Review: Spirit of War -- The Great War

By Owen Faraday 11 Aug 2015 0
The cutest little war to end all wars. The cutest little war to end all wars.

In a 1915 interview, Henry James said that World War I "has used up words". Luckily for them, the developers of Spirit of War seem to have found a fresh supply somewhere -- this is the year's most unexpectedly verbose wargame. The player is presented with a campaign through the history of the Great War, and before each mission you are treated to an essay by Julien Hervieux, apparently a French historical novelist.

This is all lovely until you actually begin playing the wargame. Despite the wordy and severe intros to the scenarios, the combat isn't even attempting historical simulation. After reading 800 words about the Battle of Mons, the player may be somewhat baffled that the missions on offer bear no resemblance whatsoever to their preambles. Imagine attending a lecture on the Nixon-Kennedy debates, which you are then invited to recreate as a twerking contest.

The game is so imbued with the titular spirit that it's even at war with itself.

Siegfried Sassoon uses Sad Poem -- it's super effective! Siegfried Sassoon uses Mournful Poem -- it's super effective!

While their presence is a bit mystifying in a game full of cartoony unit models, the WWI history essays aren't bad, just a little stiff -- perhaps an artifact of translation from the presumed original French. If it's an education about the Great War you're after, you'd be infinitely better served by reading The Guns of August or AJP Taylor while waiting on Spirit's rather ample loading times. You certainly won't learn much about the real conflict from the gameplay; as I mentioned already, it bears as much resemblance to actual WWI combat as Disney on Ice does.

For example: you read an essay that sets up the Race to the Sea, where the Allies and the Germans attempted to out-flank one another in Belgium and northern France before the front lines solidified. You're then presented with a gameplay scenario set around a lake. There's no landmarks or gameplay objectives that are even casually related to the historical introduction -- it's just a map the developers seem to have selected at random. The WWI theme is completely irrelevant.

But even if we're very charitable and completely dispense with all of the expectations raised by the game's marketing and weighty loading screens -- Spirit still doesn't work very well. If you take the game on its own terms as a light tactical game on the order of a hex-based Advance Wars, Spirit is a drab, dull experience.

There's a wealth of different units in the game, which you purchase from on-map factories as one does in Advance Wars or a classic late-90s RTS. The ultimate goal on every map is to capture the enemy's factory. (And yes, remember that we're no longer looking for any sort of historical verisimilitude here -- because as you can see, there isn't any.) There's a wealth of units available to buy, but they're poorly differentiated from one another and run counter to your expectations for them. Armored cars can move many hexes in a turn, but don't seem particularly more armored than your infantry units. Artillery packs a wallop over a distance, but is strangely just as effective when defending against a close-range attack.

The trenches, they do nothing. The trenches, they do nothing.

The game's terrain is another mystery. Spirit breaks the most basic, sensible rule in wargaming: terrain seems to have no influence on combat. You can't move a unit as far through a forest, but as far as I could tell there's no defensive bonus to parking infantry in the trees. Most exasperating of all, there doesn't appear to be very much defensive benefit to trenches. To trenches. In a World War I game. Let's make a Need for Speed game with no cars next. Or a Mario Brothers game without bloody jumping. Spirit of War seems to be a game that was made on a dare.

The most interesting thing going in the combat model here is an encirclement mechanic -- though you may never see it after the tutorial. If you can maneuver your units into opposite, non-adjacent hexes around an enemy, you'll get a bonus to your attack. I'm sure this is a great idea in some other game, but the units in Spirit are so mobile that it's rarely possible to corner an enemy unit like this. Nothing even resembling a front line ever really emerges, as the maps are short on choke points and the AI is fond of multi-pronged approaches, so you're never in any danger of accidentally re-creating a Western Front battle.

I suppose that die hard Advanced Wars fiends who aren't picky about their next fix will find that Spirit of War passes the time. Load times are prodigious, even on a muscular late-model iPad, but there is a lot of content here. The game is stable and good at picking up where you left off if you leave the app mid-battle. The camera is responsive, though an option to rotate it is sorely lacking since units have a tendency to play cache-cache behind the isometric buildings.

For all its pretension about history, Spirit of War is a disappointingly generic experience that could be set in any time period. Even on an App Store that's chronically short of hex-based tactical games, it's not particularly noteworthy.

Played on iPad Air.

Review: Spirit of War -- The Great War

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