Every so often there comes a game that is so horribly bad that to play it would be committing a crime against humanity. To even look at it would waste precious seconds from our otherwise unproductive lives, time no doubt better spent gouging out your eyes or better yet writing a game review. Fortunately, Advance Wars is none of these things, quite the opposite, in fact it could possibly be one of the best Gameboy games out there.
Pass the ammo, let the war begin!
Advance Wars is essentially a turn-based strategy game. But it's Advance Wars addictive play style and deep mechanics that make intelligent systems little beaut such a stand out title. From the get-go you wont be able to access most of the game until you have completed field training. A clever ploy by the developer to force the player to complete the 15 tutorial levels that will introduce you to AWs unique gameplay. It's a cheap move by Intelligent Systems but an effective one. It's presented well with a saucy 32-bit piece of feminine character design named "Nell" as your instructor. And believe it or not field training is no slouch on the fun factor either.
Each user, CPU or otherwise is given control of an army. Each army is generally trying to accomplish two goals: A) Capture the enemy Head Quarters, or B) Destroy all enemy units. Each player takes turns in which they are able to manufacture new units, move units into attack and capture bases. Players view the battlefield from a top-down perspective as if looking at a map, controlling with a simple cursor interface that works very efficiently.
Battle takes place on maps. Maps are made up of a large variety of different terrain. Terrain ranges from grass, mountains, forest, rivers, sea to stretches of road and buildings which can be captured by infantry units. Each type offering there own particular defensive advantages and movement costs for units. For instance a tank positioned in forest will take far less damage from the onslaught of a rocket launcher than if it were sitting vulnerable on road or grass. Another factor that can change terrain is weather. There are three different types which include your standard issue sunny day, rain and snow. Weather is usually random and may appear every couple of turns passed. Rather disappointingly weather doesn't appear much during the Campaign or War Room modes. Weather's prime effect is movement distance, often increasing terrain costs on unit movement.
The Battle units are naturally where the heart of the game lies. Players can move around all there units during the course of their turn, but only once. Units could be compared to chess in that each type has different movement ranges and terrain costs eg a small tank can travel much further than a recon unit over grassland due to the tank's superior treads (just like chess). Each unit has 10 hitpoints which not only determine how close the unit is to combusting but their strength when attacking. Units are produced in factories from your own war funds. Money that can be put to use in your war funds is earned by captured bases which generate money each turn. Units range from all your staple military craft: tanks, infantry, artillery, recon, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft to bombers, fighters, helicopters, subs, battleships, etc.
But rather surprisingly there is no classic "paper, scissors, rock" strength/weakness to each unit. While this may sound like a flaw in Advance War's battle system it actually makes you fall back on otherwise more secondary factors travel distance and unit cost. In most cases units are divided into two main categories. Direct units using melee combat and only being able to attack adjacent units eg tanks. Indirect units on the other hand using long distance attack such as rocket launchers. Using both types effectively is often a key to strategy. There is more depth to units than I can possibly go into in this review, but its only through real hands-on play experience that you will discover the intricacies of each vehicle of death.
The real difference between each army is the Commanding Officer. The CO, much like the third party in a threesome, is essentially the middle man/woman between you and your army. Each CO features different tendencies and powers which make them an integral part of your overall strategy. For Instance player favourite "Max" features extra strong direct units but weak indirect units with reduced firing ranges. Max's CO Power, which can be called upon when the power meter is full, involves increasing his direct units even more for one whole turn, often resulting in a blitzkrieg of devastation. There are about ten different Commanding Officers to use in the game. Most of which have to be unlocked and then bought at the Battle Maps store in the menu.
A gun full of fun
The infinite scrolling menu is slick, albeit colourful. After completing Field Training the rest of the menu opens up and with it the rest of the game. The Campaign mode is where the real guns and ammo of the game hide. Campaign mode takes the role of the story mode of Advance Wars in which you play out the part of the Orange Star army as it fights to maintain the peace between its bordering nations; disrupted by a mysterious new foe. Campaign mode has you take on 20 different maps where at the beginning and end of each you will be treated to a dialogue of the Commanding Officers talking. These often amusing if not intriguing trash talk sequences slowly pieces together the origin of who is causing the chaos along the country borders. The story isn't going to win any awards any time soon but it is a decent and mostly involving affair.
