War is a subject that people usually don't try to put a cute face on. Yet somehow, like the Advance Wars strategy games that inspired it, Kuju's Battalion Wars for the GameCube manages to do just that. Battalion Wars is a well-made action strategy game that offers a whimsical art style, setting it apart from other games that try to take a more serious approach. But don't let the cartoonish looks fool you--even veteran players will get a satisfying and serious challenge from the campaign.
You'll take the role of a field officer in the Western Frontier army. Both the Western Frontier and the neighboring Tundran Empire begin the game locked in a cold war of sorts, until the Tundran side loses its nerve and begins a preemptive strike. War breaks out and rages between the bitter rivals, until a third faction, the Xylvanians, show up and take advantage of both sides' weakened states. The Western Frontier and Tundrans work out a convenient truce in the face of this threat and unite against the common enemy.
At its core, Battalion Wars is third-person shooter with a good dollop of real-time strategy mixed in. Though you're addressed by superior officers as your own person, you don't actually have a single, physical presence on the battlefield. While it may not make much logical sense, this allows you, as a sort of disembodied intelligence, to jump freely from soldier to vehicle and control them as you please. Once you have control of an infantryman or vehicle, you can simply move them about with the left stick, fire your weapon with the A button, free-look with the R trigger and left stick, or lock onto targets with the L trigger. If you need a different view of the battlefield, you can shift from an over-the-shoulder perspective to a more isometric, zoomed-out view. You can also order fellow troops to follow you around. Once you have a target locked in, you can more easily shoot at the enemy and, more importantly, order your own troops to attack that target.
Concentrating fire on a single target ends up being the most important command you give throughout the game; though your troops are intelligent enough to defend themselves and attack enemies that wander within range, they will fire with more volume if you designate a single target for them, making them more efficient. While it's also important to control and fire at enemies yourself, ultimately it's how well you manage your troops that will determine your level of success in the game. It is also this aspect of Battalion Wars that gives it the micromanagement feel of more conventional real-time strategy games, as you must quickly identify and prioritize threats and assign the appropriate troops to attack them. It's also here that the game's interface lets you down a bit, as it can be unwieldy using the C stick to toggle between troop types and assign targets for them.
You can't be successful in Battalion Wars by just ordering your troops en masse to fire at each enemy that comes up. If you send tanks after rocket soldiers, or antiaircraft batteries at enemy tanks, for example, the enemy AI is smart enough to target your vulnerable unit types, and you'll get cut to pieces. In a conventional real-time strategy game you'd simply separate your various unit types out into control groups based on killing proficiencies. Unfortunately, you can't do that in Battalion Wars. Each time a threat comes up you must lock onto it, then toggle the C stick to the correct unit counter before you can turn it loose. There's no way to link, for example, your bazooka soldiers and your tanks together to form the ultimate antitank team. You must command each group singly or your entire force together. While this is perfectly fine when you're up against just one or two types of units, the game can get quite frantic when you have to manage against a large, mixed force of enemies. The limitation in control is not insurmountable, but it might still be a source of frustration if you're a veteran of PC-based RTS games.
The game's campaign spans about 20 missions, with the first few serving as a tutorial that slowly introduces you to the game's 18 different units. Battalion Wars is strictly a tactical combat game--you won't have to worry about any economy or production. This means that what you get when you start a mission is all you have to complete it, for the most part, although many of the game's levels will include reinforcements should you complete certain secondary objectives. The missions are nicely varied--whether you're capturing enemy bases, defending your own base from being overrun, or conducting a bombing run on enemy mining operations, you'll be enthralled with the campaign from start to finish. Though the difficulty of the missions can be a little uneven as you play through the campaign, for the most part the complexity of your tasks and the size of the armies you control increase steadily throughout the game. Even more than halfway through the campaign you'll still unlock new units, which helps keep the game feeling fresh and provides extra incentive for you to continue.
Much like in Advance Wars, you're graded on three different aspects when you complete a mission: speed, technique, and power. The time it takes you to complete a mission factors into speed. Technique relates to how many units you lose, while power is a measure of how many enemy units you took out. If you get a great average score on each continent, you can unlock special bonus missions, but given how unforgiving the game is about grading speed, you may need to retry missions a few times before you get the requisite scores.
The best part of the game is controlling the various units, especially the vehicles, as they're introduced to you. The campaign truly gives you a sense of reward as you make your way through the missions and get to pilot tanks, then gunships, and then even heavy bombers and other aircraft in the later levels. You get a true thrill when you take on oncoming enemies as you swap control from infantrymen to vehicle and back in order to fend them off. In fact, once you unlock most of the units, you'll probably want to spend most of your time driving or piloting vehicles as opposed to controlling infantry. Of course, your infantry end up being the most efficient means of killing enemy infantry, so you can't ignore them entirely.
Battalion Wars was initially called Advance Wars: Under Fire, but over the course of development, the Advance Wars branding was removed. Despite the name change, it's pretty clear that the art style of Battalion Wars was inspired by the Game Boy Advance strategy games. Characters and vehicles don't have a lot of hard, straight edges. It's also easy to tell the factions from one another, as they're covered almost entirely by a single, primary color. Green signifies the Western Frontier; the Tundran forces are colored in red; and the evil Xylvanians take to the field in blue battle dress and blue-hued vehicles. The strict color schemes contribute to the game's charming, cartoonish look and also help you differentiate friend from foe on the battlefield. Sure, there's nothing technically impressive about the game's graphics--vehicles and troops sport only an adequate amount of polygonal detail, and the landscapes can seem a bit sparse--but the whimsical art style and charming character designs give Battalion Wars a unique look for a game of this type.
The game's sound also contributes a lot to the overall atmosphere. The rousing military themes that accompany the menus are also present in-game, but at a more subdued level to put the focus on the sounds of battle. Once the shooting starts, you'll be treated to sharp, impactful effects from explosions, machine guns, and the rumbling of vehicle engines like tanks and bombers. You'll also get periodic voice instructions in-game from your commanders, and although some of the voice actors are annoying--like Brigadier Betty, for instance--for the most part they do a good job both in-game and during cutscenes. Those familiar with actor R. Lee Ermey, for example, will probably find General Herman's gung-ho attitude amusing. The Tundran commander, Marshall Nova, looks and sounds a lot like Dolph Lundgren from Rocky IV, while the Xylvanian characters offer up stereotypical German accents.
Unfortunately, once you're done with the game's campaign, which should take you around eight to 10 hours, there isn't much left to do aside from replay missions to increase your score, because Battalion Wars lacks any multiplayer or other additional modes. It's still quite a fun ride while it lasts though, so if you're a fan of action strategy games, or were just looking for a military-style game that doesn't take itself too seriously, you won't go wrong picking up Battalion Wars.