Battalion Wars Preview

We log some quality time with the game formerly known as Advance Wars: Under Fire, and discover why warfare has never looked so cute.

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It's been something of a long, strange trip for Nintendo and Kuju Entertainment's GameCube tactical action game, Battalion Wars. The game started out as Advance Wars: Under Fire, the long-awaited console rendition of Intelligent Systems' beloved Game Boy Advance strategy series. Except Under Fire wasn't an Advance Wars-style strategy game at all. Instead, it was a real-time shooter with significant tactical elements--but a shooter all the same. Perhaps due to this disparity in gameplay styles, Under Fire was recently renamed Battalion Wars, and after a few hours with a new build of the game, we've determined that an Advance Wars by any other name would be just as endearingly quirky as its forebears.

Battalion Wars puts you in control of the armies of the Western Frontier (they of the green uniforms) as they clash against the sizable forces of the Tundran Territories (who wear red). After a few missions of intense military and political maneuvering, the even more powerful empire of Xylvania enters the fray, robed in terrifying blue uniforms and hell-bent on destroying both the Frontier and the Tundrans. The former enemies have no choice but to team up and beat back the Xylvanian menace so they can get back to whatever it was they were fighting about.

It's apparent upon first starting Battalion Wars that Kuju didn't go to any great lengths to distance this game from the GBA series, despite the shifted nomenclature. In fact, the GameCube game shares that undeniably Advance Warsesque trait of giving modern warfare a disgustingly cutesy face. In each mission, each faction has at least one exaggerated commanding officer who will offer commentary and advice throughout the operation. Furthermore, the battlefield-level action is rife with goofy little guys running around with floppy backpacks, yelling in high-pitched voices about whatever action they're undertaking. Yet the action itself seems as intense as that of a more "serious" war game--the machine guns and rockets kill and maim and blow stuff up just as effectively in this game as in others. There's no blood, but you will see a body go flying once in a while.

Join up, soldier! The Frontier armies need your help to repel the advances of Xylvania.
Join up, soldier! The Frontier armies need your help to repel the advances of Xylvania.

The game proceeds in a linear fashion, showing you the location of your current mission on a world map, giving you a briefing on your objectives, and then sending you straight into the action. Once you're on a mission, you'll control one unit of your squad directly, with abilities like a target lock-on, jumping, and rolling at your disposal. Meanwhile, you'll use the C stick in conjunction with a handy menu at the bottom of the screen to give the other unit groups orders. Each type of unit is represented by an icon, and you can extend a bar out from that icon with health gauges for each individual unit in the group, so it's reasonably simple to keep track of how close to dying each of your troops may be at any given time (though we'd like to see a health bar floating above each unit, for good measure).

The command interface is also easy to get used to: You can tell units to advance, attack your selected target, or remain stationary and defend their position. These orders can be assigned to one specific unit, an entire group of the same kind of unit, or all the troops in your entire squad. Furthermore, you're not limited to playing as one soldier throughout the mission. You can actually play as any soldier in the squad, and controlling a new unit is as easy as selecting it from the icon-bar interface and hitting the Z button, which will zoom the camera angle right over and behind the new unit and let you start fighting immediately.

At the game's outset, you'll have only standard rifle-equipped infantry units available, but you'll rapidly gain new unit types as you progress past the initial missions. You'll pick up a load of ground troops with other classifications, such as: antiarmor bazooka soldiers; heat-seeking missile-equipped antiair soldiers; and antipersonnel soldiers armed with flamethrowers. Vehicles will play a big role in your war effort, too. You'll get light and heavy recon vehicles equipped with mounted machine guns, tanks of various kinds, and even artillery that can shell fortified enemy positions from afar. Overall, from our experience so far, the many units in the game have a chesslike relationship, in that each type of unit is highly effective against some foes but extremely vulnerable against others. Yeah, it's basically the same as in Advance Wars.

The interface for giving orders and switching characters is nice and streamlined.
The interface for giving orders and switching characters is nice and streamlined.

From what we've seen so far, the game does a good job of varying the objectives you'll be pursuing in each mission. Some missions are simple search-and-destroy affairs that have you, say, eliminating eight of the enemy's heavy tanks to achieve victory. Others task you with capturing one or more strategic points behind enemy lines. However, some missions get a little more esoteric. One of them has you capture a small base with a crack squad behind you, in order to steal some secret enemy intel. But that takes about 30 seconds. Once you've got the goods in hand, you'll leave your team behind and jump into a light recon vehicle, and then the mission essentially becomes a race through the hills, with a ton of enemies nipping at your heels. Still another mission had us defend a fortified base atop a beach against those wily Xylvanians, and here we were able to place our artillery in strategic firing positions, assign infantry to man machine gun nests, and otherwise set up a solid defensive wall to repel the invaders.

We'll have to admit: Once Battalion Wars' name changed and our beloved Advance Wars was no longer involved with the project, we were skeptical. But so far, the game has proven to offer a combat experience that's both furious and tactical. The controls have taken a little getting used to, though after muddling our way through the first few missions, we were simultaneously snapping off orders and returning fire with aplomb. Battalion Wars is due out in the middle of September, so we'll bring you the final word on how the rest of the game has shaped up at that time.

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