This game has been a long time coming. I beat the prequel a few years ago and even referenced said prequel a few times in previous posts, but I didn’t get around to beating this game until now.
This is a turn-based tactics game. Missions will start you off with either a pre-deployed army, a set of bases (to build more units), or both, and the objective is usually to capture the enemy HQ or defeat all opposing units (both options are present for most maps). Defeating all units will trigger victory even if the opponent still has bases to build more units. Sometimes, maps will have special objectives, like “capture a certain amount of cities,” “capture these specific cities,” “destroy these specific units,” or “win within a set turn limit.” Of course, different units have different advantages and disadvantages, but that’s better left for the game to explain. As an army destroys enemy units (or gets units destroyed), a special meter fills up, and the power that can be used when it’s filled is different depending on which Commanding Officer (CO) controls the army (sometimes, you get a choice, but other times, the game makes you use a specific CO for the mission). At the start of each army’s turn, they get 1000 funds for each property they own, and these funds are used to repair damaged units (only if they’re on a city or base) and build more units. Cities only give funds and repair ally units, by the way.
DIFFERENCES FROM THE PREQUEL: COs have a second “super” power that can be used when the meter is full; the normal power can be used when the meter reaches a designated point before being completely filled. Also, remember how Md Tanks are literally just stronger versions of normal Tanks? Now there’s a third tank that’s even more powerful, and in the campaign, you can only unlock it by beating a special map that’s only unlocked by capturing an unmarked enemy city in a specific map (the map’s description usually hint’s that it’s there, but you have no way to know which city will unlock the secret mission until after you capture it). You have to do that once per faction; if you miss your chance, that specific army won’t be able to build those tanks for the rest of the campaign. Those tanks are unlocked by default in multiplayer, though. Next, the enemy army in the campaign has specialty units that don’t move, but have a large range (usually triangle shaped). These units don’t have close-up animations, though; it just has an explosion effect happen right there on the map. There are also missile silos: put an infantry on it to launch, then select a space on the map to damage all units in that zone for 3 HP. Neither the specialty units nor missiles will kill a unit; if the math would leave it at 0 HP, it gets 1 HP back. There’s also a new terrain: pipes. There block ALL units (which makes importing AWBW maps like Sky Warriors significantly easier), and there can be breaks in the pipe that units can attack to break through (again, no new animations; just an explosion). Oh, and the way the game treats COs is the opposite of the first game; rather than have you pick from the same few COs and have you fight a bunch of different ones, you get to play as most COs in the game with the enemy having only a few of them.
Lastly, the tutorial is much shorter, and is mandatory. Rather than take time to go through all of the units with carefully-crafted tutorial maps like the first game, this one just has characters explain what certain units do at the beginning of the first few missions, even having the enemy CO explain how a couple units work. This even happens during a couple missions where you have a fairly strict turn limit (even though I beat the first game, I lost the Orange Star fog of war mission/tutorial by one turn on my first attempt). If you think that might not be enough for new players to learn the ropes, don’t worry; the game frequently reminds players that pushing the R button on a unit will display its properties. If you’re a veteran player, on the other hand, you’ll have quite a bit of dialogue to skip through since an explanation shows up each time you select a new unit.
This game also lets you pick from a few missions at designated points in the game (unlike the previous one which was more linear, merely having a single branch that immediately fuses back with the main campaign right afterward). It’s a neat idea, but it does result in the game having two tutorials for missile silos, neither of which gets disabled by viewing the other one first.
Anyway, on to why Advance Wars is the greatest tactics game franchise ever (disclaimer: I haven’t played any Daisenryaku game very much yet). First of all, there’s no chance of missing an attack; when you move a unit next to another unit and select the “Fire” command, the percentage the game displays on the confirmation screen IS the amount of damage you’ll deal to the target (if you confirm the attack, of course), with the only percent chance being a small increase in your attack power for that move (except for Sonja, who apparently does have a chance to deal slightly less damage than normal. What the heck, game?). There’s still plenty of risk with other things, but since there’s no negative-luck-based risk (except for Sonja), you never have to worry about things like missing with a 99%-chance-to-hit attack or other BS. Also, if you’re familiar with Fire Emblem (at least Shadow Dragon does this), you’ll know that reinforcements can sometimes show up on castle tiles without a clear warning; with this game, that uncertainty is also eliminated because, just like you, the opposing army can only get new units by building them on their own designated bases (or from a factory, which is another specialty unit that only shows up in the campaign)–and guess what: if you capture an enemy’s base, not only do you prevent more reinforcements from showing up there, YOU can build units there! You don’t even have to worry about being surprised by a new CO’s power because you can bring up the menu, select “COs,” and view their passive bonuses and power effects. Oh, and let’s not forget one crucial detail: no leveling system. This means that you never have to worry about grinding or being under-leveled (or worse: losing a high-level unit and being forced to use a low level unit) because, barring CO abilities, all units are exactly the same as all other units of that same type. The game is balanced, consistent, and completely fair; it’s beautiful.
