At last a war-game has come along that will pull the genre out of the trenches and appeal to arcade junkies as well as strategy-sim freaks... Computer war-games will never be the same again. UBI Soft have taken all the trappings from the table-top board-game, mixed in some cunning computer game design and created a war-game that loots too good to be tactically true. Here we have a strategy bash in arcade clothing.
This is a low-level combat simulator where military units, in a blow-by-blow battle, have to capture 16 islands, moving across a hexagonal board, accruing damage, earning experience and taking the opponent's territory. Victory depends on the ability to make maximum use of limited resources and having the occasional gamble. These, though, are not entirely new concepts. What makes this game so different is its instant playability. Usually computer war-games are laden with icons and weighty manuals. Battle Isles dodges this problem with a smart joystick interface and a streamlined order of play, all at no cost to flexibility. The resulting game stresses tactical thought, but still plays fast and looks good.
Calling the shots
Single and two player is available and both are played on a split screen, one side is used to line up shots, while the other is for moving your units around. The divided screen restricts the size of the game window, but adds a flexibility and speed other computer war-games have been screaming for. It's perfectly permis- sible to sit and watch your foe's moves, but the temptation to enact your own master plan proves irresistible.
Battle Isle's addictive gameplay hooks you in swiftly. The graphics are what lures you first: it simply doesn't look like a war-game. The maps and vehicles are well drawn, providing the necessary information without resorting to reams of text or figures. Even the mechanics of the game are dressed up and displayed in an instantly-appealing fashion. As the units do battle, for example, the random outcome of the conflict is shown as just a small-scale skirmish.
Control is mastered in the first few turns, leaving the grey-matter free to focus on tactics. That's the second major strike on your addiction centres, and it is almost impossible to repulse. Like a futuristic chess game, each piece and formation has different strengths. The basic attributes of each unit are obvious but their tactical potential in the battle group is continually redefined. Each island gets sequentially tougher than the last, so new vehicles and buildings continually have to be assimilated into the overall strategy.
Play initially focuses on fire-power and experience. At your disposal for the first few battles are infantry, transport and light tanks. The heavier your armour the better the chance you have of emerging victorious. But, as the computer gets the better weapons deal, units must be merged to maximise fire-power. Once you get the hang of organising fire-power teams though, then the pleasure of kicking the computer's butt is well worth the effort.
Success in a battle earns your unit experience, which improves its accuracy and increases defensive capabilities. These veterans still take losses and you have to calculate the balance between experience and numbers. Will a few experts provide the cutting edge or will they be overwhelmed by superior numbers? These are the commander's choices, and the shots that Battle Isles forces you to make.
Home on the range
Once the theory of experience has proved itself in the field, then the structure of a unit assumes a new importance. Each counter on the map represents a squad of six similar vehicles or troops. In the animated combat resolution phase, these six vehicles are seen blasting the unit they attacked. Depending on the unit's experience, fire-power and luck they will kill a number of foes and take losses themselves. In this way the original six are slowly whittled down as their experience increases. Once a unit is wiped out, it's dead forever, but a whole unit can be built up again from a single survivor. If, and it's a big if, they can be guided back to base for a refit.
The home base, as with everything in Battle Isles, has two strategic functions. Firstly it must be protected from any enemy infantry, who can storm the place and end the game. Secondly, it has a limited supply of spares which can be used to patch up veteran troops. An expert unit with only one remaining tank can be turned into a ferocious fighting force if given shiny new tanks. The tricky bit is earning a breathing space so such a re-supply is possible. Such planning quandaries abound and give Battle Isles its strategic bite.
On later islands the home bases are supplemented with depots and factories. Depots are ammunition dumps that can be liberated by the first infantry on the scene - they've also a small repair capacity. Factories are much more fun and provide the facilities to build brand new vehicles from scratch. Both add a little spice, forcing a straight foot race to reach them at the beginning of the battle. You have to get there first to liberate the kit, but such tactics spreads your forces rather thin. These add fuel to the tactical fire from the very first move, impressing the need for swift, decisive action.
Compounding these factors is Battle Isle's turn structure. At any time you are either moving or firing, when you're doing one the computer (or second player) is doing the other. Understanding this artificial time system is vital if you want to win. Even the best plan can fail if initiated at the during the wrong phase. The structure has been well thought through, interspersing tactical brainwork with nail-biting moments of truth when battles are resolved.
Battle Isles is at its best when the combat is joined and the dice of chance are rolling. When units go heads up, there's a tense feeling of impending doom, even massive superiority in experience or armour is no guarantee of success, fate still holds the key. Emerging unscathed from a battle brings on a sly feeling of Rommel-like confidence. But then, look what happened to him!
Done to a turn
All the best elements in war-games; turns, moves and targets, are brought to the fore, while the computer does all the boring donkey work of checking rules and regulations. It's friendly to the beginner, with every action politely questioned before it's enacted, but streamlined enough for experienced players to speed through their actions.
The graphics help push Battle Isles towards victory. Occupying a factory, depot or base freezes the action while a short cartoon trooper blasts through a solid metal door, while annihilating an enemy ushers in a calm display of hardware at the end of the game. If you storm a base while the battle's still raging, then a mopping-up sequence is your reward. These scenes add that extra visual impact that previous war-games lack. They make it look like a straightforward arcade shoot out, and disguise the nature of the game-play until you're hooked.
The gameplay lies in its depth and flexibility. In both one and two player modes, each successive scenario introduces new vehicles or other twists. Strategies must be instantly formed that incorporate these new factors and their potential noted for the play book. A skill learned on the present island is accepted as standard for the next. It's a step-by-step tutorial that prepares you for a final battle and the ultimate showdown is apocalyptic, displaying a range of hardware to shame Desert Storm.
The programmers, Blue Byte, have reinvented the war-game genre making a game fit for heroes. It's simple but possesses real gameplay depth. The basic principals take minutes to learn, but are sharpened and refined in each successive scenario. The tanks and troops arc extended chess pieces and the landscape is your board, it is your ability to use them effectively that is the appeal of the game. This graphic and gameplay mix ensure wargames will never look the same again.
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