Sunday, January 29, 2012

Battle Academy: Review

Version Reviewed: 1.7.0
What I like: Deep combat, extra objectives for skilled players, abundant content.
Not So Much: Many unit details and combat variables are hidden.
Other stuff you may like: Very moddable. Slitherine play by email system.
The Verdict: B+   (Very Good)

About my reviews

Official site: Battle Academy

After gorging myself on some lightweight strategy games during the Steam holiday sales (like Swords and Soldiers HD, Might and Magic: Clash of Heros, etc...), I've had a hankering for something more serious in the war genre. Battle Academy is a turn-based tactical WWII strategy game where you can command various infantry, tank, transports, etc across a tile based battlefield. For variety, the game has three campaigns covering North Africa, D-Day and the Ardennes. The following review is based on playing all of the Western Desert Campaign and part of the Battle For Normandy.

After not having too much experience with Matrix Games and Slitherine, my last two titles have come from their catalog.  It's just a coincidence - I'm not a shill - I promise!

Getting Started
The first campaign serves as a tutorial mission, walking you through the basics of the game. Pop up messages are used to direct your actions. The mechanics of the game are very simple; click your unit, click the target tile or enemy and, if necessary, click one of the valid commands that pops up. You can control-click to bring up a unit information window and hover over items to get more information. The manual does a pretty good job at introducing the main concepts of the game, but fails to explain many of the underlying mechanics that would be useful while playing. This wouldn't be a problem if the game's UI provided those details, but unfortunately it does not. This doesn't make Battle Academy unplayable by any means, but I prefer to understand how things work beforehand. There are helpful people on the forums to answer questions, but an informative UI would be much better.

Game Play
Each scenario starts with a brief comic-book style introduction, describing the scenario and what to expect. This is followed by a force selection screen which shows your allotted units and where extra units are usually available for purchase to customize the variety of troops you will command in this scenario. There isn't a core group of units to carry over from one scenario to the next. Although in one of the expansions, you can carry units through the campaign. This is neither here nor there though since we are playing the base game right now.

After your forces are selected, the game proceeds to the briefing map which displays an overhead view, accompanied by the objectives. This does add some flavor to the process as you can imagine standing around a table looking over the map with your commanding officers. Victory conditions involve capturing or holding victory locations. Additional achievements are given for tasks such as losing less then a certain number of units, killing at least 'x' enemy units, destroying all enemy units of a certain type, and/or keeping the enemy from advancing beyond a certain point. Some of these achievements have time constraints for added pressure. The optional achievements creates a pretty good system for making the scenarios beatable for less-skilled players, but more challenging for those up to the task. In other games, I'm not fond of having to replay scenarios many times to play the full game. I can choose to replay to get all the achievements (now or later), or I can move on.

I do think it would make more sense to have the force selection screen after seeing the objectives. If you are expecting to encounter a Tiger, you might want to bring extra big guns to take it out.

What are our objectives General?

I Said Jump Soldier!
Now we get to the meat and potatoes. As one would expect, each unit uses an appropriate movement rate and method (such as walking for infantry or tracked for tanks). The movement rate is determined by the amount of action points (AP) the unit has, and it's method determines the cost in AP to enter each type of terrain tile. While a wheeled unit is faster on open roads, it can't enter rough terrain. Before giving the move order you can review the AP cost. Overall the system works, giving each unit an appropriate feel. For additional control, units can be ordered to hunt, which costs more AP, but avoids the movement accuracy penalty applied to shooting and makes the unit harder to spot.

I Can See You, Can You See Me? 
Line of sight (LOS) is handled in a typical manner: each unit has a spotting range, and certain terrains, like forests or buildings, interrupt the LOS. Some terrain allows infantry to hide in an effort to ambush oncoming enemies. However, Battle Academy adds an interesting twist: only infantry can spot these units in hiding, and only when adjacent to that tile. This makes infantry very valuable because without their support, your high powered tanks will be reduced to rubble by satchel charge- carrying, bazooka-toting enemies. Specialized scout infantry are available in some scenarios, which have the ability to detect potential ambushes from two tiles away. Also, units on hills don't give away their location to those below until they fire, so take that high ground!

