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Battalion Wars

Platform(s): GameCube
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Nintendo

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Gamecube Review - 'Battalion Wars'

by Hugh McHarg on Oct. 20, 2005 @ 12:21 a.m. PDT

Battalion Wars blazes onto GameCube with a platoon of real-time strategy (RTS) action. Whether players are hoofing it across the plains as a lone infantryman or commanding an entire platoon from atop an armored tank, the challenge is real and the mission is critical. There has never been a real-time strategy title like this before.

Genre: Real-Time Strategy/Action
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Kuju Entertainment
Release Date: September 19, 2005

The Care and Nurturing of Nameless Grunts

To hear the likes of Picard and Riker tell it, the safety of your crew is more than a practical obligation. Keeping the ensigns alive, or at least not spending their lives foolishly, is the mark of a great commander, one who is not merely victorious in battle, but respected and beloved among the rank and file. A grunt who believes his commanding officer's got his back, the thinking goes, is a grateful grunt as well as a formidable one.

It's a rare game that inspires such regard for the lives of troops under the player's command. Battalion Wars comes close. A real-time, third-person cousin of the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS Advance Wars games, Battalion Wars mixes quick-moving strategy with a unique personality to satisfy pragmatists and glory-seekers alike. You may not shed an actual tear when your cute little flamethrower unit bites it, but don't be too hard on yourself, either, for indulging the slightest twinge of CO's remorse for your fallen, nameless troops.

Imperial Ambitions

Empires don't get along, and the Western Frontier and Tundran Territories are no different. Just as young Marshal Nova is about to seize the reins of power and perhaps build a lasting peace, Tsar Gorgi starts trouble with the Frontier. Under the guidance of commanding officers General Herman, Brigadier Betty and Colonel Austin, you lead Frontier forces into battle.

Your COs walk you through a few basic missions to help you get your bearings, but then it's all up to you to command infantry, vehicular and air units in real time to put down the Tundran offensive. That's just the beginning, as increasingly complex battles and plot twists – including a Xylvanian double-cross that has you joining forces with the Tundran aggressors – round out the Battalion Wars experience.

Your units are a satisfying if familiar batch of foot soldiers, light and heavy combat vehicles and aircraft. Nothing here is as quirky as the pipe runners or three-cannoned megatanks of Advance Wars, but the selection is nevertheless wide in variety and deep enough in strategic possibility. Flame veterans – or, troops that carry flame throwers – stand out among infantry for their ability to toast rifle grunts and for the visual flair the flame effects bring to the toasting. Artillery units are another favorite, delivering a powerful long-distance pounding with a puffy trail of smoke behind it.

Even the greatest variety is mere novelty without proper balance. Every unit must enjoy specific tactical strengths while suffering corresponding vulnerabilities to keep it from dominating the battlefield too easily. If you're new to strategy games, Battalion Wars teaches you the lessons of balance pretty quickly. Rifle grunts and flame vets excel at taking out other grunts and bazooka vets, but don't send them to attack a machine gun tower without artillery support and expect them to return in good shape. A handful of missile vets can drop a gunship in a couple shots, but leave them vulnerable to infantry attacks, and you'll soon be without a defense against the enemy's air power.

You earn the right to command more powerful land and air units as you progress through the campaign, so tending to balance issues and making sure key units are always protected becomes increasingly important. Overall command scenarios also grow more complex, with some missions requiring the survival of specific units either for explicit goals – infantry for capturing enemy flags, for example – or simply for survivability, like keeping your anti-air battery secure in gunship-heavy missions.

Along with balance issues, AI has the potential to make or break the fun of a real-time battle. For the most part, enemy units in Battalion Wars seem a tad better prepared than your own, in both brains and materiel. In the Titans of Tundra mission, for example, you've got eight heavy tanks to flatten and several gunships swarming overhead. Enemy units patrol the map with a decent amount of awareness, and if your light tanks or bazooka vets venture too close, the Tundran forces pounce.

Your crew, on the other hand, sometimes has trouble finding its way through the woods. They're not stupid by any stretch, but simple walls sometimes hang up your tanks on their way to the action, allowing an enemy bazooka vet to flank them and pound away. Such situations are usually easy to overcome with a little patience, but it would be nice to be able to order your units about with a bit more confidence. An in-mission map compensates somewhat for your units' slight dimness by letting you evaluate the battlefield in its entirety and plan each route of attack before sending in your units.

