This next game is interesting in two regards, it’s in a genre that doesn’t have much wide appeal and it’s got an art style that I’m really not a fan of, especially in games like this, and yet it works and it’s brilliant.
If you say “strategy game” to most people these days they’ll either think of chess (because they have no time for your new-fangled ‘Playboxes’) or they’ll think of the various real-time strategy games that the market has been saturated with since Dune 2 and Command and Conquer got all up in our ass back in the ’90s. Thing is, though, the Advance Wars series (and I’ve personally picked Advance Wars 2 on the Gameboy Advance to feature as a Game of the Decade because that’s the only one I’ve played) is more like chess than C&C, a lot more.
The most obvious thing (and the most unfashionable thing) is that it’s turn-based, not real-time. You take a turn, the enemy takes a turn and when troops clash the CPU works out the result. Back in the ’80s most strategy games played like this and real-time games like Stonkers and Nether Earth were curios. As a result of the explosion in popularity of RTS games over the last two decades, though, the turn-based game has become something of a niche interest. Off the top of my head, the only two really big franchises that are still based around it are the Civilization (sic) series and Advance Wars; and Civ involves juggling and micro-managing a whole host of things: AW is just build-and-war gaming exactly like its RTS rivals. So why is it so good?
The main reasons, as far as I’m concerned, are twofold. The first is that turn-based strategy is actually really good and had plenty of advantages over real-time. The myth about real-time strategy is that it’s more realistic, more like a real war but this isn’t really the case – World War I and II were hardly over and done with in a matter of hours. Real wars involve troops moving slowly and battles often being prepared methodically. Real-time barely allows for this because everything’s going so fast but turn-based does. For that reason, Advance Wars feels much more like being in charge of a real war plan than the RTS titles do; if things go wrong it’s because you were a bad general not because you didn’t click fast enough. The second reason is something uncommon in turn-based games which makes AW a bit special: there seems to be no random element whatsoever. In most turn-based games, you see, there’s a random element thrown into the combat. This is intended to make things a bit more unpredictable but often they make things frustrating instead or just plain silly (players of the original Civilization remember the “battleship defeated by phalanx” scenario all too well). In Advance Wars, like chess, strengths and weaknesses are pre-determined and always the same. What makes the difference is taking advantage of various factors which alter, for example, defensive capability. Your entire infantry platoon taken out by the enemy’s artillery? You can’t rely on the random factor to protect you but you can rely on travelling through the mountains which will increase their defence score but decrease their speed. It’s utilising things such as this, not relying on luck, that make the difference between winning and losing this game. There are numerous types of land, sea and air-based untils to build and control and each has strengths and weaknesses to be learned and exploited. In addition to this the various commanders the player (and CPU) takes the part of have “special powers” which can be unleashed after saving up a certain amount of power (gained in-game) and which affect gameplay for a set number of turns when used. This game is about planning, thinking and understanding your strengths and the enemy’s weaknesses. Luck doesn’t come into it. It’s a true strategy game in that respect.
The only thing I don’t like, the thing I alluded to earlier, is that it’s all very cutesy and Japanese anime in style. Some people will love that, I prefer my wars to be a bit more serious. The storyline and character stuff that comes between the missions is also likely to have the marmite effect with regards to how people take it. But, believe me, it doesn’t detract that much from a brilliantly-designed, involving and playable wargame which has done more than any other to bring turn-based gaming back into the mainstream gamer’s conciousness.
Besides, there’s supposed to be a new “dark” addition to the series on the Nintendo DS which replaces the cute graphics with more grimy and realist ones. Hurrah.