Review: Battle of the Bulge

Gorgeous design.

Despite presenting a pretty significant amount of information, the screen never feels cluttered.

In The Civil War, Shelby Foote tells this anecdote about Abraham Lincoln and his son Willie

Willie bursts into his father’s law office in Illinois while Lincoln is talking with a visitor and interrupts to demand a quarter. “I can’t let you have a quarter,” says Lincoln. “I can only spare five cents.”

Willie sullenly declines and leaves, whereupon Lincoln tells his guest, “As soon as he finds I will give him no more, he will come and get it.” Sure enough, Willie comes back in a few minutes, having settled for the pennies.

We bought iPads and iPhones and Androids over these past years on the promise of holding the future in our hands. But for years, touchscreen gaming has been offering us pennies – good games ported over from PCs and consoles, or purpose-built touchscreen games that are stripped of nuance and complexity. Finally, someone is offering us a quarter – and it’s Battle of the Bulge. Time to stop settling.

Battle of the Bulge is the most important iOS game yet. There have been great games on the iPad, of course, but nothing like this. Battle of the Bulge was designed from the ground up for the iPad and it feels that way. This is the future of gaming that we were promised: sleek, elegant, and intelligent. It feels like an app that should come with the iPad.

Fighting Monty to a draw is no small feat - I earned that medal, thank you.

The AI in BotB plays to win, not to lose gracefully.

When they set out to make a new benchmark for iOS gaming, Shenandoah Studio cut their work out for themselves very intelligently. Battle of the Bulge is not a huge game – it’s an operational-level wargame during the eponymous WWII battle, and features just two scenarios. By limiting their scope, they’ve been able to create a polished marvel of a game with a canny and ruthless AI.

Some elements you may have come to expect from a wargame have been streamlined out: artillery is entirely abstracted into an attacking bonus in some sectors of the map, and Allied air support simply limits German mobility on certain days of the battle. This is not only more realistic than some other operational-level games you’ve played on the PC (the general you’re role-playing shouldn’t be calling individual fire missions or air strikes) but also allows you to focus on the larger strategic aim of the battle – concentrating your forces and anticipating enemy movements.

Being able to focus on the strategy is essential, because Bulge’s single-player AI is plenty tough. In a way, it may be too tough – I fear for wargaming neophytes who start a game as the Allies and have to suffer through the first few turns of the German surprise attack. It can get demoralizing. Shenandoah have charmingly avoided calling their AIs “easy” and “hard” but have rather named them after their play styles – playing against the Axis you can choose between methodical von Runstedt or the more adventurous Sepp Dietrich, and their Allied counterparts are Montgomery and Patton. Given the trend towards shipping multiplayer-only games in 2012, it’s tremendously exciting to see so much hard work go into AIs.

Or Major Major

Maybe there should be an easier AI – Colonel Klink, perhaps.

The only thing that can steal the show away from Battle of the Bulge’s AI is its design. This is simply a beautiful game, one that eschews the usual wargame’s obsession with individual tanks and aircraft for a focus on the order of battle. Units are rendered as simple, clean silhouettes, a design motif that makes the badges for elite units like the 82nd Airborne the 2nd Panzer Division jump off the screen. The UI is wonderfully functional as well as attractive – you’re never in doubt about which units are in supply or which objectives are worth more victory points.

Battle of the Bulge is a watershed moment for iOS gaming. It is proof positive of the very thesis of this blog – that mobile devices can deliver polished, sophisticated native games that can go toe-to-toe with PC and console offerings. Shenandoah Studio is offering you a quarter – go ahead and take it.

SCORE

5 out of 5

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