Battalion Wars used to be part of -- and still belongs with -- the Advance Wars universe. The game shares so many similarities with its handheld-based brethren that it's impossible to ignore the influences. Both franchises, for example, pit players in control of military squads and challenge them to manage units and both games hide surprisingly well-crafted strategy systems under their relaxed, comic book style exteriors.
But there are major differences and it's these separations that undoubtedly kept Kuju's ambitious game from being an official sequel in the Advance Wars universe. Nintendo's portable games emphasize turn-based strategy. Battalion Wars is alternatively focused on a blend of real-time action and strategy. Meanwhile, Advance Wars features a competent multiplayer mode and Battalion Wars lacks one.
So do these truths make Battalion Wars a poor imitation of Nintendo's handheld titles? Perhaps in the hands of a lesser development studio, yes, but Kuju has done a commendable job of re-imagining the original play mechanics for action fans and the end result is a game that's unexpectedly entertaining if not at times great.
- Action/real-time-strategy inspired by the Advance Wars franchise
- Command squads of Frontier troops and fight against the enemy
- Take control of individual soldiers or direct entire units
- A plethora of different unit types to control
- Pilot ground and air-based vehicles with realistic physics
- More than 20 levels spanning several unique terrains
- A wide array of different mission objectives means each level is unique
- Comic book-like art style gives the game an original look
- Full-motion animated cut-sequences drive the original storyline
- Characters come to life with in-game voice acting
- No multiplayer mode of any kind
- Runs in progressive-scan mode
- Runs in 16x9 widescreen
- Supports Dolby Pro Logic II
War is Fun
If books are judged by their covers then Battalion Wars is very likely to give gamers the wrong impression. Despite its cuddly graphic style and humorous presentation, it is at its core a battle-heavy war game. Gunfights rage. Buildings explode and yes, soldiers do die. Similarly, consumers who pick up the title expecting a bare bones action romp for their little brothers will be making a misguided purchase. Kuju's game has its share of straightforward shooting, but players unable to simultaneously strategize and manage their units will not survive long. This is a smarter and more satisfying game than one might initially expect -- we have to admit that it certainly took us by surprise.
Battalion Wars stands out from the majority of Nintendo-published games in that it features a storyline brought to life with surprisingly adept full-motion animation sequences. These scenes play like 1950s-style military propaganda movies, setting up the heroic Western Frontier as the defender of democracy and the evil Tundran Army as the brutal enemy attacker. There are all sorts of humorous character clichés in place. For instance, the loud-mouthed, flat-topped, cigar-smoking General Herman barks out commands to the Western Frontier units while the clearly Cold War inspired Tzar Gorgi speaks with an exaggerated Russian accent and fears change.
Despite the basic setup, which is simply that the Tundran Forces have started war with the Western Frontier, there are some entertaining story twists along the way, which unfold both in crisp cinematics and real-time exchanges. Mostly well acted, though undeniably over the top voice work, helps further define each army's commanders. It's hard not to laugh at the threats coming from Gorgi as battles rage. However, mission briefings from the ultra cheery Betty have proven to be too much for some spectators, who actually asked us if there's an option to turn the voice work off. Incidentally, there isn't. As the game progresses, players learn of a third army, an evil nation of industrial Teutonic vampires called the Xylvanians, and these guys add an extra layer of color to the experience.
Action and Strategy Combined
We've already stated that Battalion Wars is different from its Advance Wars ancestors in that it offers a real-time action-strategy experience, but let's define what that really means. Players control in real-time battalions of soldiers, land-based vehicles and aircraft through environments. They can take command of an individual solder if they so desire, at which point they're able to maneuver him about the world, jump, lock onto targets and shoot at enemies or objects. Control is tight and balanced, which makes roaming the landscapes an intuitive and fun experience. Players can and indeed must also micromanage their units even as they are in control of a single soldier or vehicle. This is where the mostly flexible strategic element comes into play. Thankfully, the management system is quickly accessible and easy to use with only a couple of exceptions. Located on the bottom of the gameplay screen is an icon bar with a star and next to it each type of unit available to the Frontier Army. The squads vary from level to level, but the selection is overall robust. Infantry includes everybody from rifle and bazooka soldiers to specialists with flamethrowers, machine guns, ack-acks, mortars and rocket launchers. Meanwhile, players also command everything from jeeps, light and heavy tanks, and battle stations to helicopters, airborne gunships, bombers and fighter jets. The only disappointment is that there are no naval units in the game despite the fact that many of the battle locales are surrounded by oceans.
Gamers can command the entire battalion with the star button, telling it to attack or to stay behind. They can alternatively give orders to certain squads simply by selecting them on the icon bar with the camera stick and then hitting a button to send them off. Or, they can even select an individual soldier in a squad, which is useful in arming sentry points, among other things. The system is a lot of fun, but just as important, easily learned and operated and players will find themselves zipping through levels while commanding their soldiers in no time. Kuju has implemented a very useful feature on top of all this flexibility that makes the experience more dynamic still. Gamers can on the icon bar highlight a squad or vehicle with the camera stick and hit the Z button to take full control of it. This is a powerful tool because it not only ensures that said unit does exactly as gamers want, but it simultaneously makes it easier to monitor a squad not immediately nearby.
