At long last, War
Advance Wars is an extremely tardy young videogame, thanks to its European release being delayed by Nintendo following the September 11th terrorist attacks. With no handheld adversaries to speak of though, the game's actual release date has always been something of a misnomer. So unlike the Dukes and Daiks of this world, Advance Wars will be a timeless classic for many years to come. Advance Wars is the product of one of Nintendo's cluster of first party developers, Intelligent Systems. Although it sounds bizarre for a GBA title, it's a turn-based strategy game with an original storyline, more than one hundred battle maps and inestimable replay value. To give you some idea of its addictive qualities, I bought the American version of the game a few months ago. The last time I fired it up was this morning. Before that it was last night, and so on. The game also boasts a splendid multiplayer mode and one of the most involved tutorial systems I've ever encountered. Literally clutching you by the paw as you nervously embark on a campaign, your tightly-uniformed anime instructor babe Nell guides you through a long list of tutorial missions. Through the Field Training section of the game you will learn about simple gameplay mechanics like moving troops and gaining terrain intelligence. Beyond that there's Base Capture, Unit Repair, APCs and Tank Ops, and then you have to learn about air and sea-based units, such as Copters, before completing the training regime with a couple of tutorials on Climate Status and the Fog of War.
Once you have learnt the ins and outs of the game's twenty or so individual units you will be ready to take on the game's main campaign. Battles involve units on the land, in the sea and attacking from the air, but each individual unit has its own peculiar quirks. For example, a well-rounded force needs Artillery Cannons, but because they lack the ability to attack units in their direct vicinity, a group of fleet-footed troopers can make mincemeat out of them if they aren't properly defended. As you may have guessed, it is the game's attention to detail that makes it such a success. Anybody can plonk you on a battlefield with only a few units to your name and an enemy force inbound, but Advance Wars is special because it demands a strategic approach. Controlling the Commanding Officer of all these 'ere troops, you have to use their various strengths to exploit the weaknesses of the enemy's platoon. There is no other way to ensure victory. Of course, another factor is the regular addition of new officers, with nine to uncover. Throw in over one hundred missions, each with its own objectives, along with the fifteen-mission tutorial mode and you start to understand why Advance Wars is such an entertainment haven. I still haven't 'finished' the game, more than two months after starting it. As if this wasn't enough, you can store up to three custom-built maps created using the game's level editor. As a GameBoy Advance game, the visual odds and sods might make no nevermind to some, since you can barely see anything to begin with, but the game's GUI and graphics in general play a superb supporting role to the incendiary gameplay. The main screen is set out in grid formation, with various types of terrain littered about the place. Great tracts of land can be separated by the open sea, forests or mountain ranges to impede your progress, and there are often towns and other civilian areas dotted around. These can be captured to increase your army's influence and income, allowing you to revitalize your troops before sending them off again. Strengthening the attack is a delicate balancing act. Sending units back and forward between the front and the field hospital style outposts on your side of the map is an important aspect of the game.
Strategy Over Stomping
Each unit is represented by a tiny, squidgy sprite occupying one space on the grid. Everything is extremely cutesy and anime-esque, right down to your opposing number, the commanding officer of the enemy forces, who looks like an anime pirate. Using the D-pad you can select units and other items as you might with a mouse pointer in a PC strategy game, before selecting various options from a drop-down menu (everything from moving the unit to firing upon the enemy and ending your turn). In case of engagement proceedings switch to a different screen, where the terrain and units are portrayed with greater detail in a sort of horizontal split screen. When your troops fire, depending on your distance from the enemy, the relative trajectory and a number of other factors, weapons fire will rain down on your enemies and they will respond in kind. The outcome of each of these miniature encounters is easy enough to predict. Let's take an example. Each unit has a certain number of hit points (it's mercifully small in most cases to avoid FF-style mathematician's block), and in this case you have five infantry units firing one grid space away from five enemy troopers. Your men are advancing over mountainous terrain though, and find themselves severely elevated compared to their enemies. Thanks to this advantage, your five shots weaken all five enemy units. A similar attack in the next turn would wipe them out. Unfortunately for them, your position on the mountain also means that you make a harder target, so only three of your own troops are slightly injured, and the enemy has to retreat.
After a few of the main single player missions, the process of moving troops and scanning enemy forces for weakness becomes second nature. The AI can be pretty fearsome, and far from simply throwing wave after wave of disposable troops at your frontline it plays the game like a chess board, sizing up each move and often dispensing as many crippling blows as you can muster. Advance Wars is a black hole, swallowing time like there's no tomorrow (hah!) and apparently without fault. Honestly, I can't find anything to criticize. Not even the music is getting to me. Even after countless hours glued to the GBA's tiny screen with the volume cranked right up, I still find the quirky little theme tunes extremely enjoyable. And I haven't even touched on the game's reward structure. Far from limiting you to a path through 100 or so stages in sequence, the game sends you all over the place, and the rewards include levels only found in the rare Japanese GameBoy version of the game; GameBoy Wars. I touched briefly on the linkup mode at the start of the review, but it's fitting that it seals the package. Advance Wars' multiplayer mode supports up to four players via the link cable, and if you thought AI commanding officers took a few tricks to defeat, the tactics of rival GBA owners will shock and astound you. Negotiating the various challenges Advance Wars offers is like trying to find the best cycle route through London on a Saturday afternoon - different people have come up with different ways of doing it.
If you buy this game only for the single player mode you won't be disappointed. If your interest in the game stretches to multiplayer jiggery pokery - and that does mean finding a rival GBA owner with the cart - then you're in for an even bigger surprise. Advance Wars is a game for every situation and mood, with superb presentation, gameplay and unfathomable replay value. I have no complaints.