This game is a great little surprise. It kinda comes out of no where... a turn-based strategy game with no license? Although a demi-franchise in Japan (where anything can become a demi-franchise, it seems), the Game Boy Wars series never made it to our shores... Until Advance Wars, a title that was one of the earliest announced GBA games to my recollection. During that four week period last winter when every game had the word "Advance" in the title.
So, turn-based strategy? That's a genre that went out with the computerized version of Risk. Everything today is real-time, so fans of this game's bigger real-time brothers (StarCraft, Diablo 2) may just ignore Advance Wars. Truth be told, I had the same notion. To my mind, "turn-based" equals "slow." What I had forgotten is how the turn-based structure adds majesty and careful consideration to the game... as opposed to the hurry-up-and-win mentality of a fast moving game like StarCraft.
Advance Wars is like Chess. You need to be constantly thinking three moves ahead of your enemy. You need to consider the terrain, the attack range, fuel/ammo status, movement radii... plus special abilities, city occupation, and pokemon-style weakness/resistance combos.
Stand tall soldier! You're an advisor to the Commanding Officers of the Orange Star army. Now, I don't know what kind of nation puts little boys and willowy supermodels in charge of armies, but that's the kind of COs you'll work with in Advance Wars. By careful deployment of your soldiers and vehicles, you'll work with the CO to meet each level's victory conditions. Sometimes you have to occupy X amount of neutral cities, or protect a certain area for so many days... but most often you just need to either take control of the enemy HQ or kill all opposing forces.
Starting out is wonderfully straight forward. A multi-level training mode shows you all the basics... moving, attacking, resource management. Like Warlocked a year ago, Advance Wars has a very simple interface. Selecting a piece shows its movement distance; after you move, you can usually attack an adjacent enemy through a final popup menu (which may also allow you to capture a city, load a transport, dive a sub, etc.) The R button brings up vital intel... terrain details and unit strengths.
Each piece has 10HP, which decreases in battle and heals while parked in a friendly city. In a battle situation, the attacker almost always has the advantage, so a 10 soldier versus an equal 10 soldier could easily end up as 8 on 6. Naturally, some units have advantages over others. Some pieces have strange attack zones, like the artillery and the rocket launcher.
Later levels introduce buildings that can create new pieces for you, if you can afford them. And there are climate situations that can help some units while hurting others. And each CO has a crazy special ability... Andy's Hyper Repair heals all units by 2, Eagle's Lightning Strike allows units to move/attack twice.
The Campaign mode is long and varied. You'll square off against all the armies while unravelling a mildly interesting plot. Although you start off with Andy as your CO, you eventually get to choose from a select list, which changes how you have to approach each level. Winning levels here gets you coins which you can use to buy bonus maps for the game's multiplayer and skirmish modes.
There are several multiplayer modes. With multiple GBAs and multiple cartridges, you can play whatever huge-ass map you want (optimum); only one cartridge means you're stuck with the smaller, non-scrolling ones. With only one GBA, you have to pass it around from player to player as each one takes their turn. The obvious weakness here (and this is why this genre went real-time) is that you have nothing to do when it's not your turn. Nothing. Bring a book. Better yet, bring another Game Boy and play ChuChu Rocket or something during your downtime.
Here's a sure sign that we're going to be spoiled by GBA games: Advance Wars has a great built-in mapmaker. You can send your custom maps to friends via the link cable. Game Boy Advance games have the potential to be so packed with gameplay modes and options... it's a great time to be into handheld gaming.
Although the overhead map is pretty cheap looking, the game is bright and colorful and shows off a couple of new GBA tech effects... rotating sprites, fast color cycling. The strategy here is deep; I love that I'm poring over a friggin' Game Boy game trying to puzzle and plan my way through a stampeding enemy army. I've already burned an entire pair of batteries due to hours of nonstop gameplay. This is a game for long trips. And since it's a Nintendo release, it's $5-$10 cheaper than other GBA games out there.