Soldier artificial intelligence strikes a competent balance between taking care of itself and accepting instruction. AI was never a glaring problem as we played through the game. Allied soldiers will attack advancing enemies when they are in sentry mode, but they are not so aggressive that they do a players job for him. Where's the fun in that? If an enemy bomber soars overhead, a gamer's ack-acks won't always immediately attack it simply because they might be engaged elsewhere. However, when players give their ack-acks an order to attack, they won't hesitate. Giving commands like these is an extremely rewarding operation because players will see their soldiers respond. In the case of the ack-acks, they will level a barrage of anti-aircraft missiles at enemy bombers, which have almost no chance of survival. That's not to say that enemy AI is perfect. It would have been nice if Kuju had implemented the option for players to set different AI priority levels so that troops could be directed to always defend an area from air attacks, for instance, before worrying about advancing ground forces. Even so, there are some impressive demonstrations of character AI. Allied soldiers competently follow and never get stuck on objects and when they need health, they will pick up med units off fallen enemy soldiers without being told to do so.
Battalion Wars shines when individual control and troop management are successfully combined during frenzied battles. Running over mountainous landscapes with legions of solders in tow is an empowering experience and players will undoubtedly love it. However, better still is defeating an enemy by strategically deploying ack-acks against enemy bombers while simultaneously commanding riflemen to take down threatening bazooka veterans and still finding the time to pilot a battle station against advancing heavy tanks. These situations are downright awesome and wholly addictive -- even for gamers normally uninterested in strategic games. Here's a true story. During play tests with the title, nearly every editor (and otherwise) stopped by our desks to watch us go at it, and we're unable to count how many times people returned the next day wanting to try it for themselves. Anybody who spent more than 20 minutes with the game told us they were buying it.
There are, even so, a couple of oversights where the commanding of troops is concerned. The first and most problematic is that once gamers micromanage a squad, they must in turn do the same for all the other squads or negate their initial commands. There's no way to lock an individual unit into a order so that further commands ignore the unit, so far as we can tell. As a result, if players individually direct their flamethrowers to attack some enemy bazooka veterans and then use the star command to direct the rest of the squad, the flamethrowers will abandon their previous order and join the rest of the party. The only way around this is to continue micromanaging units, which can be tedious and difficult during frantic battle situations. The other issue, slightly related, is that there are certainly points when time is not on our side -- where we really could use an extra second or two to command units without worrying about advancing forces. It would have been very useful if Kuju had implemented a feature so that time either slowed or paused when gamers accessed the command icon bar. And finally, because squads aren't saved from level to level -- players start fresh with each stage -- it's far easier to sacrifice units than it might be in other strategy games, which in turn sometimes diminishes the importance of saving every man. The only benefit to doing so is that each stage is graded based on a player's performance and there are certain rewards for scoring well.
Some diehard strategy fans accustomed to the "fog of war" may find Battalion Wars' map system cheap and unnecessary. Using it, players can zoom in and see both where enemies are located and what types of units they have, making it much easier to plan an attack. This isn't a big deal for us because we simply ignored the option. Vehicles and Missions
Every bit as thrilling as controlling and directing soldiers, if not more so, is taking command of the various vehicles in the game. Every tank, jeep or battle station in Battalion Wars roars to life with unique physics. Some of the vehicles move with a sense of speed and bouncy physics not unlike the Warthog in Bungie's Halo games, which is pretty impressive. Battle stations nudge along at a snail's pace and crush anything they come into contact with. Bombers turn round stiffly in the air while fighter jets are much more maneuverable. Simply learning the intricacies of each craft, and then capitalizing on them, is half the fun.
Kuju has provided players with a wide variety of landscapes to explore and the worlds in Battalion Wars are oftentimes impressively large. Mountains that loom in the distance can be navigated to in some instances. Roads lead into far away hills. There are broken bridges that can only be manipulated with certain vehicles -- gamers will actually need to jump them, which is pretty entertaining. The list goes on. The selection of world types is disappointedly limited -- really only four, which range from forests to icy regions, deserts and eventually Xylvania, a stylized gothic wasteland. But Kuju has done a lot with the locales all the same, serving up a host of different mission objectives, from guarding towers to using bombers to knock out enemy structures. There are even a couple of levels that revolve around racing a jeep through unpredictable mountain roadways as quickly as possible, or destroying enemy satellites before a time limit runs out, and these help to keep players guessing.
Battalion Wars sports a decidedly cartoony look that we find appealing. The title's levels are filled with landscape curves and decorated with vegetation such as grass and trees. Soldiers animate fluidly and land vehicles skid and bounce in every direction. There are even some extra bells and whistles. The game utilizes an extremely impressive particle effects system so that when vehicles explode they erupt into chunks of fire that showers the landscapes. Water transparencies add flair to the surrounding oceans. And the game runs in both progressive-scan and 16x9 widescreen modes, which is sure to please gamers with appropriate high-definition sets. Kuju's game doesn't always impress in screenshots because frankly some of the world and character textures in the game are on the low resolution side and therefore lack detail. But it makes up for this drawback in motion, where it runs for the most part at a steady 30 frames per second.
Although the game only features 20 missions, they should last most players a reasonable amount of time and there is a reason to re-play them. Kuju has developed a grading system for each stage and only gamers who gain top scores for each mission will be able to unlock up to four additional levels. It's one thing to scrape by a level with a C grade. It's another thing entirely to score an A or better.
We don't normally consider what games are missing when we review them, but most players will expect that Battalion Wars comes complete with a multiplayer mode and the sad truth is that it doesn't, which is disappointing. This omission is doubly unfortunate because the game began its life as a sequel to Advance Wars, which has a proven multiplayer offering, and because it originally featured one, but the mode was later axed.
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