by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Pick a side
Of all great wars, the American Civil War speaks to me the most. It was a war that reinvented warfare and pitted brother against brother on a scale that had been previously unheard of. It was one of the first really well documented wars where the victors - did - write the history, but the losing side’s tale was not completely swept under the rug. It may also have been the last war that was mostly fought on battlefields.
Battleplan: American Civil War allows its players to re-enact illustrious battles such as the battles at Gettysburg, Antietam and Bull Run. Donning either the grey or the blue, players get a chance to rewrite or reconfirm history in a campaign spanning a total of 10 battles.
The lay of the land
Now, the word ‘campaign’ suggests something lengthy and meaty, but nothing could be farther from the truth. A combat session lasts less than 10 minutes and has your units racing across the battlefield to meet their adversaries. In fact, it is so fast paced that I started wondering if Steam should not classify the game as Arcade rather than Strategy. You have some control over the speed at which time flows, but even at the lowest setting your cavalry appears to be jet-fueled rather than hay-powered. It is an interesting but somewhat unfortunate choice that affects many areas of the game negatively.
For instance, I never really felt in control. You can pause the game to survey the battlefield and give orders, and these take a short while to arrive as messengers speed from your Commander in Chief to the units under his command. But then you unpause the game and everything explodes, throwing any sense of feeling in control out the window.
Some of the perceived lack of control is actually very real and intentional. The devs have designed the game to have three types of unit leaders, namely Cautions, Aggressive and Steady. Depending on the situation, different leader types will respond differently to your commands and will either move right away, move with a delay or ignore your command entirely. It’s an interesting way to give the otherwise bland-looking squares that depict your units some personality, but it is weakened by where you have to look for this information: in a small strip of text at the top of the screen.
Further hampering the sense of control are the actual controls themselves. Selecting a unit by clicking on it can be a frustrating undertaking as you have to hit its dead-center. This can be alleviated somewhat by drawing selection boxes instead of clicking, but you will also be catching nearby units that you had not intended to be included in the selection. Working with artillery is especially nerve wracking: selecting them is easy, but deselecting can only be done by selecting another unit.
On occasion, units will also get stuck, often trying to build pontoon bridges right next to an in-tact bridge or ford that you have asked them to cross. In some cases, there is no way to give new orders to these units - they are stuck where they are for the remainder of the battle. And perhaps because of the speed I can detect no additional benefit of flanking an enemy unit.
A tie, then
With so many issues, you would think the game is a complete bust, but it’s not quite that. It is chock full of great ideas underneath its deceptively simplistic exterior. To move units, for instance, you simply draw the path you want them to take. If you have multiple units that you want to end up in roughly the same place and arrive at roughly the same time, one click on a button allows you to make all necessary arrangements. Similarly, building earthen bulwarks is as simple as drawing a line across the map and waiting for nearby infantry to dig themselves in.
Then there is unit supply. Where most strategy games of this type opt for your units to have infinite ammo, Battleplan chooses a more realistic approach by adding supply units that you can send out to resupply your infantry and artillery. And speaking of artillery, their range and accuracy are not just affected by height and field of vision, but also by weather conditions such as rain and wind.
Yet all these great ideas do not culminate in a great game. The fast pace of Battleplan: American Civil War clashes with the very idea of grand battles on expansive battlefields that could sometimes last for days. Watching units speed across the field simply feels unintuitive and removes any motivation to actually sit back and strategize.
There is talk of a future patch that will allow players to slow the game down, but it’s the game that is on offer today that I’m being tasked to judge. As it stands, there is enough here to keep it afloat, but it is only a token victory.
Great, refreshing gameplay ideas.
The fast pace clashes with the very idea of strategy gaming.