After 10 years in development, the critically and commercially successful Napoleonic Wars DLC for the strategy action roleplaying game Mount & Blade Warband finally received its spiritual successor. The 4-men team of Flying Squirrel Entertainment uses their experience in the musket-era battle genre to craft another immersive experience. This time, the developer takes to one of the last large-scale conflicts fought with muskets, the American Civil War. In Battle Cry of Freedom, named after the Civil War song of the same name, the bloody and brutal struggle is yours to conquer.
In massively multiplayer war simulators, there are numerous factors that the developers have to balance for a solid experience. Historical accuracy and enjoyable combat are in a bit of a zero-sum relationship – one’s gain is often the other’s loss. And that’s not to mention the technical challenges. The promise of hosting up to 500 players with massive maps (some as large as 2 by 2 kilometers) while assuring good FPS and graphical quality is quite the task. Let’s see if FSE managed to overcome these balancing acts in this Battle Cry of Freedom review!
Battle Cry of Freedom is available on the Steam store.
Story – America’s Deadliest Conflict
I won’t force you through too much of a history lesson – although the chances are that you (like me) enjoy some Civil War history if this game sparks your interest. In terms of casualties, the one thing you need to know is that the Civil War was deadly. Very deadly. The conflict between Union and Confederacy, which started as 11 states seceded in 1860 and 1861, to this day remains the deadliest conflict fought on American soil. When Union and Confederacy clashed during the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, it was the bloodiest engagement of the Civil War up to that point. Casualties were twice as high as all the previous battles combined. Excluding natural disasters, the Battle of Antietam in 1863 was the single deadliest day in American History.
Part of what made the Civil War so deadly was caused by diseases and poor sanitation. Combat-wise, the cause lies in a fatal combination of modernized weaponry and outdated tactics. By the 1860s, muskets and especially field artillery had evolved to be more powerful and accurate. Therefore, logically, they were also more deadly. The tactics, however, were severely outdated. Men stood in static lines waiting for orders from their commanders, where they fully exposed themselves to enemy fire.
This is the military background in which you’ll find yourself once you enter the battlefield in Battle Cry of Freedom. This is not a bird’s-eye view game. Among hundreds of soldiers, you try to advance on enemy positions. Think of trains carrying supplies, strategic hills or canyon passes, or even coastal forts. Trying to reach your objective, you will have to go through exposed terrain, in which you will be easy pickings for the enemy. In these Civil War scenarios, there’s only safety in numbers.
Gameplay – It all seems so simple…
The basic idea of the game is simple enough. Grab gun, go to objective, shoot bad guys. Fortunately, you won’t need to set up complicated builds to be an effective combatant. This makes the game quite friendly to new players. As you enter the battlefield, you get the choice to fight for the Union on the Confederacy. Joining a game is quite easy and fast. After picking teams, you spawn on either side of the map, with the objective usually somewhere in the middle. As you make your way to the objective you’ll learn the technical limitations of the Civil War era real fast.
If you join as a regular infantryman, you’ll have two ways to damage an opponent – shooting and stabbing. In Civil War fashion, don’t expect World War 2-style fast-paced combat, unleashing volleys of bullets all by yourself. You’ll have a single bullet loaded to deal a lot of damage, but after shooting, it can take up to 20 seconds to reload. You’ll want to do that somewhere protected, such as behind a barricade, some rocks, or a tree, or you’ll be a sitting duck for any enemy who happens to have a loaded gun at their disposal. Thankfully you respawn quickly, so you don’t spend most of your time in-game respawning.
The power of teamwork is strong in this one
Thankfully, the game is not just shooting once and then waiting for 20 seconds. Most rifles come equipped with a bayonet, which you can switch to whenever. So when you don’t have a bullet to shoot, it’s stabbing time. Especially when it comes to close combat, there will be much more stabbing than shooting. It’s much more likely to get you the eliminations you need to capture an objective. The switch between musket and melee keeps the gameplay exciting since each unique scenario requires a different reaction. Musket for long-distance and bayonet for close combat might be the rule, but good luck charging like a mad man at a row of musket wielding infantry with just you and your bayonet. Trust me, I tried.
Battle Cry of Freedom is not the kind of game where a single person can carry an entire team. However competent someone might be. If they get rushed by the entire enemy team, they will be toast. Cooperation with the other players in your army is essential to win the game. You can’t even play this game just by yourself since there is no single-player mode. To enable cooperation, the game uses a functional voice communication system. Players can directly send voice messages to other players near them, whether they’re Union or Confederate. If after minutes of static combat, you’re finally able to organize an offensive that successfully overwhelms the enemy defenses in a mad charge, the adrenaline rush is difficult to describe. For the Union/Confederacy, Huzzah!
Where do I learn to play?!
