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Home bullet Games bullet Turn-Based War, What Is It Good For?

Turn-Based War, What Is It Good For? by FullAuto Written on 12th February 2006

Format: DS.
Developer: Intelligent Systems.
Publisher: Nintendo.
Release date: 30th Sep. 2005.


Click to enlarge
The Air Force left Billy to die.
The Advance Wars are dismissed out of hand by a lot of strategy gamers, who turn their nose up at the format (handheld) and the presentation (quite cute, if the truth be told). Their eyes acquire a fine glaze of disinterest even as their noses tilt skyward, unable to concentrate on anything that isn't photorealistically drab. I won't rage on about the current graphics obsession, but dismissing a game entirely due to the way it looks seems a little hasty.

This iteration of the series is no great departure from the first two. The Black Hole Army is rising once again, and needs a good filling in from the Allied Nations. I realise I have just made this game sound like a racist porn film. Apologies. A turn-based strategy, battlefields a grid of squares with a variety of terrain viewed from an overhead perspective, a wide range of units, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, covering air, land and sea. There are several gameplay modes, offering quite a bit of variety.

The game can be played with D-pad and buttons or with the stylus, whichever you like. Personally, I like to chew on the stylus, it helps me think. The icons are nice and big, so you don't tap the wrong one and order your unit to commit seppuku instead of twatting the enemy. The touchscreen (the lower one, if you're jabbing the top screen in fury) displays the battlefield, order selections and menus. The top screen displays terrain and unit info.

Campaign is a series of battles that follow the main storyline, as the Allied Nations wage war against Black Hole. Thankfully, it assumes no prior knowledge of AW, and starts off fairly gently. If you've played an AW game before, or are just fairly experienced with turn-based games, you'll probably have an easy ride of it for the first dozen missions, before the difficulty level starts to climb. Play progresses quite quickly, though there are some long missions and some of the harder ones take a little while, as the hand-holding stops and more units are introduced and different weather effects and victory conditions come into play. Fog of War sometimes turns up mid-battle, reducing you from "There you are, you bastards!" to "Fuck." in the space of a turn. Usually you can win by simply capturing the enemy HQ (takes guile, and I don't mean that bloke from Streetfighter 2) or wiping out the enemy forces.

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The lone Iraqi tank was fucked.
A new addition is the second front, played out on the top screen of the DS, which you can leave under the control of your second CO (commanding officer) or sort it out yourself. You don't get a dual screen battle that often, and if you like you can ignore it and switch the top screen back to showing unit and terrain info, letting the other CO sort it out. Losing the second front doesn't mean losing the battle, but it does deny you access to one of the new features, the CO Tag. COs have different characteristics (some are good with ground units, some with air, some have better defence, some have increased firepower, and so on) as well as two different powers they can use once they have gained enough energy from battle. If both COs fill their energy gauges, they can perform a Tag, meaning you effectively get two turns before the enemy gets to move. This can turn the tide of victory (a fickle wench at best) around abruptly, and transform a desperate holding action into a furious blitzkrieg, or an all-out attack into something resembling ethnic cleansing. COs gain experience with every battle won, and every time they gain a promotion they also gain a new skill. You can choose from a few, and while a 5% increase in your firepower might not mean much, combined with other skills it can make the difference between your helicopters wiping out those tanks or being eradicated by anti-aircraft fire.

The War Room is another single player option, letting you battle against one, two or three computer-controlled opponents or even have a dual screen battle. There's more than thirty different maps to play on, so you're not exactly short on replayability, especially when you consider the wide range of units and almost thirty different COs to choose from and combine into very different partnerships. Survival is split into three different sections, giving you limited funds, turns or time to complete a series of courses, which really make you get into the game and appreciate the different ways it can pressure you. Combat is a fun real-time variant, not much more than a minigame in single player really. You control one unit at a time and dash about the map, shooting the enemy. Mindless fun, but a lot better in multiplayer, with up to eight people scrapping. This mode is actually quite good, as you need a DS for each person, but only one copy of AW: DS. Nowhere near as good as the turn-based modes, though. Still, it's all those damned real-timers deserve.

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"If fireworks can't bring them down, nothing will!"
The Multiplayer mode is nothing short of superb. You can have up to four players just passing around one DS, or connect wirelessly and play out a normal battle with two to four players, a dual screen battle with two players or just trade maps that you have created. The AI is pretty good, but there's nothing like playing against a fellow human. You can change various conditions like weather, Fog of War, funds, terrain, CO powers and the AIs stance. It's riotous good fun, though they really need to invent some sort of DS radar so you can find other players (if you have no friends).

Playing any of the single player modes earns you points, which you can then spend on buying more multiplayer maps, COs to use outside of campaign mode, and special units. You don't have to do any of this, but if you set out to get everything it should keep you occupied for upwards of forty hours, at least. The map editor is easy to use thanks to the stylus, and once you've spent five minutes learning how to do this and not to press that you can get on with things in short order, cooking up any sort of map you like, focusing on the air, land or sea theatres or including all three. There's only space to save three maps, though, which is a bit of a shame but I can't see that many people wanting more. The game also keeps a detailed history of your play, with virtually everything you do listed in an extensive profile, which is then ranked, and medals awarded for achievements in certain areas (there are 300 medals to get in all).

The units are finely balanced, each one having a strength, a weakness, and a surprising ability somewhere up it's sleeve. All the old units are here, as well as some new ones in the shape of the lumbering megatank, the aircraft carrier and the stealth fighter. Added to all the different abilities of the COs, there are strategies, tricks and subterfuges a-plenty available. Want to sail your carrier past those AA guns and then launch your stealth bombers right up the enemy's arsehole? Go for it. Feel like sneaking your infantry past some tanks, slipping over the mountains and nicking all the bastard's factories? Do so. Need to lure the evil scum out to attack your ever-so-helpless convoy only to destroy them with a barrage from your artillery hidden in the nearby woods? You can.

Click to enlarge
Smoking can kill, even on the battlefield.
The graphics aren't the greatest in the world, obviously. This is a handheld system, and if you can get past the initial revulsion towards cute, you'll see that the vehicle designs are actually quite cool. They've taken existing designs and tweaked them and changed them, simplifying and rendering them down into something resembling caricatures, skipping fine detail and including essence, so they all mesh seamlessly. There are a variety of designs which differ slightly between armies even for the same unit types, so there's still a sense of differentiation between the forces, even when there's four of you kicking the shit out of each other.

Sound is good, a little tinny sometimes over the speakers, but pretty damn fine through headphones. Musically it's actually quite swish, I was surprised by just how good, but they obviously knew shit would grate after a few replays. Nice to see such consideration. The effects are ok, engine rumbles and roars, machine gun chatters and missile whooshes, the sort of thing you'd expect.

This is one of the best turn-based strategy games I have ever played, and the genre is a particular passion of mine. If you're missing turn-based gaming on home console or PC, you should perhaps cast an eye to the handheld arena. With games like this, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Fire Emblem and Rebelstar, it looks like the future of turn-based games is where it should be.

Right in our hands.


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