Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising review
A War of Advance Proportions

The good:

Dual power system
Single-system multiplayer
Reworked Campaign mode

The bad:

War Room feels like versus mode
CPU players can see fine in Fog of War
Too similiar to original


The original Advance Wars impressed many, with a system that was easy to access but a massive challenge to get through. The concepts used were simple enough to understand but there was always an immense sense of triumph when your plan of attack succeeds. So, Intelligent Systems decides to bring us a second installment of the series, but how does it compare to the original. Can it really compete?

First, let us address the presentation. Well, not a lot has actually changed. The map sprites and many of the special effects will be famaliar to fans of the original. For those new to the series, the graphics have quite a charm to them. The sprites possess a sort of anime (or cartoony, if you wish) look to them, while still possessing a level of detail you would expect. Intricate details on the tanks, soldiers and ships can easily be made out, especially during battle sequences where the action zooms in for the damage exchange. The effects themselves, coming mostly from the special powers players can call upon, aren't that special though. Many of them, especially most of the super powers, involve a generic energy burst from each unit on the field. While I wish more had been done to expand on these effects I cannot say they were at all detremental to the experience either.

The game possesses an impressive set of music tracks that hum along while you play. Each Commanding Officer has their own theme that plays while they carry out their turn, as well as numerous additional tracks for special events, such as power usage or story sequences. Each track also seems to fit their respective CO quite well. For example, Andy possesses quite an upbeat track while Grit's isquite laid back in style. The time taken to ensure this has not gone unappreciated, and it makes the experience much better. The sound effects used do their job nicely enough as well. The usual fare of explosions, gunfire and the like can be found. It is good how such attention has been paid to even have movement sounds relevant to the unit moving. This was a nice touch I feel.

So, OK then. It looks nice. It sounds nice. But all this means nothing if it plays badly, right? So how does AW2 fare in what is easily the most important factor of all?

The core gameplay is very simple to grasp. Each player (or commanding officer) directs an army made up of "units". Units can be of many types, such as tanks, chopters, ships, soldiers etc. If bases, airports or seaports exist then players can build new units with money earned from captured properties. Each unit type has its own strengths and weaknesses, which not only covers things such as cost to deplot or movement but also affects their performance against other units. Tanks tend to wreck havoc on land but they are easy prey to indirect or airborne attacks. This makes strategy a very important element, as poor use of your units will quickly lead to a defeat.

While the concept is simple there's a whole level of depth within this concept that makes the even simple fights require a lot of planning and thought. First, the COs. Rather than be a mere figurehead that dishes out orders the COs of Advance Wars 2 actually affect the performance of their units. Eagle's airborne units are stronger and consume less fuel. Olaf's units receive no penalties during snow. But with strengths comes weaknesses. Eagle's naval units are poor and Olaf's units receive snow penalties during rain.

But that's not all. Every CO has a 2 part power gauge. Every time a unit takes or inflicts damage this meter fills up a little. With enough power charged COs can unleash special powers. Most power effects last until it becomes that COs turn again (with the exception of damaging or restorative effects). Powers can help turn the tide of a nattle or perhaps add enough power for a final charge on the enemy. Powers available depends on the CO in play, and while super powers are usually more effective they also take up more power to use. Effective use of both the passive effects of COs and knowing when to unleash those powers is of key importance.

But it obviously doesn't end with CO selection. Unit selection is important as well. An squadron of bombers may seem like the perfect way to destroy ground troops, but anti-airs and fighters could easily wreck your plans. Unit balance is important, forcing players to consider what units are best for the job. But there's a pretty cool trait involved here too - unit health. Unlike other games, the effectiveness of units is determined by their health. Firepower and defensive ability drops as their health does. A 2 HP tank will be siginificantly weaker than a 10 HP tank. Unit can be healed on allied properties, and new units can be deployed from bases if they exist on the map. Both of these require funds, which is earned each turn from all allied properties. Neutral or enemy properties can be captured by foot soldier units, but said units have little defensive ability.

The final set of considerations are the terrain. The most obvious trait is movement costs. Different terrains incur different movement costs, and many preventing certain types of units from passing altogether. Weather also plays a factor, causing even more sluggish movement.