Who needs crack? We've got Advance Wars
Campaign mode will probably take the average person roughly 20 hours to complete the first time through. The real surprise campaign mode has to offer though is that depending on which CO you choose for each map the storyline will vary. You will probably find yourself playing through several times more just to find all the different story and map variations, whether to satiate your own curiosity or to unlock the rest of the Commanding Officers for use in War Room and Vs modes. It really adds another touch to the already fine replay value.
War Room has you playing on maps you have purchased from the Battle Maps store. I found I sank most of my time in the War Room. The challenge to get all A ranks for the war room maps has me hooked. It's easy to access and the rewards made me keep coming back for more bloodshed. Vs Mode is where you can play on the rest of the maps you have bought. Vs Mode also allows you to play against a pal using only one GBA and one Advance Wars cart, which is brilliant for Gameboyless AW enthusiasts. Link mode of course is where you can play against AW enthusiasts rich and smart enough to have there own GBA, link cable and AW cart.
You can save anytime during your turn in Advance Wars. A good thing too, as some maps can take hours to complete. You can generally have one to two saved games going for each mode. Quite impressive considering that can total nearly 10 games going at once all crammed into that tiny Gameboy cartridge.
The real rewards for playing through campaign mode and war room modes though are the coins you earn after each battle. After winning a map you will be treated to a brief screen displaying your rank score from 0-999 and your rank grade ranging from F-A and the very elusive S. Rank is the judge of how fast, strong and strategic your battle was. The higher the rank the more coins you earn for use in the Battle Maps store. Your rank after each battle also contributes to your over all advance wars rank. Starting at the rat insignia of rank 89 you will claw your way to the prestigious numero uno. The overall rank is one of the best returning factors (second to the fun) that make up the replay value. After what must be over a hundred hours of gameplay I still have yet to make it to Rank 1
It's becoming obvious now. Advance War's returning factor is higher than the designers at Ubi Soft were when they created Rayman. But it seems intelligent systems is determined to make their killer title kick as much ass as damn possible. Design Maps in the menu is as what the name would suggest a mode which allows you to create your own maps to battle on for your own amusement or for use in the link mode. You can store up to 3 maps at once with all the fancy accessories you would find in your normal maps. Its another great feature to Advance Wars that gives it almost limitless replay value.
What? You call that a weapon?
Advance Wars is fairly decent graphics wise. It doesn't really push the GBA hardware. But that's where the beauty of Advance Wars lies, it doesn't need any better graphics. AW's complete design seems a perfect match for the gameboy graphics. There are few areas where AW's could really add much graphically without doing something more radical like changing the camera to an isometric view. Maybe some more water effects and a bit more variation in same types of terrain. But ultimately so much is on the cartridge that it would be a wonder if they could fit any more.
That is not to say the graphics are a slouch. The backgrounds are crisp with colourfully cheerful terrain. Advance Wars takes a cartoony anime styling which can be clearly seen in the faces of the different Commanding Officers. Units too have a squished cartoon like charm to them which doesn't over power the theme of warfare like you might think. Trails of dust and smoke follow the units as they move around. And all units seem to bob up and down as they await commands. Its a very unique and charming style that gives Advance Wars a feel all of it's own.
Graphics are usually consistent. Over my hundred hours of play I experienced only one technical hitch in which the screen froze. However it is not clear whether this was the software or the hardware at fault. The only other flaw I could actually find in the graphics was a tiny overlapping mistake. I noticed that a small part of the background was hidden beneath a tank in the foreground in which realistically it should have been in front of the tank. This Is a laughably minor complaint caused as a result of how the graphics are layered. Ultimately it doesn't hinder gameplay at all and would only be noticed by gamers closely scrutinising the game.
The use of CO powers often dish out the more impressive graphical effects. Depending on which CO you are using you're in for a fireworks extravaganza of flashing light and animated halos around the unit sprites. This also leads to one of the biggest minor faults in the game. In most cases CO powers effect all your units as would be expected but this often means seeing an animated flash of light encircle every single one of your units. Its a minor grumble but if you have a large army it can become quite tedious to have to sit there a minute or so watching every single unit animate.
