It's been nearly 7 years to the day since Nintendo revolutionized the world of turn-based strategy games with Advance Wars, a candy-colored celebration of military tactics that dared to make war-games fun. Not that games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Civilization weren't fun themselves, mind you, but they were a grueling sort of fun, the kind that involves micro-managing every aspect of your subjects' lives like an obsessive puppet master. The ratio of preparation to actual combat was very low. Advance Wars shook everything up by handing out dozens of disposable soldiers and tanks, making them blow up real good, simplifying the interface to the absolute essentials, and then making everything look ridiculously bright and happy. The result was almost criminally likable, the kind of game that you only put down at 5:00 AM when your Gameboy's batteries finally gave out.
Battalion: Nemesis, from UrbanSquall, is a respectable attempt to translate the fast, accessible brain-play of Advance Wars to the realm of free online games, without directly treading on Nintendo's intellectual property. If you're already familiar with AW, then this will feel like an interesting remix of its concepts. But if this is all totally new to you, then Battalion: Nemesis may very well be the coolest thing you've ever seen.
It's tempting to do a blow-by-blow comparison between Battalion and Advance Wars, but I think that would be unfair to UrbanSquall, who have poured two years of development into this project and made every effort to re-balance it so that it feels like its own game. This is a simplified structure built on Nintendo's groundwork, with a pared-down roster of units, and an emphasis on aggressive tactics and shorter battles. In other words, this is a casual take on Advance Wars. It belongs to the world of free online Flash games, rather than the world of portable consoles.
The gameplay is like a complex version of Rock-Paper-Scissors played out on a chess board, with major emphasis on positioning and choosing the right unit to do the right job. Your Scorpion Tanks, for example, are powerful against a range of enemies and highly mobile, but they are helpless against air attacks. Flak Tanks can easily take down airplanes, but those same Scorpion Tanks will rip them to shreds. In most pairings, one unit will have a definite advantage over the other, but when they are evenly matched, it's important to attack first. Most units will automatically counter-attack, but if you've already half-blown them to bits, they won't have the strength to do much damage.
Combat takes place on a grid. To move or attack, just click once on one of your units to select it, then on the space you'd like to occupy, or the guy you'd like to blow up. Unlike some strategy games, like Advance Wars itself, you don't move and attack with separate commands. All you ever need is two mouse clicks. When you select a unit, the spaces within movement range will be highlighted in green, and the ones in firing range will show up red. An icon will appear over enemies that you can currently attack, indicating how much damage you're likely to do. If you don't want to think too hard, just look for the green "plus" signs.
To scroll the map, either position the cursor near the edge of the screen, or use the [arrow keys]. [Control] selects your next available unit. If you want to know more about any particular unit, select it and then mouse over the icons in the box at the lower right side of the screen. Many units have special characteristics that may not be obvious, like a bonus when the unit is on offense, or the ability to attack submarines.
Those are the basics, but you'll definitely want to play through the 6-level Boot Camp to get a handle on everything. It's important to understand the difference between direct attacks and indirect attacks, and how to use your foot soldiers to capture territory. Even if you're an old Advance Wars veteran, it's worth taking the tour, since there are fundamental differences in the way Battalion approaches some aspects of the game. There are no longer any dedicated transport units, for instance, and captured territories don't automatically heal your army. Instead, every unit can take a turn to heal itself, and ground units can spend cash in order to instantly summon a personal transport vehicle.
A 10-stage original campaign will lead you through battles across land, sea and air. Included are three difficulty levels and a suitably melodramatic storyline involving a rogue commander and experimental technology. The writing is quite good, if a little dry. I wish there had been a stronger central character, and a more defined villain, but really I'm just grateful to have a purpose going into each mission. When I'm facing down a vast network of turrets and rocket trucks, it helps my motivation to know that the fate of millions is at stake.
The difference between difficulty levels is mostly in the intelligence of your computer opponent, although the hardest level also cheats a bit by granting the computer more resources and slightly stronger units. The enemy AI is questionable in some ways (though it's been improved even since the game's original release), but what the computer lacks in brains, it makes up for with sheer numbers. The real problem is the time it takes for the computer to complete its turn on the larger maps. In a game so focused on speed, it's strange to have to wait half a minute for the enemy AI to figure out what units to make at its factories.
The presentation is generally fantastic. The music is an appropriately bombastic affair of drums and horns, and the graphics—by Heli Attack veteran Chris Hildenbrand—are gorgeous, although I actually feel they went overboard in one respect. Each lovingly detailed vehicle has four different facings, and it's hard to tell the difference between the rear view of some units at a glance. It might have been better to return all the units to a side view after they were done moving, since directional facing has no effect on the gameplay.
Hopefully, Battalion: Nemesis will be the first entry in a series. Several aspects of the game are under-utilized at this point, and it would be nice to see a new campaign flesh them out. Most obviously, there are only two air units at this point, and not very many missions take advantage of them. And 10 missions don't really give you enough meat to chew on, or for that matter give the story much time to develop. Of course, wanting the game to go on longer isn't much of a complaint. I'd love to see what UrbanSquall can do now that the game engine is in place and all their time could go towards designing new levels.
The most glaring omission at this point is simply that there's no multiplayer. Give the denizens of the Internet a way to wage cartoonish war upon each other, and UrbanSquall will have a genuine hit on their hands. Throw in a level editor, and it will be out of control.