Be Afraid, Very Afraid.
It is hard for a wargame to be taken seriously if there isn't any representation of morale, and Battle Academy executes this well. In the game, as I expect in real life (I've never been a soldier), shooting at a unit decreases its morale - a lot if it actually kills a member of the squad. Even a shot at a tank that deflects off of the armor tests the courage of those inside. Once the morale of a unit drops below the 1st threshold, it is suppressed and loses its ability to initiate an attack. Dropping below the 2nd threshold causes the unit to surrender to any adjacent unit that attacks it. Once things really go to hell, the unit will just rout. Since there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of times a unit can retreat within a single turn, hunting the enemy down can feel like whack-a-mole (I thank Troy Goodfellow at Flash of Steel for that expression when he was describing Hegemony Philip of Macedon). The retreating never gets out of hand but is sometimes slightly annoying.

Learning From Your Experiences.
As units inflict casualties, their experience increases. Veteran units have increased morale, while Elite units further improve their moral and can obtain new skills - such as a sniper shot that automatically kills one member of an enemy squad. With increased morale, these experienced troops can better withstand the stresses of combat before succumbing to their fear. Experience would have a greater impact if units could be carried from scenario to scenario, but still has a noticeable effect in longer scenarios where there is more time to level up and additional enemies to attack.

Combat is the heart of any tactical wargame, and Slitherine's engine doesn't disappoint. The factors are logical and detailed. Units are rated for hard attack (vs armored units), soft attack (vs non-armored units), and armor (defense vs hard attacks). The hard attack is actually based on several factors: (1) minimum & maximum damage rolls (2) the accuracy at different distances (3) the ability to penetrate armor at different distances. Likewise, the soft attack is determined from factors 1 & 2. The armor is rated differently for the front, sides, and rear. Try to avoid the heavy armor in the front of some tanks by attacking from the sides or rear.

Before engaging the enemy, your unit must navigate close enough so they are within their weapon's range. They must survive possible attacks of opportunity by the enemy as they approach. If the target or their allies saved shots from the prior turn, your unit may be in for quite a surprise. All units get at least one attack of opportunity so there is never a free ride. Increase the odds of remaining undetected by approaching from the sides or rear.

The unit's attack may be effected by several other factors once an attack is initiated.
  1. The attacker's movement reduces accuracy, unless the unit was hunting. Some units are better on the move then others. 
  2. A unit at less then full strength doesn't have 100% of its firepower.
  3. A defender may receive some protection from the terrain they occupy, further reducing the damage taken. Each type of terrain is rated for the amount of cover provided, with a reduced amount if the occupying unit was on the move.
  4. Inflict extra damage if the target was suppressed.
  5. Attackers with grenades get an extra bonus.
  6. Some vulnerable units, like an unarmored truck take extra damage due to a soft defense penalty.
  7. Agile targets are harder to hit when they are on the move.
  8. Small targets are more difficult to hit.
All of the above factors (and probably more) are combined to produce an effective attack number. For unarmored targets, this is the chance the attack will kill one member of its squad. For each remaining squad member reduce the chance by 50% and check for a kill again, applying an additional 50% reduction for each man. An additional step is required for armored targets - check to see if the attack was powerful enough to penetrate the armor. If an attack hits a vehicle but can't penetrate the armor, the vehicle won't be destroyed but it will still rattle the crew inside. Sometimes lowering a powerful unit's morale enough to make a safe approach is worth the effort.

Normally, infantry attacks vs. armored units are ineffective, but some infantry units, such as engineers, carry satchel charges. If they can manage to get adjacent to an armored unit chances are pretty good that armor will no longer be a threat.

Transports can expedite infantry and equipment movement to the front (or back if scrambling to defend a victory location). Off-screen assets provide additional firepower via artillery strikes, bombing runs, etc... Unfortunately there isn't detailed in-game info describing their potential damage. Artillery shelling does cause a sense of dread as hell rains down from above. It is much better to give then receive for sure. I was waiting on the edge of my seat to see which of my units would survive.

Lack of Communication
Slitherine decided to limit the amount of data communicated in the user interface (UI), to create a  game more inviting to players new to the genre. This is a mistake in my opinion. I found the lack of information frustrating, decreasing my enjoyment of the game. As mentioned earlier, the forum was helpful in this regard but isn't a replacement for an informative UI (I was spoiled by Unity of Command). The motivated player can look at the scripts to determine exactly what is used by the combat engine (which I did), but it was some work. According to the forums, Slitherine is entertaining the option of adding more advanced information to the UI. This is needed to take the series to the next level.

