Kuju and Nintendo have come up with a neat idea by merging the real-time strategy genre with the third-person shooter genre, and the end result is fairly successful.
Prior to this year’s E3, Battalion Wars was meant to be a part of the Advance Wars franchise. It was called Advance Wars: Under Fire, and, in some respects, it would have made sense had Battalion Wars kept that name. Its legacy certainly remains evident. The game has a similar art direction and a similarly structured one-player Campaign Mode compared to the games of the Advance Wars series. They also share many of the same units, environments, and mission objectives types, as well as a very light-hearted, dialogue-driven story.
On the other hand, there is one major difference. Battalion Wars isn’t turn-based – it’s a fully-fledged 3D real-time action game with strategy elements. It’s frantic rather than relaxing, heart-pumping rather than brain-pumping, and it generally requires quick reactions more so than extensive contemplation.
At first glance, the game looks like a third person shooter. You’re in control of an infantry unit who’s able to walk, run, jump, sidestep, shoot, lock on to enemies, and perform evasive rolls. You’ll quickly meet up with other units, though, including infantry with rocket-launchers, recon vehicles, armored tanks, and airplanes later on. When you’re not alone, some additional control options become available. They include handing out “follow” or “wait” commands to other unit types as well as ordering them to shoot at a specific target. You’re also free to choose any particular unit in your army and gain control of that unit.
Thus, the strategic element in Battalion Wars has to do with unit management – with keeping track on which units are engaged in battle, which units are in a waiting position, and the whereabouts of these units. It’s also important to assign the right tasks to a specific unit type. Like in Advance Wars, the different unit types exist in a paper-rock-scissor system, in which each unit has a set of strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t make sense to move tanks into enemy territories with plenty of rocket-launcher-equipped soldiers, for example, and bombers shouldn’t be used in areas with lots of enemy anti-air units – you want to take them out with your tanks first. Overall, Kuju has done a great job of balancing out the capabilities of the different units. Even the gigantic battle station can get in trouble when up against a couple of gun-ships or a group of soldiers with bazookas.
The act of handing out commands to other units proves to be quite intuitive at first but not sophisticated enough for the latter levels. There is a “Select All” option useful for uniting all units to initiate a full-blown attack. Specific unit types can also be selected; however, individual units cannot. This means that you’re not allowed to create a battalion of, say, half of your riflemen and half of your light tanks. The fact that you can’t assign shortcuts to a certain group further limits your control options.
Mostly, the artificial intelligence of your units is good enough to make sure that the desired task is performed instantly, but exceptions do occur. Seeing one of your rifle men get hit by an enemy and then focus all his firepower on that enemy, while disregarding your own orders can become frustrating. Likewise, a tank might suddenly become stuck on a rock or block the way for an entire group of infantry so they can’t advance. These small flaws far from ruin the game, but they deserve mention, nonetheless.
If a unit refuses to carry out an order, you can always decide to control him manually. This change of perspective is handled seamlessly. The camera zooms out cinematically and then swoops over to the selected unit. It looks great and happens quickly enough to prevent the action from breaking up. Once in control of a new unit, you’ll instantly recognize a difference in the way it’s controlled. Some infantry types can power up their weapon before unleashing it, while soldiers with mini-guns, for example, can fire instantly and without any need to reload. Heavy tanks have a real sense of weight behind them, as they move and turn much more slowly than recon units, whose steering is loose and acceleration steep. Another example can be found in the air. Helicopters can change direction instantly, whereas bombers have huge turning circles.
The battles themselves stand out as another impressive feat. They can be extremely intense, especially towards the end of the game, when all the different unit types become available and clash together with an opponent’s massive army. This is where debris and metal pieces fill the air as heavy tanks get blown to pieces by a dozen of rockets. Men with flame throwers run amuck on the battlefield, while mortar-equipped units try to take out the enemy’s long-range artillery, positioned on the other side of a nearby lake. Grenades and rockets zoom by, bombs fall from the sky, while the remains of exploded gun-ships come tumbling down.
Being part of a battle of such immense scale is not only impressive from a visual perspective, it’s also highly exhilarating from a gameplay standpoint. The fact that all these things happen within a solid physics engine and without a hitch in the framerate just serves to make the experience even more involving.
That is why the game’s low lastabilty turns out to be such a great shame. Battalion Wars can be beaten in less than six hours on your first run through. Granted, the play sessions in which you fail aren’t included in this number, but the game is still too short. Multiplayer deathmatch and co-op modes would have helped, but they’re nowhere to be found. By replaying levels in the campaign and get better grades, you can unlock four secret levels, but other than that there’s little replay value.
In conclusion, Battalion Wars does have some really great parts. The scale of the environments and the cute animation are notable achievements, as are the fluidity with which the intense action moves and the way units are balanced. The action-oriented portion of the game works better than the strategic portion, which is hampered by a control scheme that’s too simple to provide enough depth. The game’s is also too short. It’s a great rental for sure.