Saturday, November 22, 2008

Advance Wars

Advance Wars
Strategy - Gameboy Advance
Battery Backup - 1 Saves
1 player / 2-4 player versus

The world of handhelds is an interesting one. There are some who love portable gaming, and others who absolutely loathe it. I confess to sympathizing with both sides of the spectrum. I enjoy what portable gaming has to offer (2d visuals, ability to play in bed, and usually a quicksave feature), but acknowledge that often times, developers take shortcuts and don't aim to make the best possible product like they do with console games. Developer Intelligent Systems refused to go that route and in 2001, released Advance Wars to the GBA. Although this is a long running series, Advance Wars is the first one to come out in English. Luckily, it was worth the wait.

Advance Wars is a tactical grid-based war game. During your turn, you move individual units around a rectangular map, and attack an enemy if possible. Each unit has ten health, and when reduced to zero, the unit is destroyed. Although the fundamentals are very simple, there's quite a bit of depth to it. First of all, there are a bunch of different units. There are troops, tanks, long distance artillery, ships, planes, and different types of models within those categories. Each unit type has its own strengths, weaknesses, movement and weapon range. For instance, the helicopter can fly a great distance, drop missiles on ground forces, and has moderate success gunning down other helicopters. But they're completely useless against fighter planes and bombers. It's mostly set up like rock-paper-scissors, where units have specific strengths against a particular unit, but may have a severe weakness versus another. In general, the goal of each map is to either defeat all of the opponent's units or to capture their base.

The combat itself is pretty standard for the genre. The most important factors to consider are unit types and health. Because of the rock-paper-scissors hierarchy, it's best to only attack with units that are strong against the enemy's units. Enemies will counterattack after you've dealt damage, so it's usually not beneficial to attack with weaker units. But health is also very important. You inflict twice as much damage at 10 health, than you do at 5 health. One other thing that influences combat is terrain. Depending on where your unit is located, you may get defensive bonuses to offset damage taken. It may seem like there's a lot of variables to keep track of, but the game is very helpful about that. Whenever you initiate an attack, it shows you exactly how much damage you will inflict, so you can plan your moves accordingly. One final item that can turn the tide of battle are the COs (commanding officers). In this game, you select a CO before entering a map, and each CO has a special power in addition to some inherent unit bonuses. Once their special meter is charged up through dealing and receiving damage, you can utilize their special ability. One example of a CO power is Grit's ability to increase all the long-distance units' range for that turn. It can be a game-changer if the enemy isn't prepared for it.

One of the more interesting components of the game is that infantry troops can capture buildings. They'll need at least two turns to capture a neutral or an enemy building, but once they do, the benefits are plentiful. A normal building that you own will heal any units sitting there 2 health per turn. Buildings will boost your defense because of the terrain bonus, so they act as safe havens to retreat to. You can also capture production buildings such as shipdocks, which will allow you to build submarines and ships. You accrue money every turn proportional to the number of buildings under your control, so there's plenty of incentive to capture buildings. Also recall that one possible victory condition is capturing your enemy's headquarters building. With this sort of system implemented, it ensures that you'll want to keep a mixed army of both vehicles and normal infantry.

What impresses most about Advance Wars is the wealth of resources. There are a lot of variables to consider in the game, such as what unit is good vs what, and how far an enemy is able to move. But the game documents all the information you need. Hit one button and you bring up information on a unit such as its weapons, its weaknesses, and its stats. Hit another button, and you'll have a grid representation of the unit's movement capability. The game is just so incredibly user-friendly, and manages to cram all the information in such a small space. But more than just the practical help menus, Advance Wars offers something even greater - a 14 stage tutorial. The game walks you through all of the units and game systems through the tutorial. Each tutorial stage is a real stage with objectives. The only difference is that the tutorial stages are designed so that you get familiar with certain aspects of the game with each new stage. If the entire game were just the Tutorial, Advance Wars would have been a great game. But it doesn't stop there. There's an entirely separate Campaign mode and a War Room of individual challenges for a total of over 50 stages! It's just amazing how much content it offers.

There are a few annoyances though. I can't say I care for the music. It's not bad, but when you have to hear the music loop for the length of a stage (sometimes an hour or more), the best thing I could say is that it's forgettable. Another thing I'm not particular fond of is Fog of War. Advance Wars employs this RTS pillar, yet I don't know if I really like the idea in a turn-based game where precision positioning is of the utmost importance. I suppose in some ways, it makes the battleground more realistic. Luckily, Fog of War is only utilized in a small fraction of the stages. Most of the stages are laid out like a typical wargame, where you'd be able to see all the pieces and possible locations on the map. One other annoyance is the last mission. It's quite a nightmare. The layout of the stage is such that even if you dominate the map, you'll can only make incremental progress towards winning the actual stage. I think it took me roughly 3 hours. Thank goodness for quicksave.

Irritations aside, if strategy games are your cup of tea, Advance Wars is one of the finest examples out there. In many ways, I much prefer this style of tactical play over SRPGs. In a game like this, it may not be optimal to put an infantry unit in front of an enemy tank. Due to the rock-paper-scissors hierarchy, it's just plain suicide. But that's also the beauty of it. It can be a completely valid strategy to sacrifice a unit either as bait, or to prevent enemy movement. In SRPGs, some games implement permanent death so you'd want to keep all your characters alive as long as possible. It's a bit tricky to say which style is more challenging, since SRPGs also have characters that level and improve over time. But I would say that Advance Wars does have more strategic depth simply because sacrifice is integral to tactical planning. The fact that Advance Wars comes full of strategic options and longevity in the stages is quite an achievement. I would have respected it regardless of whether it was on a portable or a console. Nevertheless, despite my glowing compliments, there was a slight disconnect with my actual feelings. I think it's an incredible game, but I don't love it. I finally figured it out. Advance Wars is merely a great take on the strategy war game. No more, no less. It doesn't push the envelope in any way, and that sort of dulls my emotions for it. While that might not matter as much to other people, for me, it's what keeps Advance Wars from reaching excellence.