The unit information card only displays single numbers for the attack and defense ratings. The detailed information described above is hidden. There is no way to see how much your attack is reduced as range increases, or how much armor is on the front of a tank. When issuing the attack command, a basic effective attack number is displayed, but there generally isn't any information describing why it is reduced from the unit's attack value. The cover rating displayed for terrain is an average for the minimum and maximum provided. There is no indication of the benefit of remaining stationary vs moving. Agile units may benefit from being on the move, but there isn't a way to tell. Would players appreciate this info (and more!) being easily available within the game? I think so.
The game displays limited unit data

AI & Difficulty
I never really thought, 'boy that was dumb' when the AI was taking its turn. I'm not sure how much of that is due to good scenario design and initial unit placement, or if the AI plays a good game. Getting a victory during the scenarios usually wasn't that difficult, but obtaining the extra achievements does provide enough challenge to make it interesting. I was worried after the first several scenarios that the game was going to be too easy, but that wasn't the case. Thumbs up for providing a decent AI which doesn't cheat or get bonuses. I always appreciate a game more when it can be challenging without cheating.

Update 1/29/2012: During the Battle For Normandy - Holding the Line, I observed my first AI blunder. On the last turn the Germans could have captured a victory location, stealing my victory. Even though the unit was adjacent to the victory location it remained stationary and conceeded the victory.

Update: 2/15/2012: There is an Easy Mode option on the Load Game screen. I missed it during my review. I originally stated that there were not any difficulty settings.

Graphics and Sound
While I never thought wow, the game is gorgeous, the graphics were pleasant to look at and easy to interpret. Units had enough detail to distinguish the different types, terrain was identifiable, etc. The look of the game never interfered with the gameplay. I'm not fond of the comic-book style for the cut scenes, but I do think it matched the overall style of the game. The usual accompaniment of music was present and perhaps a bit repetitive, but it never drove me crazy. Sound effects were pretty good and were used to give meaningful feedback (Hey there is yelling coming from the house when I shoot at it!).

Looks pretty good.

As you can see there are helpful icons to provide some contextual information. Notice the '?' above the tent? That is a reminder that enemy infantry may be there but undetected.

Et Cetera
Battle Academy offers multi-player via Slitherine's play by email servers. A player can either create a game for another player to accept, or join an open challenge. From what I have read it is a pretty good system, but I don't really play multi-player games much so I can't offer a first hand experience. It seems inviting enough that I may actually try it sometime.

Modding support is pretty extensive in Battle Academy. The game includes an editor, allowing the player to create scenarios and campaigns. It doesn't stop there as the unit data is stored in a text file for easy editing. An advanced modder can take it even one more step and alter the game's combat rules, add extra orders or even customize the game's tool tips (see Modding Battle Academy Tool Tips). Slitherine even provides some modding documentation online. User-created scenarios are actually available for download within the game. As I said, modding support is very extensive.

Slitherine continues to support Battle Academy and so far has three expansions. If you end up being a fan of the game you have more options to continue your experience. As I mentioned previously, at least the latest expansion adds new features, like keeping core units as you progress through the campaign.

Technical Performance
The game performed flawlessly without any crashes or hiccups. The AI turns don't take long to resolve, perhaps 30 to 45 seconds if there is combat. I have no complaints along the technical front. It isn't like the game is going to tax your graphics adapter.

My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...
Overall I'm having fun with Battle Academy. Movement, line of sight, and morale, along with detailed combat factors make for interesting battles. Unfortunately the UI shrouds many of the details even though the easy-to-mod data files and scripts offer up all of the juicy bits. This lack of information is the biggest drawback for me. The scenarios provide enough of a challenge for victory with the option to try for more difficult achievements, accommodating a variety of skill levels. Ambushes and bombardments keep the tension up as you fear for the virtual soldiers traversing the open ground. Expansions, user-created content, and multi-player options should extend the game's shelf life.

Score: B+ (Very Good)


  1. There is an Easy Mode option on the Load Game screen. I missed it during my review. I originally stated that there were not any difficulty settings.

  2. Having lots of fun with this gem, thanks for letting me know about it. Modding like crazy and looking forward for similar games.