Battle Academy: Rommel in Normandy – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Good graphics, fine AI, excellent historical detail, good multiplay
Failed Basic: Lack of land mines, no command and control system, outdated manual
Add-ons can spark a franchise early on but, when they are just cranked out for revenue, they drag the series down. Games can be improved and updated but the limits of any engine can be reached fairly quickly, leading to stale expansions. New units and maps aren’t enough to keep a series fresh. Add-ons then need to develop evocative atmospheres. Will the fifth entry to the Battle Academy stable, Rommel in Normandy, provide a spark to the flagship line?
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So That’s What Bocage Looks Like
The graphics for this add-on are like those in the rest of the series. Areas occupied by players’ units are sharp, detailed and bright, with tool tips explaining terrain features including cover rating. Unspotted ground underlines fog of war; players can make out vague features in the greyness but not enough to feel secure. Small question marks indicate possible hidden enemy units. The atmosphere of the night scenario makes players feel like they’re walking in a graveyard—their graveyard. Structures are detailed, though a little too regular, and show damage when fired upon, as does vegetation. Field fortifications and bunkers are realistically portrayed.
The zoomable and rotatable 3D view shows vehicle details to the best effect. Tigers look very formidable, Cromwells look blocky and Pzkw Mark IVs’ skirts can be seen plainly. Even the short-barreled gun on converted German half-tracks can be seen. Turrets swivel when firing to the flank or rear. Captured old French tanks used by the Germans seem incongruous in 1944 but the animation of those equipped with flamethrowers is very effective. Vehicle damage is done fairly well, although all destroyed units are shown as charred wrecks with no parts fling about. One wishes for land mines as well as persistent fire and smoke.
A collapsible horizontal menu across the screen’s top provides more graphics and information. A 2D zoomable, top-down map provides a quick overview of the field while other buttons show casualties, detailed information on units and objectives. Very handy is the button that indicates unmoved units. Most of these functions can also be accessed through hotkeys but are not mentioned in the outdated manual.
Sound is not only well done but crucial to game play. Movement and combat noises are the usual rattles, roars and booms. Most interesting is the voice acting triggered by events. Voices in English and German indicate vehicle breakdowns, loss of men, suppression and panic. “I can’t take it anymore!” in a high-pitched voice sends a chillingly human message.
Names Changed to Protect the Guilty
The mechanics are simplicity itself. Selecting a unit shows the tiles it can reach. Mousing over a tile brings up a drop-down menu with movement choices: “fast” uses action points to move farther but hinders sighting; “hunting” is slower but allows the unit to see enemies better; “turn” simply changes the facing 45 degrees. Other movement orders are reverse, deploy or load troops and artillery, and clear wreckage. Scouts can choose to use a special icon to see into more tiles.
Combat mechanics are equally straightforward. Spotted units within range are marked with a bright red exclamation point, while enemies that have been spotted but are out of range have national symbols. Mousing over a target brings up a choice of attacks. Usually, normal infantry and vehicles have two direct fire attacks per turn but “aces”—marked with three experience chevrons—can have a third attack with a more devatating round. Infantry and tanks adjacent to a target can choose to assault or overrun. Indirect artillery doesn’t need a direct line-of-sight but can drop a round anywhere an enemy or a question-marked tile is. Suppression fire is used on possible enemy positions and can elicit signs of occupation or cause damage. This fire has the drawback of being used only once per turn and using up large amounts of ammunition. Specialty combat options include flamethrowers and sniper shots. As the German is on the defensive in many scenarios, the “hold fire” option preserves masked positions until the optimum moment arrives.
Events include vehicles bogging down or throwing a track during movement. Combat results are expressed in suppression, losing a man, retreat, panic and surrender or annihilation. Intense fights will make units run out of ammunition. Some of the results can be offset by off-board assets to rally, resupply and take care of the losses. Other assets are air and artillery strikes. These assets require time to refresh when used and not all are present for all scenarios; some scenarios have none at all.
The Battle Academy series is an abstract turn-based tactical system, so historical names and designations are rarely given. However, all ten scenarios in Rommel in Normandy can be pinpointed by any player with a basic knowledge of the campaign. For example, “Lone Tiger” is obviously Michael Wittman’s legendary exploits at Villers-Bocage. “Death from Above” has German officers trying to rally dazed troops after the carpet-bombing that opened Operation Cobra. “Holding the Fortress” has the Germans trying to stop the Americans from taking the heart of Cherbourg while “Counter Attack” deals with the action around Mortain. The grinding at Caen is caught with “Operation Epsom” and “Holding the Heights.” Finally, the Germans try to slip through the Falais Gap in “Escaping the Pocket.”
These scenarios are not only tense but evocative. The terrain is perfect for ambushing attackers so each AI turn can become a deadly exchange of gunfire and close assaults. Winning tactics sometimes seem counter to force composition and deployment. A great example of this is the “Night Drop” scenario where the German infantry start in forward positions near American victory points with a small armored column coming up the road from the far end of the map. The instinctive move is to move the infantry forward to pin the paratroops and wait for armor to arrive but such a tactic fails. The Americans are literally everywhere, hiding in the dark. A canny AI lets the armor gets close to brush and buildings then clobbers it with bazookas and close assaults. The player must send most of his infantry back toward the armor to clear the road and then advance. This scenario not only shows German disorganization that night but also the vulnerability of armor without infantry support. Lessons learned from other scenarios are that, although Allied armor is inferior to German, quantity evens matters out; German attacks may make initial progress but Allied resistance stiffens so that even Wittman can be foiled by well-placed infantry; Germans are very good in defense.
Replay is somewhat hampered by AI positions always being in the same areas but AI reinforcement do take different routes when scenarios are re-started. The many primary and secondary objectives, combined with three levels of difficulty, assure scenarios never grow stale. The editor is so simple that user-created scenarios keep coming. Multiplayer is easy to access from the server and is very active.
One would think this series would be getting old. It’s not! Continued development of campaigns and scenarios that capture the feel of the battles keep Battle Academy vibrant. Rommel in Normandy is the most exciting and intriguing campaign so far. Buying it will provide weeks of enjoyable and fascinating play.
Armchair General Rating: 87%
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad.