My biggest complaint about Battalion: Nemesis, a slick and attractive tribute to the brilliant Advance Wars series, was the lack of multiplayer. Building a single short one-player quest on top of such a terrific combat system felt like an incomplete effort, and so it was. The full scope of Urban Squall's (Bloody Fun Day) plan for Battalion includes 3 single-player chapters and a multiplayer component. That last bit is Battalion: Arena.
The gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has played Nemesis or practically any other turn-based tactical strategy game. You control an army of little troopers and war vehicles, and face off against between 1 and 3 opponents with their own fighting forces. You take turns moving military units on a grid like little chess pieces armed with bazookas, taking advantage of terrain features like forests and mountains, and leveraging your strengths against your enemy's weaknesses. Flak cannons are good against airplanes, which dominate tanks, which can easily blow apart a flak cannon. Indirect long-range units like rocket trucks are deadly if you can protect them, but crumple like origami in close combat.
A 10-level tutorial will walk you through the basics, and then you can brave the multiplayer lobby. It is possible to play a game against AI opponents, but even the smartest of Urban Squall's artificial generals are pretty pitiful, and single skirmishes without a storyline can be unsatisfying. This is a game to be played against other people, preferably a friend making wisecracks in the chat-box. Fortunately, it's easy to set that up by assigning your match a password.
As one of Kongregate's Premium games, Battalion: Arena restricts some features unless you purchase them with a one-time payment. While one of the benefits of a Premium ($10 US) or an Elite ($20 US) membership is the use of two particularly cool tanks, most of the pay content is the social perks. You can share maps you've created in the level editor, play a much larger selection of maps designed by others, and accumulate clothing, hairstyles, and accessories for your avatar more quickly. The free version of the game basically restricts you to the official Urban Squall battle maps, which change weekly, and just gives you a taste of the other options — although you can play on any map and use all the units if a player with an upgraded membership hosts the game.
Analysis: The best thing Battalion: Arena has going for it is the awesome War Machine, a humongous mobile weapons factory that not only has one of the strongest long-range attacks in the game, but can actually spit out smaller tanks, as well as the rest of the units in your army. These super-tanks replace the traditional factory structure for games like this (although some battle maps still use those buildings instead), and makes the typical game much more short, aggressive, and exciting. Your goal in games with the War Machine, or "Blitz Mode", is to take out the opposing War Machine(s) with limited funds for producing support units. Most blitz maps feature ore deposits that the War Machine can mine, forcing you to relocate when you're running out of resources.
Combined with the morale system, which rewards you for initiating combat and penalizes you for being passive, this is a great formula for a casual browser strategy game. Quick, brutal combat, without a lot of turtling. Battalion: Arena may even be too focused on efficiency. Most of the maps are tiny, considering the capabilities of the individual units. A Raptor jet fighter with a movement score of 7 in the middle of a 10X10 grid can attack nearly every square on the map.
What this means is that many battles are decided in the first volley of choices. The first couple of units you build, if they aren't immediately and effectively countered, can do irreparable damage. And what that means is your anonymous opponent might just drop the game and make you painstakingly smash his abandoned forces flat over the next several minutes. The 30-second timer may seem too quick while you're still learning the basics, but it's an eternity when you're waiting for it repeatedly.
While I wish that Battalion would differentiate itself from its Advance Wars roots a little more (okay, a lot more), I can't deny that it looks fantastic and delivers on the fun. It's built on a solid foundation and the presentation is second to none. If it seems like a few of the units are too similar to each other and the faster vehicles are too mobile for their environment, it's because the Battalion series is still in the shadow of a classic, holding on to design elements it doesn't need, still waiting to break out as something remarkable in its own right. It may even be too early to be charging serious money for the experience. As it stands, however, this is still a grand way to play Advance Wars on your PC, mostly for free, and get the morally questionable thrill of outwitting a fellow human being with miniature tons of steel and explosives at your command. Hooah.