Nick Horth would have graduated from the Battle Academy if he hadn't got run over by that King Tiger tank
When the first Battle Academy came out back in 2010 it was a pleasant surprise; simple, almost cartoonish graphics and an apparently simple combat system hid a satisfying and varied tactical challenge
Battle Academy 2: Eastern Front switches the focus over to Russia, and the battles between the aggressive German mechanised regiments and the stubborn Soviet resistance. It's a much tighter focus than in the last game, which allowed players to command British, Canadian, US Polish and Italian troops, which is a little bit disappointing. Although there's a bucketload of new units it lacks a little of the variety of its predecessor, which could go from desert battles in Africa to the snows of the Ardennes forest in just a few missions.
Clearing an urban zone can be a chuffing nightmare
Luckily the maps themselves offer plenty of different strategic challenges. Big cities need to be combed thoroughly with light infantry, inch by agonising inch - every single building could potentially harbour a German panzershreck squad ready to devastate your elite armoured column. More open areas of Russian countryside become killing fields for your heavy tanks, though the game doesn't let you simply charge them straight through the enemy lines.
Units that haven't been spotted get a huge bonus on their attack rolls, so it's vital to get your infantry in ahead of your tank crews, who can see bugger all squared from inside their cramped metal boxes. Like everything in Battle Academy 2 the line of sight system errs on the simple side, but it's crucial enough that you have to pay close attention to the battlefield situation, and can't push through on sheer weight of numbers alone. Likewise you get plenty of feedback on armour facing and cover reliability, but typically (though not always) that's less important than getting the fluent interplay between armour and infantry just right. Until a King Tiger tank starts popping your T-34's like overripe melons, anyway. There's depth here, but you won't drown in it.
That leaves you to concern yourself with how best not to get your men killed. Each forward push is a montage of little decisions and gambles that either pay off or lead to a horrible, violent death for your brave soldiers; do you send that rifle troop sprinting across open ground in an attempt to flank those German paratrooopers, or do you nudge your armoured cars forward to wipe out the resistance, risking a shot from a hidden field gun? It's to the game's credit that the outcome of these decisions rarely feel too unfair, although the generally competent AI's penchant for parking its tanks in a big line and waiting for you to run into them can get somewhat predictable.
There's a range of different units, from basic rifle squads and heavy tanks to more specialised artillery and mortar units. The game manages to make most of these units feel unique, whether you're using your mobile artillery's blind fire mode to shell suspicious buildings or assaulting enemy structures with your elite shock troops. Get them through a couple of fights alive and they'll level up, unlocking extra ammunition and even new abilities. Given their fragility and the lack of progression between missions it's hard to get too attached to your elite troops, but it does encourage you to be a bit more careful with your decision-making.
Air support allows you or your enemy to call in strafing runs on units a limited number of times per level
To start with the game hands you control of a few units at a time, five or so squads of German paratroopers to capture a small town, but by the end you're organising a massive assault through heavily defended territory with dozens of vehicles and infantry units. Large scale battles are perhaps a little clunky in that it takes a long time to manoeuvre all your forces into position. When you're funnelled in to tight corridors it's frustrating to have a line of infantry slowly creeping forward while your tank drivers sit idly at the back of the line, twiddling their thumbs. Once you make enemy contact and the bullets start flying things liven up again, but some of the bigger missions, which can take an hour or more to complete, get a bit bogged down in the early movement phases.
That's not a huge problem, though, because the non-linear campaigns let you tackle any mission you want in any order. Fed up of clearing out that huge Russian city block? Let's tank rush a lightly defended village instead. Battle Academy doesn't waste your time with lengthy cutscenes and mission briefings – there's a brief, charming little comic strip introduction to each level, a quick overview of the map and objectives, then you're straight in. No fuss.
And once you're done with the pre-made missions there's almost limitless extra content in the form of the excellent skirmish mode. When setting up a game you can pick and adjust a number of factors from map size right down to the abundance of cover on the map, and Battle Academy 2 generates a neat little random level for you to run amok in. Once I discovered this mode it was hard to return to the rigid singleplayer story missions, honestly, as now I could dip in for a nice little 30 minute burst of strategy gaming when I felt like it – something Battle Academy 2 is perfectly designed for. It's an excellent system that almost justifies the game's price on its own.
If you can get it right, hitting Panzer tanks in the side or rear armour will help you kill them more easily
Multiplayer is still play-by-post, which might frustrate those looking for a more immediate experience, but thankfully co-operative missions have been added. In a nice touch you can set up missions via the editor, then load them up for some tank-busting action with your friends.
Battle Academy 2 won't be for everyone. It's not a very attractive game, and the presentation can sometimes leave a little to be desired. The sheer power of ambush attacks can also be a bit frustrating, especially in cramped maps with a large quantity of armoured units. Moving forward one inch and seeing your heavy Iosif Stalin tank get detonated in one hit makes for one angry player. The game's a strange little anomaly in the often rigidly defined casual/hardcore strategy market. Forgive the cliché, but it's easy to pick up and hard to master, operating a solid middle ground with relatively complex systems presented in a way that's easy to grasp. For a fun, adjustable and quick (if you want it to be) turn-based experience, Battle Academy 2 is worth picking up.
BATTLE ACADEMY 2 VERDICT
Battle Academy 2 won’t be for everyone. It’s not a very attractive game, and the presentation can sometimes leave a little to be desired. The sheer power of ambush attacks can also be a bit frustrating, especially in cramped maps with a large quantity of armoured units. Moving forward one inch and seeing your heavy Iosif Stalin tank get detonated in one hit makes for one angry player. The game’s a strange little anomaly in the often rigidly defined casual/hardcore strategy market. Forgive the cliché, but it’s easy to pick up and hard to master, operating a solid middle ground with relatively complex systems presented in a way that’s easy to grasp. For a fun, adjustable and quick (if you want it to be) turn-based experience, Battle Academy 2 is worth picking up.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Clearing a dangerous urban area house-to-house with your grenadiers, then pushing your tank line through the gap to take out a freshly exposed defensive line.