The unpopular war.
Buried under the syrupy prose and praise for Advance Wars: Dual Strike was an insect of dissatisfaction. While that game oozed quality and refinement, it didn't do anything terribly unique. Perhaps spotting this blemish, Nintendo tapped Kuju Entertainment to extract the essence of this little beastie and set about growing a new type of creature.
On display, their new beast seemed cute and fun in a violent sort of way, like a bug-eyed miniature raptor. But as soon as we got it home, Battalion Wars for the Gamecube turned into a real monster, one we eventually had to kill with a hammer.
See, we thought we were getting a new, original take on Advance Wars, but Battalion Wars is actually the diametric opposite. Where Advance Wars is technically flawless but unoriginal, Battalion Wars is totally original yet lacking in every other sense. If the two were brothers, we'd say Battalion Wars got all the bad genes. Flawed real-time strategy elements combined with tedious third-person action gameplay bankrupt this title, and we bet even the charitable hearts of Nintendo fanboys will turn cold and greedy at the prospect of throwing any cash its way.
The game tells a sad, nonsensical story of war and betrayal, but so many details are missing you feel like you're hearing a secondhand account of something that happened in an Advance Wars game. According to the cut-scenes, the Tundran and Frontier forces have been at each others' throats for decades. Just as it appears they might finally be outgrowing their warlike ways, the Nazi-inspired Xylvanians move in and attack both nations.
From this point on, the cut-scenes seem more concerned with presenting cute, character-based vignettes than actually telling a story. The characters, though, aren't nearly as charming as their Advance Wars counterparts. Brigadier Betty has a gratingly high-pitched voice, and Ubel the evil Xylvanian Commander is a bad caricature of Arnold Schwarzenegger It's amusing the first time he reveals his aspirations to become a "Governator," but then he can't stop talking about it. And if you live in California, the whole Governator thing isn't very funny in the first place.
Since the plot is such a non-factor, we find it deliciously ironic that the story-driven campaign is the only playable mode. You battle through about twenty missions while the crazy story squawks absurdly in the background. Most of the missions involve typical tasks like capturing enemy control points, defending allied control points or destroying an evil weapon, while a few have you racing jeeps through canyons or bombing oil derricks.
None of these are much fun thanks to an oversimplified, tactical control scheme and bad unit balance. Commanding your forces relies almost entirely on the C-stick; when you move it, every unit type in your army appear at the bottom of the screen. You can highlight a unit type and issue an order (stay still, follow me, attack) or use an icon to issue the same order to every single unit. In turn, giving commands on a large scale is easy.
It's also hazardous. Your troops are governed by weak A.I. and every single one is vulnerable to some other type of unit. If your infantry squad mixes it up with flame-thrower troops, they'll all be dead within moments and none of them are smart enough to avoid such lethal threats. Since the units you have at the beginning of a level are generally the only ones you get, losing an entire squad can utterly cripple you.
While it might sound foolish to send all your infantry after a target, that's the way the game is set up. If you want to issue orders that don't go to everybody or all of one unit type, you have to make them on an individual basis. So if you want three commandos, two flamethrowers and a jeep to travel west, while three infantry, two bazookas and a tank flank east, you'll need to issue twelve orders. How simple.
Except that the game lacks a waypoint system. You actually have to take control of one of the commandos, tell every individual unit in the first group to follow, then switch to the other group and do the same thing...after you'd gotten the first group in position. On a large scale, commanding your troops is dangerous, and on a small scale, it's impractical. Since they're mostly useless on their own, your forces end up functioning like extra lives.
Lucky for you, then, that most of Battalion Wars plays like a third-person shooter, but with A.I. so limited and exploitable that you can pretty much win every battle by yourself. The game is supposed to be balanced so that every unit has a weakness to a certain type of attack - it is, after all, patterned after Advance Wars - but weak A.I. exaggerates these weaknesses to a ridiculous extent. A lone bazooka troop can take out an endless number of tanks. An attack chopper can pick through all the non anti-air units in a level, leaving the rest to be quickly demolished by a single tank. This works in a strategy game because it's well, part of the strategy. In an action game, it spells instant irritation.
You can also bring up an overhead map of the battlefield, complete with troop types and locations for both enemies and allies. If you see that three riflemen and a few flamethrowers lie due east, you can go over there as one of your tanks and kill them all without sustaining damage. The map screen is pretty useful, allowing you to pick just the right troop for every job; it's just a shame you can't use it to issue orders. Multi-pronged attacks are overrated, just like winning.
Most of the game is as tedious and exciting as burning ants with a magnifying glass. You destroy entire armies with a single unit and nobody fights back. This is mainly thanks to the evasive "roll" button. Combat mainly involves locking onto enemies and blasting away at them while rolling to avoid their fire. Just about every vehicle in the game can be destroyed, easily, using this technique, and it works on a lot of infantry classes as well. It's not so effective against mini-gunners, but their bullets just bounce off tanks, anyway.
Which, by the way, are really boring. They just lumber along and blast things. The same goes for choppers, bombers and fighters – only specific types of units can hurt you, the rest are fodder. The only interesting vehicle is the scout jeep because it is so strangely flawed. Since the C-stick is used to issue commands, the L-stick both steers and operates the camera. This doesn't matter in something big and cumbersome like a tank, but jeeps tend to flip around and roll. If after an accident your jeep winds up facing the screen, the game won't know what to do about the situation, and neither will you. Both jeep and camera will flip after one another, like a dog chasing its tail.
The weird targeting system can be equally awkward. Since you can lock-on to friendly units as well as enemies, there's practically no telling what the game is going to decide you want to shoot at. To accurately focus on a target, you have to press the aim button, put your crosshairs directly on a unit, and then press lock-on. This makes changing targets on the fly really difficult because you have to stop moving, giving enemies ample time to unload. Instead, you wind up frantically running in circles, spamming the lock-on button and trying vainly to target the unit you want to kill.
When you aren't slowly and methodically annihilating your brainless foes or struggling with the targeting system, you're defending. In this case, everything attacks from every direction at once, and you race from one unit type to the other trying to plug all the possible leaks in your defenses as quickly as possible. You're still just plugging away at the same defenseless enemies, but you're doing so against a much more violent, chaotic backdrop.
That's not much of an accomplishment considering the game's dull and featureless environments. Battles take place in forest, snow, desert and wasteland themed areas, none of which exhibit any interesting landmarks or exciting levels of detail. On the flip-side, the units themselves generally animate well and the game almost never slows down even if the screen is full of explosions and fire.
The audio is a funky combination of serious war music, understated gun effects and cartoony voices as the commanders comment on the state of the battle. It's a mish-mash of concepts that, at the very least, matches the uneven nature of the whole game.
And really, there isn'y much game here at all. No multiplayer, no skirmishes, no customizable maps - just the lame story campaign, which takes all of about 10 hours to beat. Wake me when it's over.
Having played and therefore loved the Advance Wars titles, we had high hopes for this console action translation. Whoops. Battalion Wars bites off a lot more than it can chew, an unwieldy Frankenstein that doesn't live up to its innovative premise. Let this soldier die.