Although the complex nature of what Battalion Wars tries to do contains obstacles the game does not totally overcome, the result is still worth checking out, since the experience that can be found here is not available anywhere else
By 2005, the franchise that represents Nintendo’s purest take on the strategy genre was, by all means, in full swing. Born in the late 1980s under the name Famicom Wars, the series was relegated to Japanese shores during its early days, which encompassed six installments released for four different consoles. When the Game Boy Advance came around, though, Nintendo felt confident that their turn-based cartoonish representation of battlefield action could gain traction with western audiences, and so, then appropriately branded Advance Wars, the saga’s newest entry hit Europe, North America, and Australia for the first time ever, actually arriving in those regions before appearing in its homeland. And, as it turns out, Nintendo’s feelings proved to be right on the mark, because the title ended up being such a success that following its 2001 arrival, the next four years would see the coming of another two installments.
Advance Wars was, in fact, doing so well in the midst of that run that resources were even allocated for the production of a console spin-off. Titled Battalion Wars, the game was not handled by the franchise’s long-time developers, Intelligent Systems, but by the British studio Kuju Entertainment. A change in the team responsible for production, however, was not the only shift Battalion Wars represented. Rather than taking the easy way out and creating a console package that would merely qualify as Advance Wars with better graphics, Nintendo opted to approach the project in a more interesting and challenging way. And perhaps as a consequence of not wishing to create any redundancy between the properties, the company chose to transport the military quest to a different genre altogether.
Yet, given this is still ultimately a game about two armies duking it out for a piece of territory, Battalion Wars, published for the GameCube in 2005, is not that distant from the series that originated it. What the game does is simple: it replaces the turn-based action of its portable counterpart, which had players strategically moving units in a grid like pieces on a chessboard, with real-time action that puts them, via a third-person view, in control of individual members of the deployed platoon. Initially, it might seem like that premise takes the defining trait out of the formula; after all, it is hard to think tactically about an entire army when the battlefield is not seen completely from a top-down perspective, when the action unfolds non-stop, and when just a character is being directly commanded. But it is precisely in the filling of that gap that Battalion Wars finds its uniqueness, because it manages to be deeply strategic while exhibiting all those characteristics.
The trick is that although players can only properly control one unit at a time, the game, through relatively simple commands, allows them to exert influence over the action of all the troops in the field. By tilting sideways on the C stick, they can toggle between icons that are always present at the bottom of the screen and that represent each type of unit that is available. After doing so, players can press the X button to tell that platoon to either follow the character being controlled or enter sentry mode, which will cause it to stay put and shoot anything that moves within their line of sight. The Y button, meanwhile, is used to tell the group to focus their attack on the foe being targeted by the player. And the Z button is employed to take control of a unit of the type that is currently selected.
It is a simple arsenal of strategic commands, but it is one that allows pleasant flexibility. For example, if the enemy ahead is heavily armored, players can tell light infantry to stay behind while advancing only with soldiers who are better suited for the task of attacking well-protected foes. If a certain spot needs to be defended, a platoon can be precisely positioned and told to wait. If a fragile but powerful unit that will be needed down the line has to be temporarily taken out of harm’s way, it is easy to do so. And, of course, as the situation changes in the battlefield, players can freely switch to the unit they feel is more appropriate for the current situation. In fact, Battalion Wars even lets gamers select between the individual units of each type by tilting the C stick up and down; as such, if, for instance, there is a badly damaged tank that needs to healed or preserved, one can take control of it to either look for a health-restoring drop, move it to a protected position, or simply use it more conservatively by keeping it out of the front line.
Even though it was developed by a different studio, many of the characteristics presented by Battalion Wars seem to have been taken straight out of the Advanced Wars playbook. And considering how wonderful the strategic portable franchise is, that is certainly a positive trait. For starters, the game is able to squeeze multiple tactically different situations out of its framework, as the nineteen missions that make up its campaign keep presenting distinct challenges throughout the way. There are bases to be defended, prisoners to be freed, critical positions to be captured, and more. But it is not just a matter of varied goals, it is – most importantly – a matter of refreshing strategic scenarios. Sometimes performing an air-strike before advancing with the ground units is the way to go, but sometimes trying to do so will spell disaster. Occasionally the infantry needs to be protected at all costs since they are the only type of unit that can capture a base, but occasionally being more aggressive is just fine. And there is more: there are choke points that need to be carefully negotiated, mighty artillery sitting in critical spots, unexpected reinforcements, races against the clock, guns or towers that can be mounted, and so forth.
Like the series that originated it, much of what Battalion Wars is able to do in terms of creating different scenarios stems from its vast array of unit types. Although naval combat would only be introduced in the Wii sequel, the ground and air pieces available in this GameCube debut are already quite meaty on their own. There is a speedy reckon vehicle; more than three kinds of tanks; infantry platoons that are defined by the weapons they carry, which include missile launchers, flamethrowers, bazookas, mortars, machine guns, and others; and multiple planes, such as gunships, bombers, as well as fighters. Cleverly, Battalion Wars pulls an Advance Wars move and introduces these units little by little, along with explanations on their strengths and weaknesses. This choice, in turn, has multiple benefits: it creates a smooth learning curve that embraces all types of players, it allows the game to raise the difficulty and complexity of its challenges as it goes along, and it paves the way to variety thanks to how mixing and matching the units that are available in each mission opens the door to distinct combat situations.
