Advance Wars: Under Fire Hands-On

Test-driving the fully 3D action strategy game inspired by the outstanding Game Boy Advance series relieved much of our skepticism. Find out why.

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All we wanted was another Advance Wars game. The original Advance Wars and its sequel remain among our absolute favorite titles in the entire Game Boy Advance library, so when we heard that the GameCube would be getting a fully 3D version of this already-classic series, we were positively thrilled. But then we heard that development of the game would be handed off from Intelligent Systems, the makers of the previous Advance Wars games, to a different company; and we also discovered that Advance Wars: Under Fire would be more of a real-time action game than a turn-based, strategic affair like its predecessors. These couple of bits of news frankly had us worried. And then we played the game on the E3 show floor--and the experience was a big relief. This isn't the Advance Wars you may know and love, but it looks like it's shaping up to be a very cool spin-off that's faithful to the spirit of the series.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

In Advance Wars: Under Fire, you can control any of your favorite Advance Wars units directly, commanding them to attack in real time. The E3 demo of the game features one complete mission, presumably the first mission from the game's single-player campaign, which walks you through the basics of gameplay and also introduces you (or reintroduces you, as the case may be) to some of the units in Advance Wars. The battle here is between Orange Star Commanding Officer Betty, under whom you are serving, and the mean-spirited Xylvanians, whose CO, Vlad, is a blustering villain.

If you've ever played action strategy games such as Battlezone for the PC, you'll be in fairly familiar territory when you play this game. Basically you'll have an army of fairly autonomous units at your disposal. Your troops will automatically defend themselves when endangered, but it's up to you to play battlefield tactician, ordering your forces to focus fire or prioritize certain targets, and so forth. As well, you have the ability to essentially "possess" any of your units in the field, just by setting your sights on them and pressing the Z button. Much like in the other Advance Wars games, you're essentially a disembodied presence on the field; so even if the tank or helicopter you happen to be controlling gets blown up, you'll just automatically switch control to another nearby unit (provided you have any remaining). For the most part, these are some tried-and-true play mechanics, even though you haven't necessarily seen them in action before, and they lead to some hectic yet strategically complex scenarios.

The gameplay itself already feels pretty solid, and this first mission we got to try was nicely paced. By the end, Vlad is dumping reinforcements out of zeppelins with gunship support, even as his tanks and infantry on the ground do their worst to try to stop you. We were actually surprised at how much action this mission managed to pack in. Advance Wars-style strategies all apply here. For example, standard infantry are effective against each other but not against tanks, but bazooka men can waste tanks pretty easily. Admittedly, the game felt much more action-oriented than purely strategic, but that's the whole point. At the same time, we expect that subsequent, tougher missions will require a more-diligent use of the various units and will be more strategically demanding.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

The controls of the game were intuitive enough but also took us a little while to get used to (granted, we quickly skipped through the tutorial text, so it's probably our own dumb fault). We had some trouble with the mechanics of issuing orders to units--getting them to attack our targets and such--and we also sometimes had a bit of trouble aiming our guns up and down. But we figure these control issues are still being worked on, and they really didn't keep us from enjoying the demo version of the game.

Advance Wars: Under Fire isn't the most visually stunning game we've seen at E3, but it faithfully captures the oxymoronical lighthearted military style of the Game Boy Advance games. It also features full speech for the characters, so the mission we played was packed with banter between CO Betty and her rival, Vlad. All in all, we liked what we saw and played of Advance Wars: Under Fire, and therefore we are slightly irritated that the game won't be finished until 2005. But if the game's going to end up as good as the other Advance Wars, then it can take its sweet time.

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