App of the Day: Total War Battles: Shogun

Army men.

Scaling down a game where scale is a large part of the appeal has pitfalls, but Total War Battles: Shogun gracefully avoids them all by inverting itself. Instead of the sweeping view of a battlefield, cavalry poised and archers ready, this is like looking into a box of toy soldiers sprung to life. The massed ranks are replaced with units that occupy one segment of the board and consist of four dinky little men or less.

Basically, the object is to walk your men from left to right and kill whatever's there. The game field is divided into six lanes, each of which is segmented. Once units are set off they move ever-forwards, one segment at a time, unless in battle or stopped. With the right buildings you can produce everything from peasants (rubbish) to Samurai (ace), and setting them down and off feels a bit like winding something up and letting it go.

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More often than not your task is to take out the enemy general, who isn't much tougher than his troops but earns 15 times the salary.

Constructing a base now means squeezing buildings of different shapes into an allotted space, after which they gather resources on autopilot and can be used to build units. This is Total War reduced to its bare elements, with unit strengths and weaknesses painted in broad strokes. But all sorts of factors play at the margins, so even though much is simple decision-making about what units counter X, pressure can build and burst through carelessly-maintained defences.

There's a flow to it, and the battles are something else. The animations of the little soldiers as they shank an enemy, brutally cut down a horse or take one in the stomach are superb, while the cheery little shouts as they march off to their doom make them even harder to ignore in battle. Knife-edge fights are particularly irresistible. Your last Samurai approaches three enemy Samurai... and sticks one straightaway! He removes his sword from the still-falling body, and turns to face the final two... Suddenly, popping back to the blacksmith can wait.

These battle animations may be smoke and mirrors hiding stats bars, but there always seems to be a little chance of an upset there - not often, admittedly, but battles do turn out unexpectedly. The general can also issue commands, which take a good while to cook up but can dramatically swing individual fights or give units a brief burst of invincibility.

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Matchlocks can fire through units one square in front and are devastating but slow to reload. Archers at the back soften up incoming forces. Add cheap swordsmen, et voila.

There's a lengthy single-player with a varied range of missions, marred only by the over-zealous incorporation of XP-based 'upgrades' as IAPs. There are ways to earn XP in-game, but some of these side missions are a crawl, and certain resource-gathering campaign missions need upgraded buildings or too many retries. Bad enough that this slightly compromises the experience, but when you've paid 5 upfront for a mobile game the nickel-and-diming tastes even worse.

Multiplayer is great fun but an underdeveloped mode - it's a top-down version of the single-player that pits two generals head to head without all the base-building. It's only really practical on an iPad, though then it delivers in style, producing devastating one-minute rush attacks and drawn-out ten minute wars. But a Total War game ignoring online multiplayer entirely is a surprise, and not a good one.

Shogun Battles is a little frustrating, a game that looks and plays fantastically well but somehow under-delivers. It captures the feel of the original on a tiny scale, with some little problems thrown in, its miniature warzones hosting everything from punchy sneaking missions to enthralling, dragged-out slugfests. If it had online multiplayer and a less exploitative XP system, this would have been a flawless iOS debut from The Creative Assembly. As it is, it's merely a great one.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.

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