Advancing the squad shooter.
To really get the most out of E3, it's essential to go several years in a row. Only then does the scope of the game industry really hit you in the face. Without attending multiple shows, there's no way to keep track of how games appear from thin air, disappear in the same way, or mutate from one vision into another. Nintendo's Battalion Wars is a perfect example of the latter.
Last year, we saw footage running under the title Advance Wars: Under Fire. With that name, the game is easy enough to figure out: it's Advance Wars on the GameCube with better graphics and more action. So what the hell is Battalion Wars, and what has it done to distance itself from the GBA's best strategy series?
Quite a bit, actually. The name change was probably a good start, seeing as how squad-based action doesn't really have anything to do with Advance Wars. None of that series' commanders were in evidence at E3, and though the units are basically the same, the art style doesn't look anything like the cute/tough anime of AW. And there's another small detail - this game features no turn-based combat at all.
Instead of providing a commanding overview of battle, Battalion Wars drops players right into the thick of things. Put all - or at least most - thoughts of Army Men out of your mind. One soldier can be controlled at any time, but there's no reason not to switch from one member of the squad to another.
And that's where things get interesting.
Players begin with a single soldier or small squad. Upon encountering other friendlies, a button press enlists them to the player's squad, while another press sends and recalls these new troops. At this point, cycling through all the men under command is a snap, allowing for precision placement and firing. By flicking the C-stick, you'll go from infantry to tank commander and through every man in between.
We only got our hands on a few of the 20 unit types - a few riflemen here, a bazooka launcher there - but it's obvious that simply sending them into the fray like lemmings isn't going to work. Mission goals seem to be relatively straightforward, as each E3 level only required moving forward and capturing new areas.
Thankfully, vehicles are another holdover from Advance Wars. Helicopters, jets, tanks, jeeps - they're all here are ready to roll. I promptly hopped in a tank and scout jeep to eat up some distance.
Soon enough, I came upon enemy tanks, gun emplacements and ammo dumps. The latter were hugely explosive, demonstrating that Battalion Wars doesn't shy away from the fireworks when the situation demands. In fact, despite its superficially cute look, the game pumps out chaos like few other squad shooters. When my group of 15 hit a large enemy emplacement, it was total mayhem.
Keeping a handle on the chaos wasn't too difficult. The control system is easily learned, as one shoulder-button locks the targeting reticule on an enemy. After that, you can run around enemies like an armed John Travolta circling the dance floor. Based on the largest battle in the demo, it seems as if riding that target lock will be critical.
There remains one lingering nod to Advance Wars' gameplay. Players can zoom out to an overhead view of the action, in which each soldier is little more than an animated icon. It's difficult to tell if there will be any tactical advantage to the viewpoint or if it's merely a legacy feature. I kept checking it out in the various demo levels, but each battle was of a small enough scale that the effort wasn't necessary.
The one thing left unmentioned is multiplayer, an essential component of this type of game. If this were an Xbox release, I'd already be drooling over the Live potential (*shakes fist at Nintendo's online sloth*). Instead, perhaps a little split-screen action will make use of the obvious multiplayer potential.
Even without a prime online component, though, Battalion Wars represents something that the Gamecube is currently missing: an accessible, original action title that doesn't feature a hero with pointy ears. And while the game isn't a patch on Rainbow Six's ass (at least from a strategic perspective), that series wasn't so hot on the Gamecube, which could seriously use a perspective-hopping action game. With or without the full Advance Wars stamp, this battle might do the trick when it begins this September.