I received Advance Wars 2 as a present a couple of weeks ago and it certainly seemed entertaining enough, so I went ahead and bought a copy for a friend to play multi-player. From what I have played so far, single player feels more like a mission pack update, rather than a sequel. Or a good sequel, anyway.
For those who haven't played Advance Wars 1, let me fill you in with the generalities. Advance Wars is a continuation of the Nintendo Wars series. Nintendo Wars was a Famicom-only title, and the general American public hasn't seen any Wars until Advance Wars was released for the GBA. I'm told Military Madness for ye olde TG 16 is similar, though the Wars games have a square movement grid, instead of a hexagonal based grid. Final Fantasy Tactics fans (PSX/GBA) may also enjoy the Wars series. Advance Wars 2 is basically a cartoony 2D Turn-Based-Strategy game.
The game involves combat between modern military units: Tanks, troopers, fighter planes, destroyers, et cetera. Depending on the unit, attacks can be either direct (adjoining squares), or indirect (the bravery of being out of range). Troopers are direct combat units, which are weak except against other troopers or in large mobs against more powerful tanks. Rockets are indirect, and strong. Leaving behind only charcoal to defend.
Each unit has hit points, ammo, and fuel. Resources management begins and ends with replenishing existing units, and building new ones. This is accomplished by visiting cities or ports, using armored personnel carriers, or landing at airports.
One of the more interesting spins that Advance Wars puts on the standard Turn Based Strategy: WAR! genre is the Commanding Officer. Each has weaknesses and strengths that get applied to it's troops. One CO, Max, is superiour with direct combat units, but weak with his indirect combat units.
The plot is similar to Advance Wars 1: the Black Hole Army (led by the nefarious Sturm character as seen in the screen-shot) is threatening Macro Land, attacking the various Lucky Charms flavoured army/nations (Blue Moon, Orange Star, Yellow Comet, I can hear my dentist laughing now).
You are to 'restore peace' by beating the extremely weak AI in a series of battles on various maps. The challenge on each map is to figure out a strategy to overcome the unfair odds against you. Sometimes, victory is also predicated on meeting special win conditions. Despite the weak AI and gimmicky handling of the new enemy obstacles, this is almost always fun.
Points earned for each victory can be used to "buy" new maps , new COs to play with in the skirmish mode, and new colour schemes for them (palette swaps); this is a definite improvement from AW 1's method of making you play through the campaign multiple times (with different choices on certain levels) just to get the better COs. However, the old method in AW 1 probably sold more strategy guides. In AW 1 we only had one special power per CO; AW 2 adds a second power to each CO, giving the game a bit more depth. One of the new COs, Colin, adds a financial upgrade for one of his powers, though his troops are generally weaker since they cost less to create. Sturm is the only character that doesn't benefit from a second CO power. This gives me hope that the other COs I can "buy" will have interesting special powers as well.
The AW 2 campaign is fun, but not as fresh as the AW 1 campaign was to all of us who'd never played Nintendo Wars. It also seems to be easier, though I can't be sure if this is because of my AW 1 experience, or because the game is genuinely less challenging. Players who desire more of a challenge should be happy with the harder difficulty level of the single player campaign. (It's available via a trick just like the first game apparently, check Game FAQs.) So far there have been a large number of maps that require you to pass certain obstacles the designers apparently inserted to show off the few new weapon tiles. At least five of the maps I've played since I got the game involve pipe lines with seams you can destroy. Amazingly, none of the aircraft can even fly over this pipe. Your only method to pass beyond the piping is to destroy the seams. It seams as though one map with this gimmick would be enough to get the idea, but the designers saw fit to explore the seamingly unlimited possibilities of the seam tile. Unseamly, to say the least. Hopefully the gimmickry will decrease further on. Even if it doesn't we can count on multi-player, single player skirmishes, plus the ability to design maps for a good time.
Single-Pak AW 2 multi-player allows your friends to download a subset of the game to their GBAs, or play in hot-seat mode. Unfortunately those unfamiliar with the game will need a very patient host to teach them how to play, especially if the host has toggled off the animations in hot-seat mode. The hot-seat mode also shows off a problem with the GameBoy Player, it's practically impossible not to see what the other player is doing during their turn even if you have fog of war on. At least the hot-seat mode doesn't cripple the game like the Single-Pak link mode, which limits players to a few small maps and a palette swapped set of military units. The stripped down game will probably confuse most new players, leaving them with a poor impression. Of course, this isn't how a single-pak link game should work; it should entice new players to buy their own copy!
Multi-Pak AW 2 multi-player is enjoyable, and a refreshing experience from playing the completely predictable AI. The one problem I experienced with Multi-Pak, was a tendency for the cable to come loose at the slightest bump, causing a disconnect and loss of the game in progress. The loss of the link connection could have been because of my third party lighting "enhancement", or because of my third party link cable. I should note for the sake of a future update, that I'm replacing my current lighting solution, one of those terrible "Innovation Halo Lights" (a more expensive, external knockoff of the Afterburner), with an Afterburner. I really think that the GBA should have a way around this network link disconnect problem, though it's possible that it isn't feasible whilst retaining the magic hundred-dollar-price point Nintendo shoots for with it's Game Boy systems. I was even more dissapointed in the multi-player code when the game actually locked up on my GBA, indicated a disconnect on my opponent's GBA, and made a very loud, piercing series of tones not unlike those of Daleks in heat. A more graceful reaction to network errors would have been truly appreciated.
From what I've played of the single player so far, I think I will enjoy the rest. Anyone who purchased the first game may be disappointed with the lack of new units. Folks entirely new to the series will not get as good a tutorial as the first game provided, and may be left confused. Stay tuned for a possible update after I finish the campaign mode.