So you've heard about Advance WARS and still not quite sure what to think? Before you even get to the review I say BUY IT!
The name alone gives one the feeling of epic battles and huge armies throwing themselves at their foe. For Nintendo's Intelligent Systems, this is a long running and highly innovative strategy series, which has graced nearly every Nintendo console in existence. From its early and humble beginnings on the Famicom, to the epic Super Famicom and N64 WARS… this is one of the many serials of games that should have made it to American shores, but was sadly never localized. NOA has stepped up to the bat and finally released the fifth game stateside for the GameBoy Advance. And what a game it is. As a long time RPG/SRPG fan I can honestly tell you that this is what the strategy genre is all about. It takes quite a bit to get me extremely excited about a game, but as I seem to repeat often: Intelligent Systems has yet to disappoint.
When you first boot up the game, you are treated to a flashy animé-esque intro finally revealing the title screen. Very slick. Next, you're asked to input a name. After you've done so, CO (Commanding Officer) Nell will ask if you've ever played the game. If you aren't familiar with the series, then I'd suggest you go through the Field Training with her. She'll explain the basics of combat through fourteen different beginner missions to get you familiar with the units and how Rankings work.
Here's a small overview:
Keep in mind this is only scratching the surface of the game's most simplistic mechanics. It's not like I can spend 1500 words trying to explain the intricacies of Infantry tactics or ramble on about how to effectively use Md Tanks.
Then you're taken into "Campaign" mode. The essential plot is how a certain Blue Moon CO, Olaf, had seized parts of Orange Star's land and how you're deployed as a "Special Advisor" into reclaiming the territory. This is where you meet your first CO: Andy. He's a tech whiz and is able to fix just about anything. Each CO (including your enemies) have a unique set of skills along with a special power they are able to unleash in battle. For instance, Andy has good all-around skills without a single real specialty. His "Hyper Repair" power will heal units 2 HP and give them extra offense and defense until the end of that turn. Meanwhile, CO Max is best at the offensive, his heavy Tanks (and anything mechanical) packing an extra heavy punch at the enemy. To make this even more of an overkill, his power "Max Force" gives even more power to his units. However, his glaring weakness is his complete lack of indirect combat skills. His Artillery and Rocket units are weaker than normal and don't even get that big of a range! Players really need to keep in mind the pros and cons of certain COs when playing a map. Some areas are clearly more suited to one type of Commander than another.
Campaign mode, however, is quite possibly the smallest area of the game (barring Field Training). After each completed map you are awarded a certain amount of "Advance Coins", depending on how high of a rank you were awarded in the previous battle. These can be used in the "Battle Map" shop on the main screen. Here you can buy maps to use in the "Vs Mode", "War Room" and "Link Mode" areas along with unlock COs and other secrets. The "War Room" is a series of maps (most of which must be purchased) that helps hone your tactical skills. Make no mistake, these areas can be tough, even with the ideal CO. This is the only other mode that awards you Advance Coins. Also, you can gain higher ranks through this area. The greatest "addition" in my opinion, is the "Design Maps" option. Thank you Intelligent Systems! Here you can create and save entirely customized maps. Have an idea for the nastiest four-way brawls? This is your home! In fact, with the Link Cable you're able to trade your maps with friends.
This brings me to multiplayer. Unfortunately, I don't have many people near me so I was only able to test it via CPU opponents. However, that said: it is extremely addictive. You choose up to four COs, choose your Map and can set a variety of options including "Fog of War", how you're going to win (Capture HQ, kill all units, capture a certain amount of bases, etc.,) and various other conditions. Players take turns fighting and setting up. It can get a bit tiring waiting for your turn when there's four players, but I'm sure with actual people to play with, trash-talking will take an all new meaning.
Graphically and aurally this game is rich and quite spectacular. It's a sin to use anything less than a good set of headphones with this game! Myself, I tend to jack my AGB into my uber|337 PC speakers to enjoy the games great tracks. Each CO has a unique theme song that plays during his turn. The best way to describe the style is a hard industrial beat, and it goes very well with the military trappings of the game. Even the "Map Design" and Save music is great! In fact the Map Design track reminds me of Earthbound's quirky jazz-like ramblings. This is a good thing. NOA should take my hints and release an OST for this game. I oftentimes find myself humming along with one of the CO's themes even when I'm nowhere near the game. Even the sound effects are top-notch. Tanks grumble along and explosions sound quite realistic. The graphics might be considered "simple" by some but I heartily disagree. Every unit is completely unique and has its own battle animations. In fact, each army has a different design for the same units. So while your Orange Star Tanks might look one way, the Green Earth's will look entirely unique. No cheap palette-swapping techniques here. The presentation is extremely slick, like something you'd get out of an animé movie. Your COs have a variety of expressions, and their portraits are located at the top of the screen during battle animations. For instance when you destroy an enemy unit with Andy, he'll start laughing and hold up his hand in the "V" sign. If his unit is wiped out he'll blink and cringe. In fact, the COs will even have different expressions depending on the odds of the battle. If the CO's unit is weakened, he will be concerned and apprehensive, while the opposing CO will smirk in confidence.
Menus are simple but stylish & easily read. Overall this game has the flash to match its personality. There's charm and yet a "seriousness" to the game that I can't quite pinpoint. This definitely isn't a child's game: it can be quite hard. In fact, unless you're familiar with the genre and the series it can get almost impossible at times. I've been getting A and S ranks for the duration of the game (no small feat I'll tell you,) but I know other staffers have had problems at times and even readers who frequent our chat get stuck. That's the biggest "flaw" with this game. Intelligent Systems has created the one of the best strategy games of all time, but it is clearly aimed at hardcore fans. Since US gamers hadn't even heard of the series before NOA began localization, it brings a bit of a problem. That said, buy this game before I hunt you down and beat you. It really is that good. Once you're into the game, strategies get easier to think up and there's nothing stopping you from restarting a map if things go really awry.
Intelligent Systems has never disappointed me with their games. While here at PGC we try and avoid calling games "TEH BEST TIHNG EVAR", this is quite possibly the title that truly deserves it. The game is insanely deep, has almost unlimited replay value and has over 114 single player maps alone! IS has packed so much into this game it is positively frightening. As you plow deeper and deeper into the game you're continually surprised at the insight that the designers had in creating this masterpiece.
So I'll reiterate: Buy this game. Don't even bother renting.
Now NOA, get the courage and localize Fire Emblem VI, and completely wow your fans again!