Another characteristic that comes from Advance Wars is the elevated difficulty. Early on, missions are relatively straightforward, especially because as characters involved in the plot communicate with players to convey the basics of war to them, they will also spell out the optimal strategy for each battle. However, as the midway point approaches, the going gets much tougher. The difference between the units that the enemy has as its disposal and the units players are given grows much larger, demanding the careful planning of every move so that the battalion can survive for long enough to clear its goals. The best strategies are no longer blatantly broadcast, even if some general tips might still be given. And both traps as well as sudden reinforcements become commonplace. Therefore, it is safe to say that at least half of the game’s missions will have to be attempted multiple times until gamers land on the approach that will guide them to victory.
To some, that might be a frustrating outlook. However, it can be said that, like Advance Wars, this is a game built for those who enjoy difficulty, and its structure is actually ideal for that challenging configuration. Firstly, its missions are generally short, not lasting longer than fifteen minutes; therefore, failures do not entail the loss of tons of progress, which in turn diminishes the frustration that comes from repeated defeats. Secondly, the difficulty of its nineteen levels makes them simultaneously last for a good amount of time whilst not overstaying their welcome: the fact there are not so many of them means they do not get repetitive while their toughness guarantees they bring value to the table despite coming in a relatively small number. Thirdly, the brevity of the missions also makes them replayable, which is ideal due to how the game features a rank system based on the time used to complete the missions, the number of units defeated, and the number of units lost; consequently, those who are hooked by the package will likely feel compelled to score high in all categories in order to attain the S rank and even unlock four bonus levels.
Despite its alluring qualities, Battalion Wars struggles in a few areas. Its first weak point lies in the plot, which, as it turns out, might be the sole negative quality that it inherited from its property of origin. As it happens in Advance Wars, the conflict depicted here occurs when a nation suddenly decides to attack its neighbor, triggering events that soon engulf the entire world in the flames of war. And, once again, these developments of clear good versus devilish evil are depicted through a charming style akin to that of Saturday-morning cartoons. Given it sits on a more powerful hardware, Battalion Wars naturally puts extra flash on the what Advance Wars set up by making use of cutscenes and extravagant voice acting. The same evolution, though, is not seen in the script itself, which maintains the generally bland storytelling spirit of the portable saga: one that does not contain many mysteries and that seems to be there as a mere afterthought.
The second problem is related to controls. The inputs involved in giving orders to battalions work well; the issues actually emerge in controlling the units themselves. Thankfully, most actions are not problematic: the A button is used for shooting; the L button for locking onto targets; the B button, in case its possible, for dodging, jumping, or mounting guns; the directional pad for activating a more open camera angle; the R button accompanied by the analogue stick for freely aiming; and the Start button for accessing, among other extra information, a very useful map that lets players even check which unit every dot represents. Yet, notable stumbles emerge.
For starters, given the C stick is dedicated to strategic commands, adjusting the camera is actually done via the free-aiming motion, which means that two inputs need to be used to look for the ideal angle of the action and that the unit will remain static while doing so; needless to say, that is more cumbersome than the norm and in situations when a quick camera adjustment is needed, frustration may arise. Additionally, a more frequent problem is that ground vehicles are a bit of a nuisance to control, especially when precise maneuvers are necessary. Not only are they a bit floaty, but there is also a lack of buttons representing forward and backward acceleration. This gap means that these movements rely on the direction in which the analog stick is tilted, giving birth to a setup that feels very unnatural.
Lastly, given players only have total control of one unit at a time from a battalion that will often have more than a dozen pieces, it goes without saying that there is a big reliance on what the CPU does when handling the action. Truth be told, this is an area in which Battalion Wars deserves more praise than criticism, because the AI tends to be very competent at what it does, which is a technical achievement considering the scope of the game. Nevertheless, especially given this is a campaign made up of many tight battles, it is still possible to bump into a few situations where one might feel the CPU could have done a slightly better job. Obviously, this may generate some frustration. Furthermore, with so much variability – that is, units depending on AI performance – at play, sometimes approaching the same mission in the exact same way can lead to different outcomes, which is not a desirable feature.
Because of the problems it presents, some may look at Battalion Wars as a bit of a misfire. After all, while Advance Wars, the property from which it came, represents one of the peaks of the strategy genre, this console spin-off is good but not spectacular. Yet, the fact it dared to translate that portable experience to a console while greatly altering the gameplay to a point that it lands on a different niche altogether is not just commendable, but also responsible for generating a very interesting product. The mixture between action and strategy it unearths is thoroughly unique, and in a setting where managing platoons of different units and skillfully shooting up the place with the appropriate type of weapon are both key to victory, the game comes across nicely designed scenarios that are worthy of the Advance Wars stamp in how they present challenge, replayability, and the need for careful planning. Therefore, even if the complex nature of what it tries to do contains obstacles the game does not totally overcome, the result is still worth checking out, since the experience that can be found here is not available anywhere else.