The controls seem simple enough. Since it’s a war simulator, the basics of what you have to do are running and shooting. However, you’ll soon find yourself running into trouble. How do I reload? How do I use my bayonet, how do I hop over fences and walls, how do I destroy barricades? The game doesn’t explain much to you, and it’s a matter of trial and error until you figure it out. It took me several games until I figured out how to properly deploy, load, and fire field artillery, for example. As an infantryman, you’ll mostly be dealing with the basic controls. Due to the simple controls, the lack of a tutorial is not a game-breaking problem. However, once you switch classes and load-outs become a little more complex, you may be left wondering what on earth you’re supposed to do. Inevitably you will press the right button, though. You can also check out an online tutorial on which keys to press.
The controls continue to suffer from clunkiness here and there. Since the map is almost fully destructible, I recently tried my hand at breaking down the door to a fortress. A fellow player brought some axes to help knock it down – which after some time, I managed to pick up. While trying to break such barricades down, you have to face particular directions to influence your movement. If you look straight ahead, you’ll thrust the ax forward, rather than performing a devastating upward swing. It takes a helpful player or an undetermined amount of time to figure these tricks out, which the game could’ve been more clear about.
A barrage of historically immersive playstyles
Of course, being a regular infantryman is far from the only way you can play in Battle Cry of Freedom. You can choose to be in the infantry, but the Civil War was much more complicated and chaotic than that. There’s the crucial artillery, which had an enormous impact on the conflict. Still, the diverse ways of playing go far beyond just that. Erect earthworks and bridges as an engineer, heal your troops as a surgeon or participate as a prestigious flag-bearer. One of my favorite ways of playing has to be the musician, which tasks you with rallying troops to your army and playing classic tunes from the era, like When Johnny Comes Marching Home or Yankee Doodle on drum or fife.
As you get ready to participate in the battle, you get to pick whoever you want to be. Want to join right away as a captain and get to use pistols and sabers rather than rifles and bayonets? No problem. The character creator lets you blend the distinctive looks of the many different Civil War generals to form your unique character. You can steal Ambrose Burnside’s majestic facial hair with George A. Custer’s wavy hair to make yourself a caricature of 19th-century fashion. The uniforms allow a fair amount of customization, offering all kinds of flavor to make your uniform unique. For Civil War buffs, this level of flavor and immersion is a welcome addition.
If the regular game doesn’t offer enough for you…
I mentioned how the only limits Battle Cry of Freedom seems to enforce are those of your mind. The game comes with ten different playstyles, of which the most unique is by far commander mode. Tired of dying all the time? Then let the AI do it for you! If you think you’re the next great Civil War general, you get a legion of bots with you to command around. This game mode certainly takes some time to get used to when it comes to controls, and finding a match is not as simple as joining a regular infantry game. That said, playing the same game from a command perspective is a welcoming twist that I hope gets fleshed out more in future updates.
FSE seems eager to build a thriving community around this game. Aside from encouraging players to team up in clans, the game comes with a fully functional map builder. As with everything in the game, the map editor takes some time to get used to. However, it does offer over 4000 props to construct any Civil War-style battlefield you could imagine. To showcase the Scene Editor, the developers released a speed design compilation.
Audio & Graphics – When immersion becomes frustrating
To add to the historical immersion, Battle Cry of Freedom has a wide range of tracks from the Civil War era. The game uses both recordings of the United States Military bands and the 2nd South Carolina String Quartet as ‘background’ music. The definition of ‘background’ is a stretch, though. This game relies quite heavily on audio cues. You’ll need to hear your other players over voice chat to coordinate on the attack you’re going to do while listening to enemy musket fire to learn where the enemy is. You might have players around you with drums and fife, playing songs of their own. Next to you, characters are shouting out voice lines. But you can’t make anything out clearly, because the game is blasting the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Although I love the tracks themselves, they tend to frustrate the gameplay.
Graphically, the game is nothing special. What it adds in play styles and historical immersion, it lacks in captivating graphics. The visual representation of the Civil War is not shoddy, but it doesn’t seem to have evolved much since the Napoleonic Wars DLC to Mount & Blade Warband, which came out in 2012. Compared to the visually much more spectacular War of Rights, the Civil War has looked prettier (if that’s the appropriate way to put it). Still, the enemies are easily visible, I can tell what’s going on based on the graphical representation, and the game runs smoothly. The graphics are certainly not detrimental to the playstyle.
The instrumental but controversial voice chat
Voice chat is key in Battle Cry of Freedom. To capture an objective, you’ll need teamwork. For teamwork, you’ll need to communicate. To the games’ credit, the voice chat works very well. I haven’t had problems understanding my fellow players sharing their plans. I can even chat to players of the opposite team and taunt them a bit – although they admittedly taunt me more often. Regrettably, these playful taunts regularly turn into insults that are much uglier. Distasteful racial comments are commonplace in voice chat. If this game wants to have a long life with a positive community, FSE has to actively moderate voice chats to nip racist and toxic atmospheres in the bud immediately.
Battle Cry of Freedom was reviewed on PC with a code provided by Vicarious PR.
Nice review, also worth noting that the game works great on Linux via Steams Proton compatibility layer.