In Depth Review: Advance Wars [GBA]
Here I am, a strategy newbie (be it based on the turn or on the time that is real...), relatively garbage in RTS bouts against AnTiPode in WarCraft II. I haven't made the jump to 3D in Warcraft 3. I'm stuck here learning how to play Dune 2000 because I'm afraid to venture, haven't ever touched Civilization or Alpha Centauri for fear of getting my ego smashed by intelligent games that are actually too well-made and crafty for my own good.
Along comes Advance Wars. Embrace the cartoony look -- this game won't get many brownie points for graphics but at least it ain't ugly. Love the lack of a well-told story suitable for ages 18 and up -- yes, it gets really dumb if you even bother to pay attention to it. The sound is actually pretty decent, with some catchy tunes and mild explosions. But none of that matters, because in the end you'll realize it lets you concentrate on the one thing that makes Advance Wars a sickly good time: gameplay.
Perhaps the cartoon facade is there to entice the lil'uns to bite into the game as if it were Pokemon, whether to increase sales or to increase brain power at a young age, I don't know what. Whatever the case may be, here comes the cliche: don't let the cartoony look fool you into thinking AW is a cakewalk. It's not. Coming from a Strategy idiot perhaps that doesn't sound so intimidating... but before I get sidetracked here let me get on with the damned review.
Advance Wars is a turn-based strategy game that mimics the gameplay of the famous Fire Emblem series. All the units are based somewhat on modern military -- tanks, helicopters, long-range rockets and anti-air units. Each unit has a certain movement range, attack range, and movement penalty within certain terrains. The only ground-based units that can cross mountains are infantry units, and all ground-based units lose some movement range within forests. Thank god for aerial units, right? Of course they're draining fuel every turn, regardless of whether or not they move, so they've got their weaknesses too.
The objective of each mission is usually to use the units that have been provided for you to either help facilitate the capture of the enemy headquarters by one of your infantry, or to obliterate every unit the enemy has. Here's where my first gripe comes in. There is little variety in the missions -- capture their HQ, or kill all their troops. No differentiation, such as survival / transport / protection, capture a certain set of buildings, etc. (This is a problem that is somewhat rectified in the sequel.) In some missions, however, you are given the ability to capture factories, airports and seaports to deploy additional units of your own. Being a turn-based game, cranking out units proves to be a somewhat dull task -- and I haven't even mentioned that you've got to wait for currency to build up.
Here, then, is perhaps the weakest part of the game. At first I had wanted more missions where you could deploy your own units. However, I began to realize that if there were a large amount of deployment missions I would go insane. Most of the time when you start out, you don't have sufficient funds at your disposal to really do much except lay out one or two infantry, or a mechanized infantry unit (which has less movement range than do regular infantry units). So what I'd end up seeing was: Day 1, plop unit, plop unit, end; enemy turn; Day 2, move unit, move unit and commence capture on a neutral building if in range; plop unit, end turn, enemy turn; Day 3, rinse and repeat...
I would be lying if I said that the early deployment stages were no more than a tiny nuisance to me, because at times I'd get frickin' impatient. However the payoff at the end is worth it. Of course, I refer to when I had enough money to start pulling out the big guns (tanks, medium tanks, long range artillery, longer range rockets) -- then it gets exciting. I think Intelligent Systems did a good job of not making the game a cakewalk once you suffer through the boring rounds to whip out a huge army. As with other strategy games the enemy's doing the same thing you're doing; your huge tanks will meet with their equally huge tanks. You've still got to out-think the opponent. You've still got to keep them out of range by backing up your tanks with rockets, you've still got to find ways to squeeze in your infantry for the big capture. It never gets overly easy, and as I said in the beginning, sometimes it gets outrageously hard. Five attempts at a single mission can become the norm here, and when your opponent's special power is incredibly cheap, that's when you almost (but not quite) risk throwing $70 worth of equipment out the window.
Special powers, you wonder. Each CO (commanding officer) in the game has attributes -- sort of like the different clans or races in Dune and WarCraft -- that help and hinder in battle. Some are all-around. Some kick major arse in direct combat, others are more adept at long range warfare. One CO has better infantry hich can capture buildings faster and move farther per turn. To top it off, each CO has a special attack once s/he's been attacked, or attacks, enough to build up a meter that sits on the top part of the screen.
What I really love about the CO attributes and powers -- and this is what makes Advance Wars so appealing to me -- is that it adds a layer to the basic rock-paper-scissors you get with many games. You know, unit A is stronger against unit B, but unit B is stronger against unit C which is stronger against unit A... now it's, unit A may be stronger against unit B in principle, but this CO's B-type units are more powerful than anyone else's in the game... and then on top of that, you've got the special powers that can really turn the tide of the battle. Say you're playing with Max, and your unit count is about dead even with your opponents. Your hit points across the board are a little lower than his/hers, and eventually you might lose out the grudge match. But when you pull out his Special Power, Max Force, out of your @$$, you get to deal far more damage to opposing units -- perhaps even felling equally-powered units in one blow. So what your hit points are lower -- by the end of the round, the enemy won't have hit points to speak of.
Extras make the game even better. You've got several maps to unlock using the points you earn in story mode (more points for better performance), you can design maps, and you can battle on the unlocked maps using any CO in the game (except for the final boss I think, I may be wrong). And of course, it being difficult at some points with hordes of single-player missions to play through, you'll be hard-pressed to miss the value in this title.
Although one of the first GBA games to come out, Advance Wars still manages to be one of the most entertaining and involving games on any portable system. So what if the sequel's out... work some extra hours and get 'em both!