Lastly, I’ll bring up a comparison with StarCraft; let’s ignore the fact that they’re different genres (RTS vs Turn-based Tactics) and focus on how a usual mission plays out. With StarCraft, you can build your own buildings anywhere you want, but you have to have units gather resources manually, and there are usually only two or three resource deposits on any map. This means it’s better if you build your HQ right by the nearest resource deposit so you get your resources quicker, and you’re encouraged to build other buildings (e.g. troop deployment) near your HQ so that it’s well defended. Meanwhile, the opponent is encouraged to do the same, and since the only terrain types are “land” and “not land” (with maybe some walls and inclines spread around), this effectively has all battles play out the same: build bases, build troops, send them on the long path to the enemy. Advance Wars, in contrast, gives you funds automatically based on how many properties you own at the start of your turn, but it won’t let you build buildings; they’re part of the level design and can only be captured. This opens the door for much more varied missions without devolving into gimmick territory: not only are there more options for terrain (even if they mostly amount to “slight defense boost at a slight movement cost”), but instead of land vs land, it could be navy vs air (with the game giving you ports while giving the enemy airports), and that isn’t even counting the pre-deployed missions where you have NO bases.
With all that said, I did notice a rather significant weakness to the game(s) while playing: although the base vs base missions are designed differently from each other, none of them really play out that differently. Sure, the different designs prevent them from being too samey, but it’s always “build infantry to capture bases, then build tanks/copters to fight the enemy,” with you only really needing to change your strategy slightly when the enemy builds something that’s strong against most of your units. What’s more disappointing is that the game really increases its focus on base vs base missions as you progress. For reference, I lost three pre-deployed missions on my first attempt (two of which were fog of war), but I only lost one base vs base mission on my first attempt, and it was the very last mission in the entire game (barring any bonus missions that need certain criteria to be met to be unlocked), and that was mainly because it’s a turn-limited mission. Every other base vs base mission, I cleared on my first try by using the exact same strategy. That’s how I found out that the difficulty rankings for missions don’t reflect how hard it is to win, but how hard it is to get an S rank when you do win (and even then, I find those rankings to be a bit dubious). For crying out loud, the second-to-last mission gives you bases, but doesn’t give the enemy any way to generate more units! That’s a pretty huge advantage you have for what’s supposed to be part of the climax. When I played StarCraft, it seemed like the campaign was less meant to be a standalone experience and more to ease you into how an average competitive multiplayer session would play out, and I kinda got the same vibe from this game. I guess that’s one thing Fire Emblem has over this franchise: it focuses exclusively on pre-deployed missions since your army is finite, so it doesn’t have the repetition of base vs base missions.
Despite all of that, I think that’s not really a criticism on the foundation of the franchise, as I think the campaign could have been improved with more varied level design, focusing more on short-but-challenging missions rather than large base vs base maps (though I wouldn’t be surprised if the future installments are designed similarly to this game).
Finally, I should bring up that final mission. Even if we ignore the really easy mission right before it, the final mission is a pretty huge difficulty spike compared to the rest of the game. This can partly be attributed to the design of the map and how many properties the opponent starts off with compared to how many you start with, but it’s mainly due to the fact that it’s limited to 30 turns, which makes it way harder than even the final mission in the first Advance Wars (again, barring any secret missions that game has). Like with all turn-limited missions, the game lets you know exactly how many turns you have left, even putting a counter at the top of the screen, but what the game doesn’t tell you is that if you don’t get a unit into the top-center area of the map before the last 10 turns, you lose outright anyway (oh great, it’s Frozen Synapse all over again). Even besides that unusual moment of obfuscation, the stated turn limit is still really tight and doesn’t allow for the slowly-overtake-them strategy that can be used to win literally every other base vs base mission in the game with ease. In fact, the enemy has enough properties that, if you aren’t careful, you end up being pushed back. I finally won because the AI builds its army from left-to-right, which means the left side of the map ends up with more of the more powerful units while the right side remains oddly undefended, and I exploited that. I did like that a base vs base mission managed to be really challenging, but 30 turns is a lot to redo upon failure. I just wish the game built up to this point better than it did (and maybe didn’t take as long).
Overall, this is still a solid title, and I’d recommend picking up at least one game in this franchise if you consider yourself a fan of tactics games. The game does have some minor things that could’ve been better communicated, like which cities trigger the secret missions, but none of the obfuscated things are required to beat the game. However, given the game’s approach to base vs base missions, I think I’ll wait another few years before checking out the next game in the series.
P.S. I’m still not a fan of fog of war because the lack of info really only serves to slow the game down; instead of “okay, this is what the enemy has and this is how I can counter it,” it’s “okay, there could be a unit that can just completely wreck my army literally anywhere outside of my view, so I have to move a distance less than my max to remain in the trees so I might stay hidden” or “just send a recon unit to its death.” What really gets me is the turn-limited fog of war mission; not only does it have the worst mix of “hurry up” and “don’t rush things,” but it’s also supposed to be the player’s introduction to fog of war?? Really? It’s the only turn-limited fog of war mission in the whole game, too. At least this franchise’s fog of war lets you see the entire terrain of the map at all times, only obfuscating enemy units.