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Battleground: Bull Run

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By Talonsoft
Bull Run is Talonsoft's latest entry in its Battleground series, and it's as good as its predecessors. That's high praise indeed, as anyone who has read my previous reviews of Talonsoft's games will know. But in a curious sort of way, it's also a problem. Bull Run really isn't that much different than the first of Talonsoft's Civil War offerings, Gettysburg - a game that hit the shelves going on two years ago. Sure, some of the small details have been tweaked a bit - the sound and music is better, the units are more detailed, the AI (though still weak) is improved - but overall it's the same game engine, with the same (now outdated) interface, and with graphics that were marvelous a while back but are a little static now.

But enough of this negativity. Overall, Bull Run is a terrific game. It covers two of the most important but overlooked battles in the Civil War. The first battle of Bull Run (or Manassas for you Rebs out there) was also the first major battle of the war. Before this battle both sides thought the war would be over quickly and Thomas Jackson was merely an eccentric Viginia Military Institute instructor pressed into service; by the battle's end, everyone knew it was going to be a long war, and none better than the newly-nicknamed "Stonewall" Jackson. First Bull Run was a sloppy and bloody battle, and it was also a near-run thing, with the initial rounds going to the Union and the late battle seeing Confederate reinforcements launching a series of counterattacks that sent the Yanks reeling back towards Washington. It's an intriguing situation, and it makes for a great game. As the Union, you'll find yourself having trouble managing your unwieldy and unseasoned troops while you try to bring your numerical superiority to bear; as the Reb, you'll constantly be rushing troops from one endangered point in the line to the next, counterpunching when the opportunity presents itself.

Second Bull Run takes a while longer to play (in total, it's a two-day, 90-turn battle) but is no less exciting. This time, Robert E. Lee commands the Army of Nothern Virginia, and the battle is an example of his absolute genius. In the historical battle, Pope's overcautious and clunky Union army was outfoxed, outflanked, and outfought by Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet. The defeat allowed Lee's first invasion of the North, an invasion that culminated in the battle of Antietam. Again, this makes for tight gaming experience. If you can avoid the stupid mistakes the Union commanders made during the battle, this can be a very close game - it's by no means a forgone conclusion that the Rebs will win.

The Look
It's a familiar one by now; excellent Battleground series graphics, maps that scale from 2D to 3D, from close up to the entire battlefield, units that look like they've been lifted from a miniatures game. Very nice. But also very familiar. I know that this is heresy in serious wargaming circles, but I've been playing a lot of Red Alert with my kids lately - Talonsoft, could we have a little more flash? Nothing big - just some animation, maybe? And oh yeah, can we do something with the interface? The toolbar is always in the way, and the pull-down menus are outdated and unsightly.

First, clear off your hard drive. This sucker takes up 150 megs to run smoothly. That's too much, Talonsoft. However, once you get the monster installed, you're in for a fun-filled, remarkably bug-free gaming experience. I wish every game I had ran as smoothly as Talonsoft's products - there's no waiting for patches to fix egregious errors, no inexplicable crashes, no bizarre hardware conflicts - just hours of gaming goodness. And in an era of awful documentation (see EA Triple Play 98), Talonsoft gives you excellent manuals.

The game itself plays like all the previous Talonsoft ACW titles - nothing innovative here. (See my previous reviews) It does allow internet play, which is nice, since the AI is pretty average. You can remedy this by using the play balance slider, which will make your troops take unrealistically high casualties, but this seems a cheap way to make up for bad generalship, and is not recommended.

What a strange review. I really like this game, recommend it highly, and yet I've said mostly negative things about it. I suppose this could be attributed to the fact that school starts up in two weeks and I don't even have my syllabi ready yet, but think it's due more to my relationship to Talonsoft's products. I love 'em, but the honeymoon's over and now a certain sameness has set in. Fortunately, it looks like some innovative changes are on the horizon at Talonsoft - their East Front World War II game looks like nothing else they've done before, and with a tactical-level Vietnam game and Norm Koger's Operational Art of War coming up, it seems Talonsoft will continue their reign as the champions of computer wargaming.

Bottom line: If you're a wargamer or a Civil War buff, this game is a must-have.

--Rick Fehrenbacher