So, what does all this amount to? While the intial concept is simple to understand there are so many things to consider and options to take in reality that it takes a lot to put a plan together. It's this level of strategy involved stemming from a simple concept system that makes the battle system excellent. They're giving you the tools. You've got to figure out the best way of using them. Trust me. With practice you're be soon planning how to use the terrain to your advantage as you approach the enemy base.

Advance Wars offers a number of game modes in which you can experience this gameplay. Campaign mode is the single player story mode. Black Hole has returned with a number of new COs commanding their armies. You start in Orange Star territory, where the COs fight off Flak's troops. In addition to the usual missions of routing the enemy you also have other special types of missions. Two worthy of note are the secret base and factory missions. Secret base missions must be unlocked in each territory by capturing a certain property in a certain mission. These are turn limited missions where the player must capture the enemy base. Success yields a new unit type for deployment in future missions. Factory missions are typically end of territory missions, which must be cleared to move on. The goal is to destroy a weak point in the pipe leading to the factory. The problem you face is that the factory can deploy units at no charge, making a direct approach difficult.

Perhaps the most startling change though is that the other COs are playable. In fact, Campaign mode involves playing out the struggles in each territory. This means the player must get to know each CO and learn how to use their strengths effectively. This is a refreshing change from the original game, which kept you locked to Orange Star COs for almost the entire game mode. Perhaps even better though is that not all missions have to be beaten to move on. A set number will open the final mission. Clearing that allows you to move on even if there are other missions not cleared yet. This sense of non-linear gameplay is very welcome. While challenging on its initial play, successful players can purchase a harder version, which will really test the strategic minds of those that play.

War Room is another single player mode. It delivers a number of challenges where many conditions are already set (such as enemy CO and map used). You get to pick a CO and fight it out. The goal is always the same - to defeat the enemy army by either destroying them all or capturing their base. After a successful playthrough you will be ranked according to your success. This is a nice addition, and the rankings give incentive to better your performances, but at the end of it I can't help but feel this is merely a restrictive single player version of versus mode, and since versus can be played by a single player then it feels that only the rankings prevent it from feeling completely redundant.

When you're not busy ploughing through the campaign the the versus mode is likely where you'll be. Here you can set up battles for between 2 to 4 armies. Pick computer players for vacant spots not used by human players. Set many options such as map, weather, income, limits etc, then get playing. The beauty of versus is you can play single player on a single game system by passing it around. This, of course, makes playing fog of war missions nearly impossible but a small price for such convenience. Versus mode will drain many hours from your life. Set up your favourite layouts and then blast your way through them. While the computer can be challenging, playing against humans is something else and brings about its own experience.

What? Not satisfied with the many maps given to you by the game? No problem. AW2, like the previous game, comes with its own map maker. With 3 free map slots you can craft your own map, then get to work destroying armies on it in versus. The control setup for mapmaker is simple. Use the shoulder buttons to bring up the menus, pick a unit or terrain type and press A to set one down. This brings about almost endless possibilities. Will you hinder ground troops with forests? Create a map where airborne assaults are required? Perhaps navals battles are your thing. Anyt setup can be done, and this only adds onto the excellent versus mode already.

So far everything has been a shining positive. What about the bad points? Like all games, AW2 has them. The biggest problem comes from those that have played the original. Despite the revamped campaign mode, a lot of this will feel too similiar to the previous game. Only 1 new unit was introduced, and a few extra terrain types of which I feel only only makes a siginficant difference (missile pads which foot soldiers can launch a single missile to anywhere on the map). Once you've finished the campaign mode you may feel that the war room and versus games, while improved upon, are too similiar to their previous versions.

Another problem, one not unique to returning fans, is during fog of war. A situation which limits the field of vision of the army to what their units can see. The unfortunate problem is that it seems the computer opponents seem to know exactly where your units are. You can watch them dance around units and go directly to where they are. This is somewhat offputting, and makes fow play against the computer pointless.

Despite these issues AW2 is still an excellent game. It's only for those willing to put some thought into their plays, and certainly isn't one of those games you can play for 5 minute bursts. If you get this game prepare to lose notable chunks of your social life to it. If strategy is you thing then AW2 is one of the best you can go for.

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