Trenches II for iPhone and iPad
When Wilfred Owen wondered “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns. / Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle / Can patter out their hasty orisons,” chances are good that the author of “Anthem for Doomed Youth” was not trying to describe the action in an iOS tower defense game. Yet, it would be a pretty apropos description for Trenches II, an offering from Thunder Game Works by way of Electronic Arts that translates the horrors of the first World War into a cartoonish strategy game.
Whether the War to End All Wars is appropriately depicted by grinning, mustachioed soldiers charging to their doom is a debate for another time, however. The question before us is whether Trenches II—or its iPad-optimized counterpart, Trenches II HD—succeeds as a mobile game. Fans of tower defense and real-time strategy games will certainly appreciate how either Trenches offering deftly blends the two genres. It’s an open question, though, as to how long either game will hold your attention.
As the name would suggest, Trenches II is a sequel. I never got the chance to the play the original, but I gather that this latest version is a lot like its predecessor, only more so. You get a choice of which army to command—the British, Germans, or French—and you can either play against a computerized opponent or a real-live human being via Trenches II’s multiplayer functionality through either Game Center, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi. You can either play in Campaign mode, in which you advance your army across a map of Europe, or in Skirmish mode, which features one-off games like Supremacy, Last Man Standing, and King of the Trench. I found Campaign mode to be the most satisfying way to play the game, but individual skirmishes at least let you mix it up a little.
The mechanics in Trenches are pretty straightforward. You continually earn virtual money throughout a battle, which you use to buy forces to deploy—infantry units, machine gunners, artillery, and the like. The better the unit, the bigger the hit on your cache of coins. It’s your job to dispatch each unit across the battlefield, taking advantage of the available trenches, buildings, and other scenery for cover against enemy fire. Your troops will charge forward automatically from the moment you deploy them, even if it means running straight into a landmine, so you better use your finger to draw a line to where you want them to go. Ultimately, you want to reach the enemy bunker, while keeping enough defenses behind your advancing infantry to keep your opponent from doing the same.
After each battle, you earn perks, which you can use to upgrade your forces. Racking up perks the old-fashioned way can be pretty slow-going; the impatient player can load up on them via in-app purchase. I prefer it when a game gives you the choice of whether you want to part with any real-world money, but perks are so hard to come by, I feel like Trenches II is pushing me to use the in-app purchase feature. When I’ve already paid for the privilege of downloading the game, that hard sell makes me feel a little resentful.
You’ll quickly find that one strategy does not fit all in Trenches II. Even when you’re battling a computerized opponent, you can’t just employ the same strategy in every battle to come out on top—the AI is smart enough to vary what it throws at you. That’s one of the game’s stronger aspects. One of its weaker aspects, however, is how you jump back and forth to different parts of the battlefield: Trenches II makes you scroll back and forth at the top of the screen. For starters, it’s easy to inadvertently tap a button to speed up the action when you’re only trying to scroll, particularly when you play Trenches II on an iPhone or iPod touch. It’s also easy to lose sight of troops you’ve left to fortify other areas of the battlefield. I would prefer a display that lets me jump to different units just by tapping a map. And while we’re talking flaws, I appreciate Trenches II’s ability to save battles if subduing enemy forces is taking longer than I anticipated; I’m less impressed by the fact that all my fortifications and reinforced bunkers disappear when I’m ready to resume waging war. You can rebuild them easily enough if you have an engineering unit nearby, but the duplicated effort bugs me.
Trenches II’s multiplayer capability is great when it works, but in testing the app, I often had a difficult time getting the game to find me a real live opponent elsewhere in the word. If you’re hoping to take advantage of multiplayer in Trenches II, you had best hope you’ve got a friend who also has the game and who’s willing to play with you over a local Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection—that approach seems much more reliable than the global matchmaking feature Trenches II offers.
Which is not to say Trenches II is a poor effort—far from it. It’s a solid war simulation that successfully blends elements of tower defense games with the demands of a real-time strategy offering. If that’s the sort of app that appeals to you, you’ll find plenty to like about Trenches II, regardless of what device you use to play the game. However, more causal gamers may find some of Trenches II’s shortcomings to be the real casualty of war.
[Philip Michaels goes into battle every day as the editor of Macworld.com.]