Nintendo got the message, then. When the Japanese giant first rolled Advance Wars: Under Fire into public view last year there were more than a few murmurs of discontent among the faithful when they saw Kuju's action-heavy interpretation of the classic turn-based strategy series. It's not that it was a bad game as such, but the bottom line was that it simply wasn't Advance Wars. If you can imagine turning Chess into a cutesy third person strategy-laced action adventure and then asking Gary Kasparov to express his righteous indignation, you've probably got some idea of the extent of the backlash against what Kuju was planning.
Evidently Nintendo backed down, and now Cube owners can instead look forward to a game that's merely inspired by Intelligent System's beloved series rather than attempting to radically reinvent it in the way that so many 3D reworkings have done over the years. Frankly, for every good 3D remake of a classic 2D concept, there are dozens of hideous aberrations that have killed the brand for good. One day we'll thank Nintendo for doing the right thing.
Backtracking on Advance
If you weren't aware of all that already, you might wonder what all the fuss was about. Battalion Wars, it turns out, is actually shaping up to be a decent addition to the Cube in its own right. Taking the basic premise of Advance Wars and sprinkling in elements of the original's gameplay and presentation, our early impressions are of a game that stands out on the Cube. Not only does it manage to bring the real time strategy concept to the GameCube successfully, but it does so with an intuitive control system and a refreshingly at-odds-with-the-subject-matter visual style.
But before we flesh out why we came to those conclusions, what's the game about? Well, so far Nintendo has revealed that the game is set in the "dark days" at the end of the 21st Century. "What started as a border spat between the Western Frontier and the Tundran Territories has snowballed into a terrifying global conflict", the blurb states.
Limping through the "seemingly endless war", a "despotic madman" called Kaiser Vlad (suitably evil, wouldn't you say?), is looking to turn the stalemate to his own nefarious ends and take control of both flagging nations.
Apparently, The Kaiser is hungry for revenge after his country was annexed during the war, and he's using his offshore funds to some "unholy science" in order to create "a terrible army of super powerful, gas-breathing, Chemical Shock Troops". E-Yikes. Launching a shock attack on the two superpowers, they're "seemingly helpless" against their new enemy. Faced with almost certain defeat, the two warring factions join forces to defeat the evil madman.
In the game itself you take charge of the Western Frontier forces, and it true Advance Wars-style you are initially briefed with some text-based chat by your leader General Herman, Colonel Austin and the ever-helpful Betty, who all chime in with mission briefings, objective updates and helpful intel in taking on the Kaiser's forces. As with Advance Wars, it's full of light hearted banter, and even has the same cutesy close-ups of their faces, complete with facial expressions and the like.
But that's about where the AW comparisons end, as the game itself plays very much like a zoomed-in real time PC RTS rather than a top-down, turn-based war game. The first thing that struck us was the flexible degree of control over your troops that lets you guide your merry platoon around just as easily as going it alone.
War has never been so much fun?
The fairly short-lived playable demo that Nintendo has been showing off since E3 puts you in charge of a ready-made band of soldiers including a posse of infantrymen, a few anti-armour troops armed with bazookas, along with a jeep, and a tank. You only have direct control of one soldier at a time, but your throng of killing machines do a decent job of following behind sensibly, and can be intuitively instructed to perform a number of moves.
Accessing each unit type is a breeze, and once highlighted (with the C stick) you can command them to take up attack positions, send them to a point on the map, or simply follow you. As we mentioned, the controls are slick and easy to get to grips with, and feature a lock-on to help direct your aim, while some exaggerated dive and roll moves let you perform all sorts of acrobatic craziness in real time.
Usefully, you can micromanage each unit, allowing you to jump into the shoes of any of your soldiers and carry on the fight. For example if you see that one of them is low on health (displayed via an icon bar) you can quickly switch to them and take them out of the heat of the battle if you so choose
As you'd expect from any RTS worth its salt, you can approach the battle however you choose; a certain degree of stealth is certainly a wise option, but if you fancy storming in all guns blazing you can do just that if you feel the time is right to take the fight to the Kaiser's troops. Later in the game we're promised much more powerful units and vehicles, including the ability to take up multiple positions such as gunner and driver on the tanks and jeeps, while helicopters, airborne gunships, fighter jets, transport vehicles and more are promised. In terms of the soldiers' arsenal, expect: rifles, bazookas, flamethrowers, machine guns, mortars, rocket launchers and "many others" over the 20 odd missions.
Visually it's probably one of those you'll either love or hate, with a light-hearted cartoony style that deliberately favours exaggerated jumping movements that make the soldier look like they're performing under peculiar gravity conditions. If you took the character illustrations of Advance Wars and put them into a third person 3D game, they'd look a bit like this. Funny that.
Multiplayer antics were sadly absent from the demo at this stage, so we're unable to comment on what Kuju has planned at this stage.
So far we're encouraged by what we've seen of Battalion Wars. With so few interesting releases forthcoming on the Cube, Kuju's effort is shaping up to be a game to watch in the run up to Christmas. With the game's US release set for September 19th, expect to see a more considered verdict soon.