I’m a huge U.S. Civil War buff but was sadly a little too young to catch Infogrames’ classic North & South, a one-of-a-kind action/Real Time Strategy/Turn-Based Strategy mashup. That’s why I was ecstatic to see Microids resurrect it on iOS as The Bluecoats: North vs. South (Out Now, $3.99). A revival in the truest sense, Bluecoats keeps the best elements of the original, replaces parts that begged for overhaul, and wraps the altered formula in a much prettier package. If I had to choose one version to show off as an example of the true potential of genre mashups, it would undoubtedly be this one. I would give one caveat, however: Bluecoats is the kind of game that hits you with all it’s got with very little hand holding, so I’m not pulling your leg when I say it’s important to dive in on the lowest difficulty setting.
The player’s time in Bluecoats is divided equally among an overworld map that plays like a TBS, military skirmishes that play like an RTS, and action segments for shoot-outs in front of forts and seizing supply trains. On the overworld you shape the Union’s or Confederacy’s strategic approach — should you shift your units west and claim the railroads or make a hard drive to the east and take the map’s sea port? You’ll eventually need to do both, the goal being to starve your opponent of all resources and summarily eliminate every enemy unit. When it comes to unit management there isn’t a whole lot to keep track of: your main concern is drumming up fresh battalions and merging them so they can enter battle reinforced. The focus on overarching goals and lack of micromanagement makes Bluecoats just about the closest thing there is to an arcade-style strategy game — a “game” of Bluecoats tends to wrap up quickly as the player and enemy AI go straight for the jugular.
When a Union or Confederate battalion invades an opposing State it’s time for some RTS action. If both battalions are fresh or sufficiently reinforced, each side gets a cavalry squad, an infantry squad, and two cannons to work with. There are clear matchups — it’s best to throw your cavalry at the enemy cannon team, for example. However, the beauty of Bluecoats’ skirmish mode is that the outcome depends very much on player performance. Going back to the cavalry vs. cannons example, you need to maneuver your swift-moving riders vertically to avoid cannonfire until they arrive and snuff out the enemy fire team. Likewise, if you’re very skilled with your own artillery you can hold out against multiple enemy battalions even if yours is worn to the nub.
The skirmish interface is a breeze in theory: just tap a unit to select it, then tap a destination point or target. With squads moving about so freely, however, the natural problem arises — you have to be very careful to keep them spaced apart or else the game will have trouble figuring out what you’re telling it to do. The most important thing I’m looking for in updates, then, is some function that makes squads on the same team automatically repel each other if they’re about to overlap. While the unit matchups are easily discovered through trial and error, a reference sheet with specifics on this would be great to see too.
When a Union or Confederate battalion encounters an unguarded fortress an action segment kicks in. Here Bluecoats casts the player as a lone gunman in a third-person cover shooter; it’s all up to you to seize the fort or repel the invasion by taking out all enemies onscreen. Don’t expect SHADOWGUN-level gameplay here, but it works very well as an intense diversion. I have some misgivings about the fact that the game forces your soldier to pop out from his cover if you hold the crouch button too long — it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to begin with and enemy sharpshooters do a fine enough job picking him off as he pops up to return fire. An auto-scrolling train chase sequence happens if one of your units is planted in the path of an enemy train, but this situation is so rare in practice that many players will go hours without seeing it.
Overall, Bluecoats draws great strength from the variety of game modes that make up its campaign. On the other hand, that variety is a weakness in one important respect: the action segments take real skill to get right and yet you don’t get the steady practice you would in a full-on action title. Nor is there a difficulty curve to speak of once the campaign begins; your first shooter sequence is just as harrowing as the last in the campaign. Dare jump into Bluecoats on normal difficulty – relative strengths of the Union and Confederacy are assigned at the outset – and the action segments will wipe the floor with your sorry Yankee or Rebel behind. Enemy AI is an expert out-of-the-box; you start out as a mere padawan and you’ll likely tear your hair out before you learn the ropes well enough to compete.
I was on the verge of giving Bluecoats a lower score on account of this design dilemma, but I thought swallowing my pride and lowering the game’s difficulty might be worth a shot. Turns out it absolutely is! Difficulty settings affect enemy AI, so setting the opposing force to “Weak” status makes the action segments merely nail-biting and not impossible — and there the game hits the perfect Goldilocks zone it deserves. The beauty of difficulty adjustment in Bluecoats is that you define the Union and Confederacy separately, so you can still have a balanced game in terms of troop strength and resources while taking the edge off the action sequences.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to customization too. The campaign will vastly differ depending on whether you’ve got random effects like weather or Indian and Mexican bandit attacks switched on. Most importantly, specifying a starting year for the campaign determines territorial advantages at the outset. A Bluecoats fan can squeeze many playthroughs out of the game as a result. Now if we could just get online multiplayer in updates! And a final note many fed-up iOS gamers are sure to appreciate: there’s not a single In-App Purchase in Bluecoats.
iFanzine Verdict: If you’re generally a fan of strategy games and have at least a passing interest in action, you’ll find lots to love in Bluecoats’ three-way mashup. The game’s greatest failing is simply that it lets you jump in on normal difficulty — it’s utterly clear that you need to move up the challenge ladder starting from the very bottom.