Advance Wars is a meld of two differing strategy genres. First are the turn-based strategy games, like Civilization. Second are the real-time strategy (RTS) games like Warcraft. Like both genres, Advance Wars centers on the production of military units and battling your enemies. Unlike the god-games, there is nothing to manage aside from military units, and even their production is extremely simple. This is a straight-up military simulation, and it can be nice to concentrate on simply outsmarting your opponent rather than trying to figure out a research tree. Unlike Warcraft and other RTS games, Advance Wars moves along in a series of discrete turns, making for a more relaxing and contemplative experience than is possible when the main concern is scrambling to pump out troops and build up the base.
The main gameplay of Advance Wars takes place on a grid-based map where the player controls various military units. There is a computer (or human) opponent who also has military units. The players take turns moving their units and issuing various other orders until the victory conditions are met or a player is defeated by other means (in some cases, particular units must survive to avoid a loss). There are three basic types of units (land, water and air), and each has particular strengths and weaknesses.
Advance Wars is unlike either of the major genres of strategy games, yet borrows concepts from both. The player gains the ability to gain and lose territory by claiming cities, which can repair troops and provide more money every turn. Money can be used in selected scenarios to purchase further amounts of troops. In some situations, a 'fog of war' lies over the battlefield, obscuring the enemy positions and forcing the player to adjust his strategies to account for the unknown. But Advance Wars is not just for veterans of strategic gameplay. Any player with any level of experience level with strategy games will be able to pick up how to play in a fairly short time, and that's because of the superlative game design.
There is a design concept in video games that often gets ignore that goes like this: simpler is better. The thought is that if you can create a system with a few simple rules and work out a coherent, consistent matrix of interactions, complex systemsand thus complex gameplaywill emerge. This is obvious from the beginning of video games, when even the simplest arcade games had devoted players inventing convoluted plans for success. Advance Wars takes this concept and runs with it. Every unit in the game has a small amount of parameters restricting its behavior, including rock-paper-scissors style relationships with other units. These interactions provide the real meat of the strategy in Advance Wars. You must anticipate not only where the enemy is going to move, but also what units you must use in order to correctly counter the units that he has arrayed. This is a highly simplified experience, but it is only so much sweeter because the simple rules regarding the movement and fighting power of the various units combine to create a complex system of carefully thought-out strategy.
Playing Advance Wars, I was struck with a sense of nostalgia. There was something familiar about the 'classic' gameplay that it offered. After a few emails and a little research on the web, I found what I was looking for in the form of the older Macintosh game Strategic Conquest. For those of you who never had a chance to play this incredible game 8 years ago, you'll have to believe me when I say that Advance Wars owes a debt to Strategic Conquest and other similar games that defined the genre of military turn-based strategy in the first place.
Indeed, looking back at Strategic Conquest, it's very interesting to note the parallels between the two games. Both operate on a zoomed-out map, involve capturing neutral cities to increase production and concentrate on developing a well-balanced force of air, water and land units that interact in a rock-scissors-paper fashion. I might not have mentioned it, but the resemblance is so striking that I felt that it couldn't go unnoticed.
Advance Wars has a cartoon look to its visuals that succeeds in maintaining a coherent aesthetic theme. The characters are all somewhat anime-influenced, and the units themselves are drawn in a super-deformed style that carries the mood of the game well. The animation of the units and the characters is also excellent and matches well with the style of illustration. The music is pretty typical Japanese game music, ranging from somewhat poppy synths to ridiculous electro-hair rock.
The game has a full complement of single and multi-player modes, including a massive tutorial. The main part of the game is the Campaign mode, where the narrative is fairly basic. You start out as an advisor for the Orange Star army engaging in wartime campaigns against other states, working with and collecting a small group of commanding officers, each with their own special powers that can affect the game. The narrative is presented to you in the form of a higher-ranking officer at Orange Star, who starts out instructing you in person in field training and providing mission assignments via radio during the actual campaigns. You also get to read blustering outbursts by the various opposing generals, as well as being privy to some of their private interchanges. Although this movie-style 'improbable knowledge' kills some of the investment in the character of an actual advisor, it does not adversely affect the game because the game puts so little of its emphasis upon the narrative.
Advance Wars has only one significant flaw in its gameplay. In certain scenarios, the computer forces are placed in such a way that there are only a select few moves that the player can reasonably make. This runs counter to the way that the player interacts with the game up to that point. The player is asked to make a transition from battles where many possible strategies are viable to situations where a rigid set of conditions applies. Although these are some of the more challenging scenarios, the difficulty is caused by a design that clamps down on the open-ended nature of the gameplay, and the result feels 'cheap', and more than a little unfair. Otherwise, the game is an absolute gem of gameplay, delivering a system that can be interacted with on a number of levels (depending on how much the player chooses to involve themselves in the mechanics of the game world).
Unfortunately, while Advance Wars devotes the entirety of its gameplay toward a military simulation, there is utterly no thought put towards the moral implications of armed combat. To be honest, such an aspect is not to be expected, as the subject is rarely broached in video games. But it's not asking too much for a game dealing with the mass loss of life to somehow provide some sort of context for it. Having the animations of combat set up so that no blood is shed and no bodies are seen lessens the maturity of the confrontations. Even the vehicles just 'fall' off the screen rather than blowing up. Yet the facts that defeated forces never come back and the game refers to units being 'lost' cannot conceal the concept that you are leading your little super-deformed troopers to their super-deformed deaths. And for what?
There is no explanation for why you are fighting other than 'they are a rogue army' or 'they invaded our land'. Make no mistake, I'm not crying out for the censoring of violence or saying that a mature treatment of war is a necessary ingredient in a strategic game like Advance Wars, but I think inclusion of content regarding the morality and consequences of war would elevate this game from a good one to a great one. Perhaps someday we will be able to weld the beauty of a strategic simulation with the clarity and sweeping messages of great art involving war.