Level designs offer bountiful opportunities for battlefield strategizing. Landscape features and man-made structures, from hilltop woods to fortresses with multiple entry points, encourage multi-pronged attacks on enemy strongholds. Bridges bottle up your units, making them sitting ducks if you don't seek out alternate avenues of entry. You can clear out enemy positions and set up protected bases of operation from which to launch individual attacks. Careful where you swim, though, as sometimes the inviting strip of land on the other side of the water isn't climbable after all, leaving you and any accompanying troops open to cheap death.

Issuing orders with the C-stick takes some getting used to, especially when it comes to telling individual troops, rather than the entire unit, what to do. An easier way to group types of units for specific tasks – say, teaming up a couple of flame vets and a missile vet to protect an artillery unit as it moves out to attack an enemy tower – would be a nice addition.

Basic movement of the soldier or vehicle under your direct command works well enough not to be distracting, but it's not a precision affair, either, with soldiers who don't exactly hustle and recon units you'll struggle to keep on the road. Targeting also poses more of a challenge than it should. Cycling through enemies in range isn't as efficient as your COs promise, so learning to compensate with the manual aiming function is key to locking on before they get a chance to do much damage.

Slop doesn't pay in Battalion Wars, so don't think just muddling through without concern for how you do the muddling will earn medals. Similar to Advance Wars, you earn a rank based on the speed, technique and power you use in winning battles. You can progress with a C ranking, but you need some of those S (special) ranks to unlock bonus missions. Speed is often the hardest category in which to excel, as too much hanging around to plot your next move quickly sinks your speed percentage into single digits and ruins your overall score.

What's Cold Is Hot Again

Commanding officers play a large part in Battalion Wars, though unlike Advance Wars, you don't take on their big-picture point of view. Instead, COs order you to conquer an enemy base or destroy key outposts and then put you in charge of making it happen in real time. CO drama does charge much of the narrative that links the missions, but what happens on the ground belongs to you.

While conceived with similar whimsy, Battalion Wars trades the trash-talking club-kid wannabes and devious fashionista urbanites of Advance Wars for hard-boiled COs with caricature Cold War and World War II personalities. General Herman of the Western Frontier is the war hawk, a mutually-assured-destruction kind of guy. Tsar Gorgi is the old-school commie, complete with a troublesome, forward-thinking son who's full of dangerous "reformist peacemaking." Add the blood-swilling Xylvanian who aspires to be appointed Governator of conquered lands, and you have a cast of characters that's nearly as appealing as the Advance Wars COs.

The Battalion Wars visual style delights with cartoonish playfulness without putting a damper on the story's epic melodrama. Environments are plump with variety, from dusty trails with roadside flowers to snowy peaks and desert fortresses. Infantry units trot along behind you in a goofy lope, while thick black smoke swallows damaged tanks. Cut scenes are slick, though a little light on visual details, but still, they encapsulate the Battalion Wars style in a way that makes the story as compelling as the strategy.

The sounds of war machines on the move and big-gun fire surround you with battlefield stimuli, and troops speak up now and again with complaints ("Does it have to be so cold?") and braggadocio ("You lose!"). It's the music that stands out, however, as the score captures a surprising amount of genuine melancholy and menace. It's not the greatest-generation seriousness of Medal of Honor or Brothers in Arms, but rather a unique mix of arcade simplicity and melodrama that's an excellent emblem for the difficult-to-categorize tone of the Battalion Wars experience as a whole.

Sweet Spoils of War

Despite sometimes demanding controls and AI that occasionally needs some TLC, Battalion Wars deserves the chance to flourish every bit as much as the Advance Wars series has on the Game Boy Advance and DS. While perhaps too Saturday-morning to capture the imagination of hardcore real-time strategists, Battalion Wars, existing as it does between playful and dramatic, warlike and dopey, feels at home on Nintendo's console. With all the other 'Cube titles that win an audience with equal parts charm and gameplay, here's hoping Battalion Wars finds similar success.

Score: 8.5/10



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