Among my favorite movies is Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I for its pushing the envelope humor that spoofs key periods of world history. One scene set during the French Revolution involves King Louis XVI using human beings as game pieces on a giant chess board. You can only imagine what happens when a knight takes out a pawn or the King captures the Queen. In any case, the scene came to mind as I played Creative Assembly’s Total War Battles, a beautifully designed strategy game that in some instances could’ve been even better.
For those who don’t know, Total War Battles is based on the popular PC-based Total War series. The iOS version is different from that series so my review is based on TWB as a standalone game. The underlying theme in TWB is all about revenge and redemption as the son of a slain warlord seeks to save his clan while in search of vengeance. The rather epic tale is told through a number of dialogue scenes and narrated letters that provide good background and purpose to the different battles. The voice acting involved with reading the letters has a strong emotional tone which helps to establish the mood.
TWB incorporates various elements with a bit of RTS and turn-based strategy (TBS) with a pinch of role playing all thrown into essentially a lane-based tower defense game. Visually, the backgrounds are stunning on the iPad, and the actual battles that take place on screen come alive. The battlefield itself consists of a hexagonal grid that is nicely incorporated into some lush environments. Everything from the details on structures to the character animations are a joy to watch. Accompanied by an epic soundtrack and equally impressive sound effects, you do feel the intensity as the battles play out in front of you. From soldiers getting hacked to death to shrines and headquarters gradually being consumed by fire, your soldiers react as you would expect them to react.
The game consists of a 23-stage campaign mode each with specific objectives typically involving the defeat of certain enemies or specific units. Included are a number of experience or EXP stages which are side missions and tend to be more puzzle focused (e.g. building and placing structures within limited amount of space). EXP can also be purchased through IAP, but it isn’t needed to complete the game. What’s disappointing is the absence of a skirmish mode and an online multiplayer capability which hinders replay value.
Core to a game of this type is the ability to build structures and establish a specialized army, and TWB provides a good variety. You’ll have the opportunity to build and maintain headquarters and shrines as well as set up lumber and miningl operations. All of this leads to supporting the various soldiers, which run the gamut from archers and riflemen to spearmen and cavalry troops.
The somewhat unconventional controls consist of arrow buttons located at the bottom of the screen. Requiring a slight learning curve, the buttons do feel awkward initially because most players inherently will want to tap to select the unit and then tap on the appropriate location. As units are spawned and become available, they appear as tiles which can then be dragged onto any appropriate hexagon.
Depending on your expectations, the gameplay in TWB is both engaging and challenging, requiring a good degree strategic planning. Each level begins with your base located on the left-hand side facing your enemies on the right. Initially, the objective is to build structures that take advantage of the local natural resources such as wood, iron ore and water. Once these operations are in full force, these resources can then be used to generate gold. Gold is then used to spawn different units depending on what’s available.
One of the strengths of TWB is the planning that players are required to do. Each structure type takes up a certain amount of space on the battlefield’s hex grid which can be challenging because of the limited real estate. But another nuance is that certain structures cannot be located near each other or are link dependent. For example, a trading post which generates gold has to be near headquarters, but not near a shrine. On the other hand, a shrine must be linked to a lumber yard, while a lumber yard must be near trees. This adds a layer of intricacy that is simultaneously welcoming and irritating depending on personal preferences. While you rotate structures before placing them, the process can be somewhat tedious and even frustrating since it can be tough to find the right spot even though space is available.
Earlier I mentioned the side missions aimed at building up EXP. I found those missions particularly irksome because most of the time, they were just very difficult to solve. Another reason is that those side missions don’t involve battles, and I found they took away from the overall gaming experience with the main campaign. I’m not a big fan of IAP, but fortunately, you can bypass it by completing these side missions, which can be like choosing between a rock and hard place.
The campaign is where most players will spend their time and as with the placement of structures, there are certain rules to keep in mind. Since TWB is a lane-based tower defense at heart, one important point is that troops cannot move backwards once you’ve set them forward. I actually found this aspect adds to the strategic planning since you really have to plan attacks while defending your own buildings. Once they’ve moved to a hexagon adjacent to an enemy, the soldier units automatically attack so there isn’t much else to do but watch. What would be helpful which the units are missing is a health indicator similar to what you would find in other castle and tower defense games.
The real-time element comes into play in the deployment of additional soldiers and selecting the right ones based on the enemy at hand. For instance, archers have a longer range of attack, while swordsmen are little more up close and personal. And you have to spawn strategically to replace soldiers who are killed because once an enemy moves to a hexagon, they own that grid until they move or are killed.
Another part of TWB that should resonate nicely is the ability to react quickly and making decisive strikes. Once an attack is set in motion, it can have a profound impact on the path of supporting soldiers. And, there’s a limit on how many units you can have on the field at any time, which takes away randomly spawning a huge army and turning the battle into a numbers game. For players who enjoy strategy, this adds an element of balance forcing you to choose the most appropriate soldiers and units.
TWB does have its share of issues. Not helped by any means from clunky control arrows, the gameplay is slow and deliberate. The units move at a snail’s pace, and the lack of a fast forward option will easily drag out a level to at least 10 minutes. In addition, the game does not include any directions beyond the basic information about each unit and structure. If you’re not familiar with the Total War series, you can feel a little lost in the beginning.
The game has Game Center support and achievements which does lessen the blow from the lack of a skirmish mode. But again, online play is sorely missing here.
Total War Battles offers an engaging visual gameplay even with its shortcomings. With a focus on the animated battles which really are distinctive and entertaining, this lane-based strategy game delivers an atmospheric experience that most will find worthwhile.
Albie Meter: 4 Stars (terrific visuals for a strategy game; campaign mode only and lacks skirmish and online gameplay; good deal of nuances adds to an otherwise strategy-laden game; slow paced with no fast forward option complemented by clunky arrow control buttons; GameCenter support and achievements)