Nintendo struck gold with its Advance Wars series. The DS Advance Wars is my favorite handheld game, after all, and that’s no easy task to accomplish considering I have had a dislike towards all things turn-based after playing too many Final Fantasies. But for as fun and rewarding as Advance Wars is, turn-based games just don’t have the same level of engagement and intensity offered in real-time. Battalion Wars attempts to bring the complexity of Advance Wars into that dimension, but along the way, something went terribly wrong.
The first problem with Battalion Wars is its 3D presentation. Advance Wars works, because you have a clear view of the battlefield and all the units all the time. While being in the battlefield sounds to be more immersing, it’s very confusing. It’s too hard to keep track of an army when all you can see is what’s in front of you. Realistic or not, it doesn’t lend to a very fun strategy war game. Battalion Wars is anything but realistic, though. The game features a very cartoony look with disproportionate soldiers whose feet are big and floppy. It’s actually a very fitting style and makes the impact of seeing these men die all the more memorable. The framerate is also very sturdy. With twenty infantry units firing at each other, a couple tanks rolling around, and several gunships blasting at you from above, you’d think there would be some chugging. Strangely… there’s not.
Befitting the graphics are some pretty ridiculous voice-overs. I’m glad to see there are voices, however, as I was beginning to think Nintendo and its second-parties had abandoned this idea. The characters are stereotypes from every annoying war cartoon you can think of, including some seriously bad Russian and German accents. Your soldiers are also quite squeaky and yelp in over-the-top, amusing ways. However, the music is much more serious. The orchestration is actually very cool, but its subtlety is lost when all the in-game mission briefs and explosions take precedence.
Of course, the explosions are what we really care about, and Battalion Wars can get quite chaotic– in both good ways and bad. You see, Battalion Wars takes the unit-types (and subsequent strategies) from Advance Wars and plunks them into a 3D, real-time action game. This means battlefields are littered with light and heavy tanks, artillery, anti-air vehicles and infantry, gunships, bombers, and recons. It is your duty to command a combination of these units to either seek out and destroy an enemy’s army, capture an enemy base, or remain put and defend your own base. Obviously, you can’t control every member of your battalion at once. In fact, you only directly control one unit (though you can instantly change which unit and unit type this is). The rest of your team obeys three commands: follow, stay, and attack. But it isn’t that simple. Running into battle with your whole army behind you will result in certain unit types dying by the hand of their polar opposites (i.e. bazookas are very effective against tanks). Thus, an element of strategy is introduced. For instance, you may have to scout the terrain with your anti-air infantry to first wipe out any gunships. Now that your anti-air infantry serve no purpose, they can be used as bait to distract enemy tanks while you pelt them with bazookas from atop a mountain. Such strategy makes the game very challenging but very rewarding when you finally find a system that works for that particular level.
However, commanding your battalion is a pain in the neck thanks to some cumbersome controls. The [not so helpful] camera is essentially fixed thanks to the C-stick being used as a “unit selector.” Every member of your team is grouped according to their unit type, and units (as a whole) are highlighted by cycling through the list of other units via the C-stick. This allows you to give commands to one specific group rather than the whole army, though there is an “all” command as well. The problem with this is that it’s not very comfortable or natural. And it definitely does not allow for last-second, quick decisions. If a group of gunships ambushes you, it takes several obnoxious seconds to locate the anti-air group and tell them to fire. By then, the gunships have destroyed half your infantry and tanks.
Your own control–that is, you playing as a soldier–isn’t much better. Holding L will target onto an enemy, but the L button can also target your own teammates! So in a huge battle, it is extremely difficult to hone in on a specific enemy unit. Not to mention this targeting system sporadically “lets go” and sends the camera spinning in circles. Needless to say, getting behind the wheel of a vehicle is even more disastrous. Because the C-stick is already allotted to something else, the camera gets absolutely confused whenever you drive and cannot be corrected. Vehicle control is very loose and sloppy, and I often just give up and let one of my AI teammates drive the stupid thing.
This brings me to my biggest problem with Battalion Wars: extremely dumb AI. Your teammates have no tactic at all. If a bazooka faces off against a tank, he will stand there and take a shell in the face as opposed to… well… rolling out of the way! Anti-air vehicles periodically try to attack infantry units, which they simply cannot damage, while gunships are still bombing you from above! Many times, your units will just run off and get lost somewhere on the map. When you try to call them back, they cut right through an enemy base and get killed. But the worst is when you’re attacked by an enemy force and only half your battalion does anything about it. The rest of them just stand there, waiting for you to hurry and cycle through all the icons to tell them to start shooting! Coupled with the non-intuitive control scheme, it is nearly impossible to effectively manage an army in this game.
So it is kind of a relief when Battalion Wars ends much sooner than expected. There are very few levels, after all. But you will most likely play these many times just to beat them once, lending to a good 8-12 hours total play time. The levels in the first campaign, despite being problematic, are still kind of fun to replay as you aim for a better score. At the end of each level, you receive a grade based on speed, power, and technique. If you score an average of 85% on every level in one campaign, a bonus mission opens up. These missions take a lot of work to get but really aren’t worth the frustration that is so prevalent in Battalion Wars.
It is always refreshing to see a GameCube exclusive that isn’t a Mario spin-off, which is why I tried so hard to like this game. Being a huge fan of Advance Wars for the DS, I was excited at the prospect of translating that same level of complexity and novelty into a 3D action game. Sadly, it just– doesn’t– work. AI teammates are total idiots, and the controls are too convoluted to allow on-the-spot, life-or-death decisions– which is what war is all about, isn’t it? The challenge is there, and the unique gameplay blend is very captivating, but when I keep finding myself pounding the couch and screaming, “I hate this game!” something needs to change.