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Review: History Channel: Bull Run

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The History Channel: Bull Run


Like ‘The Total War’ series Bull Run is a real time strategy game. This means that the game runs continuously; the only pauses are the ones dictated by the gamer. This creates a realistic feel to the game, and a sense of urgency but it also means that control cannot be too involved and the game cannot be too massive in scale. If that happens either the player becomes overwhelmed by all the info or tired out from the continuous clicking.

THC: Bull Run actually strikes a fairly good balance with a lot of this. At the lower levels (brigade battery level), it is possible to control the game and micromanage to your hearts content. You can move all your sub-units into independent locations to set up an appropriate crossfire situation or to protect your flanks from enemy attack. Getting your troops to hold fire can be difficult at times but you can change your parameters to keep them from wasting ammo.

The History Channel: Bull Run

Troops can move a variety of ways. To travel quickly and to prevent your troops from becoming fatigued, the best way to move is in column formation using roads to get there quickly and efficiently. The problem of course is that your troops are in ‘traveling’ mode and that means that you had better make sure your route is secure before you set out.

Likewise you can deploy your troops into a variety of combat formations and move that way but your troops will become tired and their effectiveness will be diminished possibly at the time you need it the most. Combat formations allow for effective combat utilization but there are some problems with the system. For one, the way you get troops to face in battle is somewhat clunky and irritating; in general you can only have the troops rotate a small percentage at a time. While the AI forces can turn and initially fire on you almost immediately, you spend your time clicking on the facing icon trying to get your troops turned to combat the enemy.

This probably brings up the only real major problem I have with the interface. In games like Close Combat you have the ability to click on leaders and give them direct orders. It would be nice to be able to click (or right click) on a battalion or brigade commander and actually give them an order. Instead you have to click on the commander and then find the order in the list of available orders below. In general this doesn’t cause too many problems but in some instances, like the one listed above, where a quick response is really needed, you may find the interface frustrating.

This is probably a good time to bring up the AI. I have to admit that the AI in this game is not only above average, but in some instances reaches into the superior level in the game. I am extremely impressed with some of the AI capabilities. When enemy forces encounter your troops they just don’t rush in pell mell and take a beating. I have seen multiple times the tactic of fixing the enemy in place and then using fire and maneuver to actually try to flank my troops. The enemy AI is patient and tries to find the best place to attack or defend. On the higher difficulty levels you will have your hands full trying to keep your troops in the fight. On the defensive they will reposition themselves appropriately to face the biggest threat. You can win, even on the more difficult levels, but you need to be smart with your troop movements otherwise you might end up with a nasty surprise.

The History Channel: Bull Run

Friendly AI is similar, although troops under your command at times don’t seem to think or show the individual action you think they should. For example, I have had troops under my command fail to face the proper way in the face of enemy fire while at other times the seem to react not only appropriately but brilliantly to an enemy maneuver that I missed.

In all honesty, based upon the historic sides involved the AI actually is a little too good. The troops do not appear to be the green rookies that really fought in the 1st Bull Run, rather they appear to act like battle hardened soldiers, standing firm when I would have thought normal men would have run. Yes, you can get enemy troops to break (and your troops can break as well) but the troops hold formation probably better than their real life counterparts. In addition, there is no domino effect on your troops.

During Bull Run the losses that the Union Forces took caused a general route of forces all the way back to Washington. In THC: Bull Run separate battalions and brigades continue to hold their position despite the crumbling of their flanks. I am sure a lot of this is due to the designers’ intent; I mean who would want to play a game where there is a very good chance that your whole army will desert if the conflict gets too hard. It would be realistic but the challenge may be more than most people would want.

The game varies in overall complexity, ranging from brigade command all the way up to full army command. Keeping control of your troops is relatively easy while under smaller brigade or even division commands but once you start getting into control of corps or army level units, it becomes much more difficult. All units have some level of independent control but unfortunately you cannot issue orders to your subordinate commanders to attack in a certain direction or to defend along such and such line.

The History Channel: Bull Run

To be honest, there are no large tactical games out there that really do this well. Most games are just like THC: Bull Run, they rely on the individual to make decisions down to the battalion deployment level. While this caters to the micromanager in most of us wargamers, it really is unrealistic. In real life a corps commander would order his division commander to do something, he wouldn’t specifically place the battalions in a certain area or even really try to get down to the lower levels as in this game.

Believe it or not this is not a slam on the game. Most people want control down to the lowest level and this game brings it. I think the real problem arises when you are trying to control what amounts to 20 - 40 different battalions, artillery and such while reacting to enemy forces that pop up. In the civil war troops didn’t move that fast so in general you have time to react but I I think this scope of game wouldn’t translate well to faster moving combat like WW2 or probably even WW1.

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