Advance Wars review
Advance Planning


For some people the idea of diving into a strategy game may seem like quite a daunting task. Manage every unit on a map while keeping track of a million and one things to ensure victory? Intelligent Systems think that the genre can be more accessible than that, and so we get Advance Wars. It's turn based strategy, but a lot more user friendly than you may think.

The core mechanics are surprisingly simple to grasp. Each player (human or otherwise) takes it in turn to command a number of units. A player can command as many or as few of the units they have on the field as they would like. The goal is usually one of two things - destroy every enemy unit on the map or capture their HQ. All movements are done for one of these goals. Once a player is finished then they end their turn and play moves on to the next until a victor is decided.

The available units are often the key to winning here, which are split into three groups consisting of land, air and sea. Land units make up the majority of them and will be the main driving force in your army. Restricted to land tiles and possessing varying difficulties in passing some of them these are reliable and varied. Sea units have the benefit of sea travel and air units are not restricted by terrain. Unfortunately it does feel that too much emphasis is put on the land options and not the other two, but we can overlook this.

Unit types within these three groups varies greatly. You have basic infantry that are weak in combat but the only ones to capture properties. Tanks to unleash heavy fire on other land types, anti-airs for taking on air units, bombers to drop their payloads on the enemy below and even transport types to take units further than they could alone. Each unit type possess their own strengths and weaknesses and it never feels like any one unit is wasted.

You will either start with units already on the map, be given deployment bases to build new units from or both. In the case of bases there are three types that correspond to the three groups (bases for land, seaports for sea and airports for air). You ability to build is limited by turns and money. Typically you can only build one unit from each base per turn. Money is earned each turn for every property under your control, with the costs for a unit based upon its perceived value (naturally, something like a bomber will cost you more than a basic tank). This helps avoid the temptation to mass produce bombers and storm across the map.

One of the cooler aspects about combat is how remaining health is treated. Every unit starts with 10 HP, which is also the max. When units take damage they lose health but their firepower also decreases, forcing players to more carefully plan out attacks. Just because you have two tanks there doesn't mean they will both be as effective if one is damaged.

Combat isn't as simple as seeing the unit strengths though. Terrain can play a huge role here too. In addition to restricting movement you can also gain defensive bonuses from different areas. Grass offers 1 star defence, cities 3 stars and mountains 4 stars, just to provide some examples. This can help a player take up a more advantageous position when battles are in action. Air units can't make use of this feature though as they trade it in for better movement capabilities.

Some terrain is also interactive in a sense. Property type terrain, such as cities or bases, can be captured by infantry units. Each property has a capture rating of 20, and every capture attempt reduces this number by the same amount as the current HP of the capturing unit, providing they don't move away. Properties give money every turn and some are used for deployment and some then there is the HQ, which can be used for a quick victory without having to defeat every enemy unit.

There's even a weather type of system here. Clear weather lets you proceed with few problems. Rain and snow both restrict movement by increasing the movement costs for most terrain. Rain has less of an impact though. There's also a random feature that flips through these three options, although it does seem to spend far too much time sitting on the clear setting.

FOW (fog of war) isn't technically a weather condition but is something to affect the environment. Every unit type has a vision range, and this is what affects what you can see when FOW is active. Everything else is shrouded in darkness. You can see the overall layout of the map but enemy units can't be seen unless they fall into your vision ranges. Additionally units can hide in forests or reefs, where they can only be seen when an enemy is right next to them.

On its own it is a great feature, but against the computer it becomes pretty useless as the computer opponents seem largely unaffected by it.

CO (Commanding Officer) choice also affects gameplay. Each CO influences the effectiveness of the army. Max increases firepower of direct combat units but reduces firepower and range of indirects. Eagle's air units are superior but his naval forces are weak. In addition each CO has access to a CO power. The power needed to use this builds up when you cause damage or take damage, with the amount needed varying (Eagle takes longer than the other COs while Sami's builds up fairly quickly). Each power is reflective of the CO's natural traits too. Max boosts his direct attacks even more and Eagle gets a second turn for all non-infantry units.

It's a solid collection of COs, although there is naturally some slight imbalance. Sonja's pretty useless outside of FOW, whereas Eagle is potentially overpowered.

Campaign mode is the main single player mode. Here you are restricted to the three Orange Star COs of Andy, Max and Sami. You play through each mission in turn against various other COs, with the objective usually being to defeat them (although there is sometimes a slightly different objective). It's a bit of a shame that we only get three COs to use here (outside of special missions) but there is a lot of depth here. There are also some cool extras here, like the secret Sonja missions and the final duel against Eagle that has to be opened up.

War Room provides you with a whole selection of maps and enemies and lets you challenge them for rankings. Often you will start at a disadvantage and will be ranked based on how well you clear the map. It provides some challenge but it feels more like a single player only version of the versus mode but with less options.

Versus mode is where it's at. Here you can set up battles with up to four armies on a variety of maps and can set numerous options such as money earned each turn, weather, FOW, turn or capture limits etc. You can also set up teams and assign the computer to control armies too if you don't have enough human players for all the chosen CO spots. There are tons of maps to use (although some must be opened first) and the amount of options let you create some very interesting battles. This is easily the best feature of the game.

The multiplayer aspect supports a single console 'pass around' gameplay, a single cart linkup play and multiple cart linkup play. Single cart linkup only offers a very limited versus though with a few select maps and no CO effects. The others work very nicely.

Battlemaps is the shop in the game. Rankings earned in the campaign and war room modes also earn you points, which can be spent here. Most of the items are new maps to use in versus and sometimes war room, but by meeting certain criteria you can also get new COs to use in versus and war room, as some extras like a harder campaign mode.

Design maps is a favourite of mine. Here you're given free control to design your own maps to use in versus mode. The space might be a little limiting compared to some of the premade versus maps but the ability to construct your own battlefields is simply awesome. The design interface is very user friendly as well so anyone can make use of this.

The story may seem too basic and a bit silly though. It's something about an otherwordly invasion and the armies getting tricked by a clone. Unfortunately this isn't developed to any notable degree of depth and seems a bit unbelievable at times.

Visually the game has a nice charm to it. Much of the game is made up of small sprites that are very clear to see and possess a lot of colour to them. It seems that armies do not possess different unit visuals outside of colour palette swaps to denote army control but the actual sprites do look nice and are animated well. There are some cool extras too, like the capture animation showing a solider jumping on a building. Unit icons also move around the maps smoothly and the differences when other weather rolls in is nice.

The half body sprites for the COs look good too, with a decent level of detail to them and there are some good facial expressions in use. Power effects are OK too with some decent variation but many of them do feel a little underwhelming.

The music in the game is very catchy. Despite the limits of the GBA speaker the soundtracks compliment the action well. Every CO has their own theme music that plays when they are taking their turn and each one seems to fit their CO very well. There are a few other tracks as well, like the high energy CO power music and some used for story sequences.

The lack of CO choices to use in the campaign mode is a shame, but otherwise this is an excellent entry into the strategy genre. It takes some skills to get good at this but the interface and mechanics are easy enough for anyone to get into it. Advance Wars is definitely worth the investment if you're looking for strategy on the GBA.

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