, long sight lines, and plenty of movement. The Normandy campaign starts in predictable-enough fashion with the beach landings and goes on to become a hurried advance through heavily defended, complex terrain. Finally, there’s the Battle of the Bulge, featuring snowy village chokepoints and heavily forested maps. DLC is also available to cover Operation Market Garden, the Blitzkreig in France, and a hypothetical German invasion of Britain. On top of that, there are skirmish modes and user-generated content to download. It’s one of those games that’s going to last you for a long, long time.
The missions can be played in any order and, while this helps with the general pick-up-and-play nature of the game, it does weaken the underlying narrative. In keeping with its casual stylings, this isn’t a game that tries to provide you with a history lesson. Instead, each mission is outlined through a comic-strip introduction which recreates the feel of the battle without being too specific about where and when it actually happened. And then you’re plunged into a fairly large tactical map, replete with Victory Locations to attack or defend as appropriate.
It’s here that Battle Academy transcends its lightweight presentation and becomes a proper wargame. A huge variety of units are available to command, and they all feel distinctive enough to have a unique role on the battlefield. As mentioned before, it’s those subtle, combined-arms tactics that are the key to success. Slytherine have done a remarkable job with the combat model, which is complex enough to consider factors such as unit size, speed and facing, but which never bogs the player down with nerdy technicalities. Another nice touch is that units under attack will always try to return fire, making combat just a bit more uncertain and the game just that bit more exciting. Even though turn-based games are ponderous by their very nature, the resulting chaos can sometimes make Battle Academy feel more like an action-packed RTS than the stately tactical game it actually is.
The game is available on multiple platforms, but it’s the iPad version that we tested. Here, the touch screen interface takes a little getting used to, with a double-tap to select a unit followed by a long tap to bring up an action menu for issuing commands. The double-tap initially causes all kinds of woe for anyone who’s used to gaming with a mouse, as it’s easy to select the wrong unit and issue some truly catastrophic orders. There’s also the slight annoyance that the action icons, which have to be finger-sized, can sometimes obscure the view. However, things become second nature after a while and control gripes soon cease to be a major issue. There are a few other platform-specific annoyances, such as a near-useless minimap and the inability to play your own music in the background, but other than that it’s a fairly impressive port. The graphics aren’t as detailed as you’d expect from a dedicated gaming machine but they’re distinctive and nicely animated, and the sound is … well, it’s alright.
Despite the solid single-player game, the absolute stand-out feature of Battle Academy is the play-by-email multiplayer. It’s a doddle to set up an online battle and, as the lobby is cross-platform and available to Mac and PC users as well, there’s usually no problem in finding a game. On the iPad, this means that you’ll be receiving regular turns from your opponents in much the same way as you’d play a game of Words With Friends or Draw Something. It’s addictive and fun, and it’s almost enough to justify a purchase on its own.
Which brings us to the knotty subject of price. At £13.99 for the base game, this is likely to be the most expensive iPad app that you’ll ever consider buying. Is it worth it? If you have a friend lined up for multiplayer, definitely. Even if you’re primarily interested in the single-player campaigns, there’s plenty of content here for the money. There may be a glut of accessible-but-deep wargames for desktop platforms but, for the moment at least, Battle Academy is something of a novelty on the iPad. If you’re after a full, PC-style wargame that you can play on the move then it could well be the game you’re looking for.
Platform: iPad (version reviewed), PC, Mac
RRP: £13.99 (base game), £6.99 (DLC campaigns)
• A proper wargame! On the iPad!
• Engaging and realistic tactical model
• Superb multiplayer options
• The touch-screen interface takes some getting used to
• Quite expensive for an iPad game