The rise of Facebook and smartphones as gaming platforms is interesting because it became new territory on which old classics were born anew. Some of the games that have made the most of this new space include Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and The Oregon Trail, beloved classics that seem to have aged well with time. Hoping to tap into that well of nostalgia, Anuman Interactive and Microids have come together to bring The Bluecoats: North vs. South, a classic strategy game based on the Belgian comic series, to a new audience via iOS and PC. Unfortunately, the end result only seems suited to those willing to view it with rose-tinted glasses.
Before you begin a proper game, there are a few options you can alter. You can change the time period, which will either increase or decrease the number of soldiers on the map. You can also toggle the difficulty levels to give yourself more gold or take some away at the beginning of the match. You can also toggle the presence of a storm cloud that moves around to freeze a unit in place and the presence of both Indians and Mexicans attacking border states on the west. It's a decent amount of options without being overwhelming, but it highlights a big problem that the original release didn't suffer from: There's no multiplayer. Unlike the original game, where two players could take turns on the same machine, you're restricted to playing against the AI. It wasn't a good thing to see on the iOS version, and with the many ways people can play against a friend on the PC, the solo experience is an immediate letdown.
Once the game begins, it is split up into two different sections. The overworld map is where you'll spend most of your time, and the gameplay couldn't be simpler. At the beginning of each turn, the player can move his troops from one state to another, immediately taking over the territory if it goes unoccupied. If the player has enough states with forts attached by railroad systems, he can also earn gold, which can be used to buy things like more troops or more defenses — as well as other factors, like storm clouds and attacks from other factions, to help turn the tide of the war. Victory is gained when an overwhelming majority of the forts on the map is occupied by one army and when all of the forces from one side are wiped out.
The second section of the game concerns minigames, all of which are triggered under certain circumstances. The first minigame is triggered when you're either attacking a fort or defending it from invaders. Playing out like the old arcade game Cabal or Dynamite Duke on the Sega Genesis, this game has your soldier stationed in the bottom middle of the screen while other enemies take cover behind things like barrels, crates and towers. The objective is to take out soldiers as they pop out of cover and trying to not get killed. You can take cover, and you can only take a certain number of hits before you die. Depending on what's happening, failure can mean either an unsuccessful or successful fort capture.
The second minigame occurs when your soldier is in a state with a railroad track when the enemy gold supply train passes by. You play a soldier on horseback who rides alongside the train and hopes to capture it before it reaches your destination so you can take the gold shipment. Like the fort capture/defense minigame, you're allotted a number of hits before you fail, but at least you'll be mobile, as you can jump over rocks and duck under tree branches during the chase. Soldiers also jump out of the train to grab you or trip you up, so there's some multitasking involved as you try to shoot them while avoiding obstacles.
The final minigame occurs once two soldiers meet up in the same territory, and the game begins a basic RTS skirmish. Armies comprised of three unit types (cannons, cavalry and foot soldiers) take to the field, and you direct what each unit does by clicking on it and then clicking on either the location it should move to or which enemy units it should attack. Each unit differs in terms of movement and strength. Soldiers, for example, have the most mobility but the worst firepower strength. Cannons can't move forward but have excellent range and destructive power while cavalry has a great deal of power but can only move forward without stopping to change direction. Though victory is achieved when one army either retreats or gets wiped out completely, there are a few other things that can be done on the battlefield, including the destruction of houses to eliminate cover and blowing up bridges to prevent soldiers and cavalry from accessing it.
On paper, a few minigames mixed with some basic strategy elements seem to make a good game for casual players who are tired of the standard tower defense titles. Unfortunately, the gameplay is riddled with issues. Despite being a remake of the original PC game, this version has the train chase aboard a horse instead of having the soldier fending off enemies atop the train cars — something that was much more exciting. That change, along with the aforementioned lack of multiplayer, may be all that it takes for longtime fans to stop looking at this version. Even if that weren't enough, the remaining untouched gameplay shows that the original game's formula didn't withstand the test of time. The overhead map movement is fine, but it is immutable regardless of your difficulty level and year. Considering that the game is emulating the Civil War, no one expects the state territory lines to change, but the number of forts and railroad lines never changes, so it doesn't give you much of a reason to change up your strategy.
The RTS-like skirmishes end up being the biggest offender due to the controls and unfair advantages given to your opponent. While you can select different units and issue commands, they seem to have a problem unless you go very slowly. Click on a cannon squad and tell it to attack the enemy cannon squad, and you'll be fine. Before it executes the attack, however, it'll stop carrying out the orders if you suddenly tell your infantry to go after the cavalry. Even if you get everything set up the way you want, you have to constantly click on the enemies over and over again since your troops seem to forget what they're doing once they complete a successful attack. In a way, it feels like you have to think with a turn-based strategy instead of a real-time one in order to try and win.
The keyword here is "try," as the AI can handle multitasking just fine, leaving you with some heavy losses even if you strengthen your army and weaken theirs before the battle begins. It almost always feels like the game heavily favors the AI by having the foreign forces attack you all of the time. The rain clouds also seem to target your armies more often than theirs. With everything going against you, the lack of multiplayer makes the game even more infuriating.
As far as presentation goes, The Bluecoats feels basic. The graphics take on a cartoon theme similar to the comics, with bright colors and exaggerated facial features. The animations are decent, but they emulate the stilted animations seen on older PSone games; it's unexpected even for a casual PC title. The same can be said for the screen, which keeps a 4:3 ratio and gives you decorated borders on the sides. Another display oddity is the presence of the action buttons from the iOS build. With keyboard controls available, it doesn't make sense to have those buttons present unless you're utilizing a multitouch monitor. The sound, like the graphics, keeps things basic with some decent period-style music serving as the background, and voices are limited to death cries. Rounded out with some ordinary sound effects, this is one title where you won't miss a thing if you turn down the volume.
The Bluecoats: North vs. South has not aged well. The strategy feels too basic while the minigames aren't exactly enjoyable. The overall presentation is fine, but it feels like a lazy port of the iOS game — more so because of the lack of multiplayer. What could've been a fun throwback title on iOS ends up being underwhelming on the PC and not worth playing on the platform, especially with so many other, better casual strategy titles out there.
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