Preview: Battlefield Academy

Battlefield Academy has quite the peculiar background. Its first iteration was a flash-based tie-in created specifically for the BBC TV series Battlefield Britain. The free-to-play adventure attracted a healthy drove of gamers because of its slick interface and surprising substance hidden behind the surface. It came as no surprise then that Slitherine, a small developer who specialises in niche strategy games, would swoop in to shape this fledgling browser game into something with more oomph.

Thus, Battlefield Academy was reborn. We sat down with a preview build of Slitherine’s slick reworking, and while it doesn’t completely dazzle us, it’s certainly not the worst military escapade you’ll ever embark on. Set in World War II, this RTS boasts an amalgam of weaponry, vehicles, and missions unique to the different sides of the conflict: most notably, the British, who you’ll assume the role of in the tutorial. Completing it is mandatory before you’re let off the leash, so we soldiered forth in order to learn the ins and outs.

After an admittedly flimsy attempt at setting the stage via comic panels, the tutorial directs you in how to perform basic maneuvers. You’ll learn how to move units, initiate attacks, and other maneuvers imperative to success. A tile-based game area allows for movement in all directions, limited to a certain number of spaces each turn. Along with advancing into enemy territory, units also receive a couple shots per turn depending on their type.

Infantry soldiers who attack on foot fire away with a set of rifles from long-range and lob grenade if they’re close enough to a target. Some can assault tanks via anti-tank abilities, which you’ll find quite useful in a pinch. Tanks rely on their obviously heavy weaponry to blow through defenses. Carriers can clear wreckage from the area that’s standing in your way from point A to point B. Other units follow a similar pattern. As is standard procedure by now, once you’ve exhausted movement and attack phases, you’ll end your turn.

For a game that relies on much more than simple movement and attacks, though, we were baffled as to why such a brief tutorial was even required at all when it introduces only the bare minimum of what you really need to know. That, coupled with the bizarre combination of left and right-clicking simply to advance on the game’s grid of available spaces, initially left us feeling a little cold.

Luckily, the three separate campaigns warmed us up. We chose first to conquer Britain’s string of missions, only to realize that we had no idea where to begin. The briefest of instructions are provided at the onset of each storyline, such as “capture and hold three points,” as you’re shown on the grid where to roll out. Brief tutorial captions will pop up periodically to point you in the right direction, which you must always close out with a red X or green checkmark if you don’t want to look at them the entire time you’re playing, but are often so vaguely worded that it becomes a chore to get the basics down.

Once you maneuver through your first few rounds of combat, familiarizing yourself with airstrikes, cover percentages, different terrain, and surprise assaults, Battlefield Academy turns into a much different beast.

Trenches, walls, and raised land pack a defense bonus. You’ll need to work smart to take out heavy artillery. Put the Thompson down and go for an air strike instead — Command & Conquer this is not. Enemy units are able to detect you by “hearing” you approach, and if you’re not in the immediate vicinity of a landmark or vehicle, landmarks on the map are invisible to you, so you cannot use the camera to simply scout out targets or soldiers hiding in cover.

These features work in tandem to pack as much realism as possible into the otherwise low-rent, particularly childish feel to the rest of the game. If you’re turned off by the lackluster graphics or the pithy attempts at humor within the dialogue, then these elements should ensure you spend more than a few hours exploring WWII warfare.

A full-featured and intuitive map editor invites players to create their own campaigns complete with script and image editing, ensuring that when you’re finished with the main game there’s plenty to do. Multiplayer support is included as well, though we didn’t get a good look under the hood just yet – that’s relegated for a final build.

Battlefield Academy may seem inherently low-budget or geared toward the younger set at first. It may well confuse those unfamiliar to the genre. But if you stick with it and look beneath the surface there is a full-featured, intuitive game that requires tried-and-true skill. In lieu of in-your-face action and over-the-top combat it plays the realism card, offering another look at what soldiers of the period could well have gone through. With three full campaigns, a map editor, and multiplayer modes, it’s shaping up to be a worthy addition to your RTS library. It could stand some small improvements, but overall it’s a win for strategy enthusiasts so far.

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