It may feel far closer to an expansion pack than to a true sequel, but its deep strategic values painted with a charming cartoonish look are still a blast
Save for considerable overhauls that are absolutely necessary every once in a while, Nintendo – and its closest partners – have been successful in producing sequels to their greatest franchises by sticking to one solid formula. The bases that garnered critical praise and commercial glory are preserved, and developers proceed to focus on the addition of punctual new features that will significantly alter the overall experience. Therefore, games that are simultaneously more of the same – which is what most fans want following a remarkable effort of great originality – and fresh are born destined to earn accolades to match, or come close to, those of its predecessor.
In a way, Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising does follow that blueprint. The original Advance Wars was, for gamers of the West, the discovery of a new niche that merged war and strategy: players moved their troops and vehicles around a grid-like map in order to achieve a predetermined goal, usually routing the rival army or conquering its headquarters. Black Hole Rising, then, uses that very same premise as its starting point and builds up on it through the addition of new gameplay elements. Naturally, powered by such an incredibly strong setup, the game easily qualifies to stand beside its prequel as one of the best Game Boy Advance efforts; sadly, it is highly questionable whether or not the novel twists it brings to the table are enough to make it a worthy new installment.
Black Hole Rising sees the titular evil faction of unknown origin come back to haunt the four countries of Wars World. This time, however, instead of resorting to pulling the strings from behind the shadows, Black Hole has opted for a more direct approach. Four of its commanding officers, the underlings of the threatening Strum, have been sent to directly conquer the world’s four countries: Orange Star, Blue Moon, Yellow Comet, and Green Earth. It is up to the COs of those nations, then, to defend their homes, retake the lands that have fallen under Black Hole’s command, and join forces to take the battle to the baddies’ own territory.
Advance Wars 2 thrives for the exact same reasons its predecessor did. It is a game of astonishing complexity and difficulty that reaches brutal heights, requiring players to really think and analyze all possible outcomes before they make their moves; however, it is, at the same time, a title that dresses up its daunting nature in extremely charming cartoonish visuals and that knows how to make all of the elements that form its deep strategic fabric accessible and easy-to-learn even to the most inexperienced players.
Its nineteen ground, naval, and air units are entwined in a wide web of rock-paper-scissors that needs to be learned to some degree: reckon vehicles, for example, are extremely effective against regular infantry; while fighters easily dispose of bombers and helicopters of the battle and transport kinds. Moreover, each of them has its own attack and movement range, the latter of which is affected by the battlefield’s terrain; specific kinds of units it can attack; ammo; fuel, in the case of vehicles, which can be recovered – just like their HP – if the unit is parked in a conquered city; defensive stats that are dependent on the ground it stands on – with forests, for example, providing extra coverage and plains and rivers leaving units vulnerable; and a specific range of vision that comes into play on maps where there is fog blocking players’ view of enemy battalions.
All of that information, however, is not only covered and clearly explained in brief and efficient tutorials that take place in the campaign’s early missions, but also readily available during battle, as players can go through menus or look at indications on the screen to remember, or discover, all they need to succeed. Due to the game’s didactic nature, then, newcomers will be able to learn the basics and rusty war veterans will be capable of slowly recovering their existing knowledge.
As Nintendo’s sequel-making recipe dictates, with those pillars in place, Advance Wars 2 sets out to add its own flavor to the mixture, and therein lies the problem. The game does pull off a number of improvements. Even though it inherits the repetitive soundtrack and simple but suitable graphics of the original, the game’s presentation is far superior, both in terms of interface and storytelling. The menus are slick; the single-player world map now allows players to choose which mission they want to tackle, a welcome addition that lets gamers that are tired of failing on a map look for a new fresh challenge somewhere else before returning to it; and the game’s plot development feels far more full-fledged even if it still restricts itself to using straightforward dialogue boxes with clever dialogue and static sprites, as each mission has its background explained in a more satisfying way than in the original game.
When it comes to gameplay itself, however, Advance Wars 2 does very little to topple its prequel. Truthfully, the main campaign feels much thicker, as there are far more missions. Moreover, given players will take control of the armies of all four countries, the number of available commanding officers with unique abilities and CO Powers – temporary special skills that are activated after a bar has been filled by destroying some enemy units – is far bigger, and opportunities for players to choose with which CO they want to tackle a mission are much more frequent, a fact that certainly increases the game’s strategic component.
Yet, there are no new modes whatsoever, and – most importantly – in-combat additions are restricted. There is just one new unit, the mighty Neotank; one terrain feature, missile silos that can be used by infantry to deal a little bit of damage to all units standing in the area in which players choose to fire; a handful of weapons that are used by Black Hole, such as cannons, that nicely require some new strategic considerations by players and that provide new goals to the campaign’s missions, like breaking a pipe that is feeding a factory or destroying all cannons protecting a fortress; and the fact each Commanding Officer has a Super CO Power in addition to their standard CO Power.
To complement the campaign, which can be beaten in twenty hours but that can last far more given players are awarded a grade after each mission according to certain criteria, there is also a fun multiplayer mode that supports up to four players, a great tool for map creation, and the excellent War Room, where two armies that start with no units need to conquer land and use factories, ports, and airports to build up their power and defeat one another. Sadly, as an extra disappointment that further shows Black Hole Rising is often too comfortable with resting on its prequel’s laurels, the majority of the War Room maps were already present in Advance Wars and are merely reused here.
Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising is still a blast, though. It is a fun, engaging, and challenging game whose value is a sight to behold. It may feel far closer to an expansion pack than to a true sequel, but it is a must-buy to either those who greatly enjoyed the original and are looking for more missions of deep strategic values painted with a charming cartoonish look or to those that want to get to know the franchise and feel like starting with its most complete and well-presented installment.