Total War Battles for iOS review
Total War Battles is an agreeably nuanced and complicated strategy game for iPad and iPhone.
Over a good decade, the Total War name has become synonymous with historical strategy on PC (there've been a couple of action-orientated diversions onto console, but these are perhaps better left unmentioned). Hardcore strategy fans and war-realism-crazed old duffers took to it in equal measure as it explored settings such as feudal Japan, medieval Europe and ancient Rome. With iOS increasingly becoming the everyman gaming platform, a sidestep into touch-screen Total War was inevitable.
And here it is, revisiting the Shogunate theme of the most recent PC game. It has surprisingly little in common with its big-boy cousin, however. The epic-scale real-time outdoor battles and turn-based kingdom map have both been dispensed with in favour of quickie skirmishes that focus on building rather than direct army control.
Presenting feudal Japan in cartoonish 2D, you set down a few structures such as lumber mills, barracks and temples within an inconveniently limited space, automatically gather resources from nearby woods and quarries and then spend them on a clutch of swordsmen, archers, monks, cavalry and, of course, samurai. You can place these guys in, again, a limited area of the hex-based level and then either leave them in situ to defend your holdings or tell them to march forwards.
If at any point they encounter an enemy, they'll go for him. A tiny battle will play itself out, with your role being to try and get some reinforcements over in time or coolly presume it's all in hand.
These battles offer the strongest tie with the bigger Total Wars - a vaguely elaborate rock, paper, scissors system sees you trying to work out which units are most effective against which enemies, lest you be wiped out with horrifying speed. From simple, man-with-a-sword beginnings it grows into something complex and rather difficult. Trouble is, for all its evidence intelligence and careful tactics, it never quite shakes a certain stiltedness. Part of that's down to the interface, which will appropriately stripped down and straightforward is a little bit awkward - most especially in terms of placing buildings, where it's hugely and unnecessarily unforgiving about which hexes can be used for what. The game needs to relax a little.
Then there's the fact that there's no real way to discerning what the outcome of a battle is likely to be until either someone's been chopped into little pieces or you've memorised unit types sufficiently to be damned sure how it will play out. True, this holds fast to Total War's long-running ethos that battles should be realistic rather than statistical, but it does mean you'll spend perhaps a little too long darting back and forth between minutely observing the front lines and building new stuff.
The essential problem with Total War Battles is that it tries to pair what's ultimately a highly tactical game of strict rules with a cheery, toonish appearance, and perhaps it would have been better served going more surely down just one or the other path.
That said, if you're after something meatier than the average tower defence game or bird-flinging spectacular, this entirely fits the bill. What it overdoes in restrictions it makes up for in strategic thoughtfulness, and in fairness it does manage to cram a fair amount of complexity into admirably streamlined controls.
It even manages a mid-mission kingdom map of sorts, although this is more about replaying levels to gain more in-game currency for the inevitable upgrades than it is slowly conquering ancient Japan. Inevitably, there is a micropayment store, with which you can shortcut to improvements such as faster building times and stronger units, but even if this is a bit cheaty at least it's not intrusively presented.
There's also a plot of sorts, based around warring dynasties, which might not be enormously engaging but does manage to add context beyond 'kill all the other guys', not to mention a little gentle education about the Shogunate period.
For a first pass at bringing the labyrinthine strategy of Total War to mobile it's a solid but not remarkable effort. It's hard to not to feel it would have been better served by focusing on large-scale warfare rather than slow, fiddly construction, but given the vast majority of iOS strategy tends to be about as deep as a Eurovision runner-up something as full-fat as Battles is an entirely welcome appearance.
You probably wouldn't know it was related to the best-selling Total War games if it didn't have 'Total War' in the title, but it's an agreeably nuanced and complicated strategy game in its own right. The interface is on the cludgy side and the paid upgrades annoyingly out of place in a high-priced title, but it's not a game that's afraid to give its players a satisfyingly hard time.