Whenever there is a confrontation between units - and if your a halfway decent commander that should be quite often - there is a short animated cutscene. The screen features a split screen displaying your unit on one side and that opposing unit on the other. A nice background touch shows the terrain that each unit is fighting from, crucial to the results of the battle. A quick burst of animated gun fire and explosions show the results of the skirmish. Despite the theme of war AW is very easy on the violence. Blood and gore is replaced with simple animated explosions, even for the infantry units. But chances are that if you were after dazzling splashes of blood and gore you shouldn't be playing on a GBA in the first place. Even though the styling may be childish to some, the high depth of strategy and mechanical gritiness to some of the characters keeps this game from being an infantile affair.
A nice option in the ingame menu is the option to select which visual preference you prefer. Ranging from about five different options you can choose whether to have certain animations displayed. This comes as a god send to seasoned experts who do not want to witness the same battle animation they have viewed a hundred times before. Unfortunately this option does not include the CO powers as I mentioned above.
Listen... That is the sound of a good game
Advance Wars series of beeps and tones might not be considered music to some, but its a damn good attempt. The tunes are generally pleasant to listen to often themed around what is happening or what character is playing. Classic villainous tunes are used for evil characters and some hard techno pangs are used for climatic actions. But mostly its easy listening up-beat tones that keep within the cheerful theme of the game. Despite how often the music repeats, music never became tedious for me even after over a hundred hours of playing. It all boils down to a generally enjoyable aural experience.
Sound effects are your standard affair. Gunfire sounds like gunfire, explosions sound like explosions and death sounds like- well, more explosions. Where the sound effects really stand out though are the mechanical clinks, clunks, whines and sputters of the military units. The pounding of the helicopter rotors or grunts of the tank engines complement the trails of smoke beautifully. The little musical riffs are excellent. The use of a CO power or when your army is victorious gives you a raw shot of accomplishment and power.
The game really is a blitzkrieg of gaming bliss. There is more features packed in to this cart than I can possibly detail in this review without turning it into the instruction manual. I have not even touched on the "fog of war" mode of play, the fuelling and repairing of units, joining of units, unit stats, intel, unit specialties, base capturing, the list goes onï¿½ It really is some of the best value for money in terms of gameplay and replay value.
With a game like Advance Wars it is easier to count what it does wrong than what it does right. The graphics aren't revolutionary but they are solid. I only discovered two minor faults in graphics. One was a glitch in which the game froze the second was a tiny overlapping complaint and that is it. If your looking for a game that stretches the Gameboy's 2D boundaries to 3D look elsewhere. There are some very minor inequalities in CO design. The CO Max can often lead to a gun-ho type of play which puts strategy second. Some other COs have questionable design. Sonya is a case where the only real place she can be utilised is during a fog of war battle, a scenario which is never in any of the war room or campaign maps. Making her useless except in fog of war Vs mode battles. CO Powers which look stunning the first times through grow stale and annoying after having to witness an entire army animate one unit at a time. With no choice to avoid them despite the various visual options. Those are the only chinks I can find in Advance War's steely armour of excellent game design. As for the good? have you learned nothing yet?
The gameplay is an addictive love affair that will have you glued for hours at a time, it really is a fantastic turn-based system. The replay value is what I love most about Advance Wars I still play the game almost daily since my purchase of it more than a year ago. If you can dig the strategy genre no other gameboy game will give you a better returning factor. Whether it be the multiple paths of campaign mode, your own high scores and ranks to top, the progression of your overall rank, the hundreds of maps to be bought at the battle maps store or the millions of different maps that could be made from the design map feature. Advance Wars is one of very best games for those who don't buy a GBA game very often.
I wont lie, I think Advance Wars is the best game on gameboy now and probably until the end of the GBA's life. I also wont lie, this game wont appeal to everybody. Everything Advance War's does right in gameplay is in it's own genre. If you know you prefer action to the more drawn out thinking a strategy title brings, you may need to try a different game. If you like strategy games, are tight on funds and are looking for a game that ensures hundreds of hours of addictive gameplay, Advance Wars is a must have.